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The Academy Awards 2029

What could the Oscars look like on their 100th anniversary?

February 22, 2013  |  11:56am
The Academy Awards 2029

On February 24, nearly a billion people around the world watched the Academy Awards, the lavish TV spectacle that remains, for better or worse, the official annual anointing of the best in filmmaking. No matter how much attention other events like the Golden Globes receive, the Oscars is the undisputed crown jewel for motion-picture excellence, and because of that fact, it serves as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ most important advertising tool. Think of it as Hollywood’s State of the Union Address.

It won’t be too long before the Oscars celebrate its 100th anniversary. The first ceremony was held on Thursday, May 16, 1929, when Wings won what was then called Outstanding Picture. What might the Academy Awards be like in 2029? And, more importantly, in what sort of shape will the film industry be by then? That magical date is only 16 years away, and yet think of the changes that have occurred in the last 16 years. At the 1997 ceremony, the most-honored film was The English Patient, a sweeping romantic epic that used to be the sort of prestige picture made by the major studios. But Fox, which initially backed the film, ultimately passed, opening the door for Miramax (an indie art-house label owned by Disney) to distribute The English Patient and reap Oscar glory. That ceremony represented a fundamental shift in Hollywood: Four of the five Best Picture nominees were independent productions. In 2013, quality, award-worthy movies made outside of the studios are no longer an aberration—they’re a fact of life.

So what will the Academy Awards look like in 2029? What follows shouldn’t be considered predictions or proclamations. Rather, they’re educated guesses at how that future ceremony might reflect the industry’s emerging challenges—both within the movie business at large and inside the Oscar telecast itself. Will any of these actually happen? It’s impossible to know the future. (After all, Jennifer Lawrence was all of seven back in 1997, and Quvenzhané Wallis wasn’t even born yet.) But if any of these occur, they won’t surprise me.

Could there be new Oscar categories?

The Oscars haven’t made major changes to the awards they hand out in over 10 years. The Best Animated Feature Oscar started in 2002, and the Academy stopped giving out separate Best Score prizes for dramas and musicals/comedies after the 1999 ceremony. Could new Oscars be given out by 2029? If so, two possible categories come to mind—one that represents Hollywood’s past and one that represents its future.

The first would be a prize for Best Stunt Coordinator. In 2005, the Academy’s Board of Governors shot down a proposal to add this category, citing a desire not to balloon the amount of prizes handed out. This is an understandable position considering the annual complaints about how long the telecast runs, and it’s something the Oscar producers have tried to address in recent years. But considering that actors still make up a majority of the Academy’s voting members—and that the SAG Awards have had an Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture prize since 2007—it’s at least possible the Oscars may finally decide to add the award.

The problem, of course, is that the actor-heavy Academy may consider stunt workers not to be true performers—or not view stunt coordinators as worthy of honoring alongside current Oscar categories for costume design or sound mixing. Then again, by 2029 physical stunt work may be largely replaced by computer effects, making the need for such an Oscar irrelevant.

That brings us to the second possible new category: Best Motion Capture Performance. In past years, there has been some grassroots campaigning for Andy Serkis to receive an Oscar nomination for his work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The argument against him has been that he’s not really “acting” in the conventional way. But with motion capture becoming more important in filmmaking, might the Academy not decide to award these actors with their own prize?

If so, it would certainly go against precedent. In the past, the Academy has been willing to honor actors for performances with very little screen time. (Judi Dench was in Shakespeare in Love for all of eight minutes, and Beatrice Straight only appears in Network for six minutes, and yet they both won Best Supporting Actress.) But at least you could see these actors on screen; to date, Academy members have been unwilling to celebrate what you might call untraditional performances. To wit, no voice actor in an animated film has ever received a nomination, despite talk at the time that Robin Williams should have been for his role in Aladdin.

As of 2013, motion capture is still considered an imperfect science. (And it certainly didn’t help the technology that Robert Zemeckis made several mo-cap films, like The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, which were heavily criticized for their so-called “dead-eyed” characters.) But early experiments with sound and shooting on digital were also criticized for their lack of sophistication. The question is whether motion-capture technology, like those other nascent cinematic advancements, will improve over time. If it does, the Academy may see fit to give these actors their own separate category, just as they did with animated movies over a decade ago.

Who will be the host?

Every year before the Oscar producers announce their choice for host, online commenters will offer their own unsolicited suggestions. Two names you hear mentioned a lot in such conversations are George Clooney and Tom Hanks. The reasons are obvious. Clooney might as well be a walking advertisement for Hollywood Glamour. (And if Argo wins Best Picture, he as one of the producers will receive his second Oscar—his first coming for Best Supporting Oscar in Syriana.) As for Hanks, a two-time Academy Award winner, he remains most people’s embodiment of James Stewart-like American decency in the film industry. They’re as good a pick as any to represent the prestige and allure of Hollywood star power.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the Oscars have tended to shy away from hosts who aren’t primarily known for being funny. (In this regard, Hanks probably has a bit of an advantage over Clooney, although both actors have starred in comedies.) For as much as the Academy Awards are about Hollywood’s best and brightest, the producers often pick emcees who are primarily comedians. In a way, it’s a telling illustration about how the Academy feels about comedies: The members rarely vote for them for Best Picture—last year’s The Artist being a rare exception—but they seem pretty happy to have those movies’ stars host their event. Call it another example of comedy’s second-class status in Hollywood. It’s hard to imagine that the Oscars will change that tendency in the next decade or so.

Then again, one has to ask: Does the host really affect the show’s ratings all that much? The most-watched Oscars of the last 15 years was the 1998 broadcast when the cultural phenomenon Titanic was the big winner. In 2010, James Cameron’s even more popular Avatar gave the show one of its best ratings. One was hosted by Billy Crystal; one was hosted by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. And despite how much the producers over the years have tinkered with the hosting formula—going younger, going older, going edgier, going classier—the simple fact is that the movies themselves are ultimately a bigger storyline than the host.

You can see that struggle to find the right balance between showmanship, unpredictability and freshness with this year’s ceremony, where Seth MacFarlane will be host. MacFarlane has built a TV empire by creating (or co-creating) Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, but his only film experience was writing and directing Ted, whose title character he voiced. Ted was a huge hit—and, it should be noted, was 2012’s second-highest-grossing film (behind Brave) that wasn’t a sequel, prequel, reboot or based on a book, TV show, or comic book. But MacFarlane remains an unknown to many film fans. Nonetheless, for an Academy that’s constantly trying to ensure that it can lure younger generations into becoming lifelong moviegoers, MacFarlane, 39, is its latest attempt to bring in a Jon Stewart or Chris Rock to prove the Oscars’ (and, by extension, the industry’s) continued cultural relevance.

In other words, those hoping that Clooney or Hanks (or Tom Cruise or Will Smith or Leonardo DiCaprio) will be hosting the Oscars by 2029 will probably be disappointed. For a better bet, look around in 2026 or so and see who’s an up-and-comer: a polished, popular, youngish star who’s funny but also reasonably respectable. That’ll probably be your host.

Who will win?

In the last 16 years, the Oscars honored their first African-American Best Actress winner (Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball) and their first female Best Director winner (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker). By 2029, there hopefully won’t be Oscar “firsts” anymore. Instead, winners will simply start being more ethnically diverse—and there won’t be anything novel about that fact. But is that realistic? Or, rather, is that an optimistic notion akin to the future laid out by Star Trek in which perfect equality has been achieved on Earth and the biggest worry are baddies from other worlds.

For that utopia to be achieved at the Oscars, the Academy itself will have to become more diverse. A Los Angeles Times report from last year confirmed the identity of almost 90 percent of the Academy’s approximately 5,800 voting members. (The Academy doesn’t offer a list of its entire membership, pegging its overall membership at “more than 6,000 artists and professionals who bring the magic of the movies to life.”) According to the L.A. Times’ John Horn, Nicole Sperling and Doug Smith, almost 94 percent of the members they identified are Caucasian, and 77 percent are male.

Such an imbalance is not unique in American society. (The current Congress is approximately 80 percent Caucasian and 81 percent male.) But Hollywood has long congratulated itself for its liberal politics, speaking out against the Communist witch-hunt in Good Night, and Good Luck or championing the journalists who exposed Watergate and brought down President Nixon in All the President’s Men. (And even though the role was hardly nuanced, the Academy did award African-American actress Hattie McDaniel with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone With the Wind, long before the American Civil Rights movement took hold.)

Still, the membership hasn’t always been as progressive as they might imagine themselves to be. For example, when Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash in 2006, some wondered if homophobia within the voting body kept Ang Lee’s gay love story from winning the big prize. (And, it should also be noted, their taste in Best Picture winners in general has remained depressingly conventional. Annually, the voting members bypass groundbreaking work for inspirational films, confining animated and foreign-language films to their own categories and never awarding them the top prize.)

This is not to suggest that in the future the Academy will (or should) vote for minorities (or women, in prizes that combine both genders) simply to even things out. Nor should the Academy vote for a Brokeback Mountain simply because the membership wants to seem open-minded. Ultimately, quality should outrank all other considerations. But as our recent presidential election demonstrated, younger Americans are more open to issues such as marriage equality than their older counterparts are. It will be increasingly difficult for the Academy to advertise itself as progressive if its own membership is so slanted toward older white men. (To quote the L.A. Times, “Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the study showed. People younger than 50 constitute just 14 percent of the membership.”)

But it’s also not fair to lay these criticisms entirely at the feet of the Academy. Recent studies show that a large majority of characters in movies are men—and that women tended to wear less clothing when they did show up on screen. And the news isn’t much better when it comes to the amount of female writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors working in Hollywood. As for the presence of minorities, you don’t need a study: You can just watch movies and see the imbalance for yourself. The Academy may be the crème de la crème of the industry, but it’s an unequal playing field across the film industry that may not soon be leveled.

When it comes to individual Oscar winners by 2029, it’s a fool’s errand to guess what performers might win 16 years from now. (It’s hard to be entirely confident about some of this year’s races.) But looking at larger Oscar trends over time, it would not be a shock if Will Smith eventually takes home a prize for a serious role. You can see his rise as being somewhat similar to Robin Williams’ or Tom Hanks’, gifted comic actors who impressed the Academy by switching gears. Watch Smith in Ali or The Pursuit of Happyness and you can see someone with the dramatic weight to make the transition. The question, of course, is if he’s interested. Mostly taking a backseat in recent years to focus on furthering his children’s careers, Smith may settle for blockbusters and producing. But then again, such a path could lead to his eventual comeback in a more “important” role, one that the Academy could salute by giving him an Oscar.

And what about Mr. Cruise? Nominated for three Oscars, he will be 66 when the 2029 Academy Awards occur. Another icon, John Wayne, was 62 when he finally won an Oscar for True Grit. That film may not have contained Wayne’s greatest performance, but it felt like an opportunity to put a bow on an indelible career, and the voters responded. Too often, Cruise (like Wayne) has been undervalued as an actor, his star power (and controversial association with Scientology) obscuring his talent. He’s the sort of actor who may only be appreciated near the end of his career.

Speaking of which, for film connoisseurs one of the highlights of the Academy Awards is the presentation of the honorary Oscars, often given to revered actors and filmmakers who never won a competitive Oscar. In the past 10 years, the prize has been given to worthy individuals such as composer Ennio Morricone, cinematographer Gordon Willis, and directors Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet. The recipients tend to be in their 80s, so may I hereby nominate David Lynch, a hugely influential filmmaker who will have turned 83 just before the 2029 ceremony. Lynch’s output has slowed over time, but his seductive, surreal movies have been an inspiration for several generations of burgeoning directors. Also deserving: Terrence Malick, who will be 85. Both are filmmakers who will probably never make one singular film that captures the Academy’s attention. (That’s more of an indictment of the Oscars’ sometimes-questionable choices than on either man’s artistry.) But their legacy is simply too large to ignore, and the betting is that the Academy will eventually realize that.

How will we watch them? And what will the show be like?

For a lot of viewers, nitty-gritty debates about the art and craft of film aren’t the draw for watching the Academy Awards. It’s the pretty dresses and the sharp tuxes and the unexpected memorable moments—it’s about the show as an entertainment spectacle. The Oscar producers never lose sight of this, but even judging the broadcast on a superficial level, the industry’s future will be in play.

In the past, there’s been some mild speculation about the possibility that someday the Super Bowl will become a pay-per-view event. But even in 2029, it’s doubtful that will occur with the Oscars. ABC owns the rights to the broadcast through 2020, and since television viewership is becoming more and more fractured, it seems likely that the major networks will continue bidding for the broadcast. Like the Super Bowl, the Oscars are one of the few TV events these days that a lot of people will sit down and watch as they happen. (With the interactivity of social media, DVRing the broadcast makes no sense and isn’t much fun since you feel like you miss out on the experience of sharing the show with everyone else.) But just as high-profile sporting events have started migrating to cable—for example, some rounds of the baseball playoffs and college bowl games—the Oscars could eventually end up airing away from the traditional networks.

Now, this is usually the point in the conversation when budding futurists start imagining what kind of outrageous outfits, styles and hairdos will exist in 2029. (In sci-fi movies, you’ll see characters wearing ridiculous glasses or bizarre suits because, man, the future is gonna be so trippy.) But it seems unlikely that the Academy, which prides itself on honoring tradition, will be all that quick to embrace new technological advances. (It’s difficult to picture MacFarlane referring to the night’s presenters as “hashtag Charlize Theron” and “hashtag Mark Wahlberg” the way LL Cool J did at the Grammys.) As much as the Oscars want to stay hip, there’s been an admirable resistance to chase trends, and that will probably continue in the future.

But that doesn’t mean the show won’t be mindful of evolving Hollywood realities. With studios growing more dependent on international box office for profits, the Oscar telecast will probably do more to reach out to its global audience in a more meaningful way. Ideally, perhaps that also means the Best Picture race will become more of a inconclusive contest that makes room for more than one foreign-language nominee per year. But, then again, that might happen regardless. Whether domestically or abroad, big-budget event movies—films that don’t require a nuanced grasp of English to watch—are becoming Hollywood’s core product. As business reporter Mark Lacter recently pointed out in Los Angeles magazine, despite the struggles theater exhibitors face from competition like Netflix, Hulu and tablets, “The major chains continue to do reasonably well in overall revenue, and the stock prices of the two largest publicly traded companies, Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark Holdings, are at or near their 52-week highs.” Rising ticket prices help, but it’s mostly thanks to franchises like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or the Twilight series. As Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research at the National Association of Theatre Owners, told Lacter, “There has been a real concentration by the studios on tent poles, and they’ve sort of moved away from other movies.”

Those “other movies” include the sort of thoughtful, artful projects that win praise from critics and take home Oscars. The last pure studio movie to win Best Picture was Warner Bros.’ The Departed in 2007, and in recent years companies like Lionsgate (Crash), Summit (The Hurt Locker) and the Weinstein Company (The Artist, The King’s Speech) have been bigger winners than their better-funded competitors. Indeed, this will be one of the most interesting internal struggles that will continue to play out for years at the Oscars. On one side, the industry is saluting its own pageantry and popularity, but on the other, it’s handing out prizes to films that exist more on the margins. This isn’t to suggest that Hollywood at some point in the rosy past was an idyllic place that only produced stirring artistry. But the gap between the industry’s bread-and-butter blockbusters and its Oscar nominees doesn’t look to be closing anytime soon. (Although, to be fair, six of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees have grossed at least $100 million, with another, Zero Dark Thirty, approaching $90 million. It is still possible for commercial favorites to also get Oscar recognition.)

But as we look to the Oscars’ future, we have to remember that this is a group that loves toasting its own history. (What is The Artist if not a salute to old-school Hollywood?) Perhaps the Academy will decide, for old times’ sake, to host their 100th anniversary Oscars at the site where they first occurred, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The hotel still stands on Hollywood boulevard, just down the block from the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where millions of tourists come every year to see the handprints of past Hollywood royalty such as Joan Crawford, the Marx brothers, Marilyn Monroe, and Steve McQueen. In the 1940s, the Chinese hosted the Oscars, and further down the block is the Dolby Theatre, which now hosts them—a unbroken geographical line connecting the past and present.

But even on a street filled with the legends of Hollywood, there are the signs of transition. The Dolby used to be known as the Kodak Theatre, but when Eastman Kodak, a company synonymous with film photography, filed for bankruptcy in 2012, Dolby took over the naming rights. Part of Kodak’s financial problems stemmed from the growing consumer preference for digital over film—not just in movies but elsewhere—which presented as stark a sign of how the industry is shifting as one would need. And even the Chinese recently got a new name, rechristened the TCL Chinese Theatre after an actual Chinese television company, TCL, bought the naming rights early this year.

“This is one of the landmarks of North America,” Hao Yi, vice president of TCL Group, said at the time about the Chinese Theatre. “It can be a bridge to link the cultures of China and North America.” Yes, as well as be an indication that Hollywood Boulevard—just like the Hollywood film industry and the Oscars themselves—is becoming more and more global. In 2029, the Academy Awards will still probably be very much like the Academy Awards are now—and like they were in 1997. But if you look beyond the star-studded presentation, happy faces and stirring speeches, changes are happening gradually all the time—you just have to know where to look.

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