Why the 2019 Oscars could be the most consequential in years
The future of the Academy Awards has never been more uncertain. Key questions linger about the Oscars' voting body, and even about the show's very existence in the modern television landscape. But the 2019 awards show — and the unique set of circumstances surrounding it — could provide us some answers. It could also be the most bizarre but consequential Oscars in recent memory.
The favorite to win Best Picture this year is the Netflix film Roma, and the significance of Netflix's potential victory can't be overstated. The streaming giant's acclaimed movies have been snubbed by the Academy in the past, and this was chalked up largely to the industry's distaste toward Netflix's strategy of premiering movies online the same day they open in theaters. Steven Spielberg even suggested Netflix films be disqualified as Oscars contenders entirely.
After years of doubling down, Netflix finally relented, playing Roma in theaters before streaming it — but only for a paltry three weeks. Major theater chains still declined to show the film, so most viewers will have experienced Roma on their televisions, tablets, or phones. Should Roma prevail in the Best Picture category, it will be a landmark moment for Hollywood as it grapples with the fallout of the rise of streaming services.
Roma's nomination also comes at a moment when it's not entirely clear what, exactly, the Academy is looking for in a modern Best Picture winner, especially as the voting body has expanded to become younger and more diverse. The group has long been derided as a bunch of out-of-touch old white men prone to making baffling decisions — like when they chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain in 2006. But it has recently rejected typical "Oscar bait" films. Moonlight's 2017 win over La La Land felt like a game-changer, and last year, a fantasy film about fish-man romance took the trophy, while a Spielberg drama with political resonance starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep didn't stand a chance.
Clearly, this isn't your father's Academy anymore. Or is it? This year's Best Picture race seems like it was engineered by the movie gods to clarify just how much the Academy has changed. BlacKkKlansman, a provocative film about racism from Spike Lee, is in the running. Let's not forget that 29 years ago, the Academy snubbed Lee's iconic film Do the Right Thing while awarding the forgettable Driving Miss Daisy, instead. And Black Panther would be the first superhero movie ever to win the award. And of course Roma would be not just the first streaming film, but also the first foreign-language film to win. If any of these films take the top award, this will be further proof that the Academy truly is evolving.
However, the next likeliest winner after Roma, Green Book, looks a lot like a typical Best Picture film: It's a Driving Miss Daisy-style examination of racism from a white protagonist's perspective that seems like it's from a different era. It's also mired in controversy over accusations of whitewashing history. A Star is Born is also a contender. This old-fashioned drama is essentially about Hollywood itself.
The biggest question hanging over Sunday's show, though, is this: What should a modern Oscars broadcast look like? The Academy has spent the past year grappling with this. A series of wildly unpopular changes were plotted after the 2018 show became the lowest-rated Oscars ever, from a "popular film" award to the relegation of some Oscars to commercial breaks to bigger stars presenting the acting prizes. The hope was that the ratings would improve if more high-grossing films were in
The Academy was eventually shamed into nixing most of these proposals, although the popular film award is still on the table for 2020. But the show will certainly be jam-packed with star power: Both Queen and Lady Gaga are performing, and the Avengers cast may assemble. Plus, many of this year's Best Picture contenders were box office hits. If, despite all this, the ratings decline again, we may witness a full on Oscars identity crisis. It seems inevitable that this age-old telecast will be forced to change as the way we watch movies — and what we want from awards shows — evolves. But how immediately and drastically these changes take place may have everything to do with how popular Sunday's ceremony is.
In other words, after this weekend, the Oscars may never be the same. No pressure.