By: Scott RossPublished: May 21, 2022

The Oscars Re-Embrace Their Stupid Rules

You know the dopey old trope "Just because you hang it on the wall, does that make it art?"? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is again insisting that if you don't show it in a movie theater, it isn't a movie.

As awful as the whole COVID thing has been—and make no mistake, it’s been awful—it did force some long overdue changes for the betterment of society, perhaps least among them the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally doing away with its anachronistic requirement that a film must be shown in a theater to qualify for Oscar consideration. Now, with the worst of COVID seemingly behind us, the Academy has decided to reinstate its dopey rule.

The official press release from the Academy states that “A feature film must have a qualifying theatrical release.” OK, so what exactly constitutes a “qualifying theatrical release”? According to Academy rules, a “picture must have been publicly exhibited for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in one of the six qualifying U.S. metro areas [LA, NYC, SF, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta] for a run of at least seven consecutive days with at least one screening a day, prior to public exhibition or distribution by any nontheatrical means. The picture also must appear in the theater listings along with the appropriate dates and screening time(s).”

Why? Does being projected on a screen in a theater where tickets for seats are exchanged for money somehow magically confer upon a piece of video storytelling the magical essence that elevates it from mere television to that holiest, most sanctified of art forms, “a movie”? What complete and utter bullshit.

This is what economists call a barrier to entry, little more than a ball-ache created by insiders to make it more difficult for outsiders to compete. As though it isn’t already hard enough to make a film that is good enough to be considered for an Oscar, you then have to go out a spend a few extra thousand dollars booking a theater and make sure your movie is in the theater listings.

Making this new rule even bullshittier is the fact that a huge portion of Academy Awards voters don’t watch a huge portion of the movies under consideration in a movie theater. Academy members, like the rest of us, do a lot of their movie viewing from the comfort of their home. Do some of them have home theaters with screens bigger than that tiny third auditorium in your local arthouse theater? Yeah, probably. But can they really be considered to have seen the movie if they didn’t pay for their ticket? If their viewing didn’t appear in theater listings? If the film didn’t show in their screening room for seven days straight?

And why would the Academy want to force distributors and theaters to give up valuable screen time to movies that often don’t do very well at the theater until after they’ve won something? Films with Oscar aspirations so often get stuck in a theater for a one-week qualifying run, nobody outside of Los Angeles and New York gets to see it, then it wins an award or two, heads back to the theater and finally people are interested. What part of that system is working and what is it accomplishing?

This leads to another problem that should concern the Academy: films that are up for big awards that no one has seen. How excited was Middle America going to get about Julianne Moore’s 2015 nomination for Still Alice when none of them had even had the chance to see a commercial for it, much less the film itself?

In a perfect world, a movie should be seen on a big screen in a theater with a rapt audience, but that’s not the world we live in. Most folks have their own private film viewing taxonomy, films that breaks down to something like: theater, home, phone (watching a movie on a phone is a garbage move, by the way) and airplane. If a film manages to knock your socks off, who cares where you watched it?

Making a great piece of art should be enough, and if the voters want to punish a film for having not been blessed with the cinematic transubstantiation that is the end result of a theatrical run, that’s their prerogative, though it’s tough to imagine a bunch of artists ignoring a fellow artist’s triumph because it wasn’t shown in a theater. Besides, any longtime subscriber to Netflix or Amazon could assure the Academy that these upstarts' forays into film production pose little risk to their little awards fiefdom. And with Oscars viewership having fallen by two thirds in the last 20 years, the last thing the Academy should be doing is discouraging people from coming to their party, lest they hasten their own obsolescence.

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