Three Takeaways From the Oscars’ Big Rethink

The awards ceremony is getting shorter and giving some new love to mainstream movies. The shift is controversial, but it offers lessons for associations doing a rethink of an event or other tradition.

This week’s announcement that the Oscars were getting reworked was met with some fairly strong backlash, which makes sense for a tradition-minded ceremony that many of the world’s biggest stars have a personal stake in.

But even considering the controversy around the changes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) does have sound reasons for making them. And those reasons can offer some useful takeaways for your association’s handling of its traditional events. Among them:

1. If your audience is getting too narrow, aim broader. One of the biggest issues the awards ceremony has faced in recent years has been top categories devoid of crowd-pleasers. That’s a problem for an event that aims to attract viewers.

The last Best Picture winner to gross more than $100 million was 2012’s Argo, and while there have been hit films that have been nominated for Best Picture in recent years, such as last year’s Get Out, the category is generally based on artistic merit—which often doesn’t jibe with popular tastes.

In an effort to bring in a new audience and appeal to mainstream film-goers, the Oscars is adding a “Best Popular Film” category. The move offers an opportunity for AMPAS to better embrace genre films that rarely get honored at awards ceremonies, including horror films, action franchises, kids’ movies, and mainstream comedies.

Associations, likewise, aim to be the “big tent” for an industry, and failing to offer notice for significant swaths of it isn’t always ideal. We’ll see how accepted the change is.

2. Simplifying a staid format can have impressive results. In recent years, the Tony Awards has been the rare awards show that has bucked the broader trend of ratings declines.

And one of the things the Tonys has done to keep things moving is to take some of the smaller categories, record them ahead of time, and air them during commercial breaks—allowing for a more tightly edited package.

The Oscars is hoping to do something similar with its “below the line” categories, handing them out during commercial breaks and highlighting them in vignettes in an effort to keep the show from going beyond the three-hour mark, per The Hollywood Reporter. (The organization is also pushing up the date of the 2020 ceremony, in hopes of bringing back an element of surprise, which has at times been lost during a lengthy awards season.)

“We are committed to producing an entertaining show in three hours, delivering a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide,” the Academy’s leadership, President John Bailey and CEO Dawn Hudson, wrote in a note to members.

Associations looking to keep a format fresh might look closely at ways to edit in this way—including by using prerecorded video of an awards recipient in tandem with the in-person speeches.

3. If you make changes, prepare for a backlash. Tradition is a difficult thing to mess with, and the Oscars has a whole lot of it.

And those committed to tradition—in the case of the Academy, cultural critics and stars—are most likely the ones who will be the first to complain about any effort to change things up.

For the sake of your organization, if you make a big change, you have to temper the results: Know that you will get complaints, gird yourself for them and listen to them, but stick with your original plan as you try things out. If the new solution doesn’t work, you can always switch gears.

Remember that you’ll never know if it’s worth your time unless you try it. Experimentation shouldn’t stop because of a few complaints, especially if there’s a potential for a breakthrough after a period of stagnation.

Just be careful, of course, that the tradition doesn’t come at the cost of the big experiment.

(baona/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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