Friday, January 19, 2018
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Persall: Oscars prove tone deaf by snubbing people of color (and 'Star Wars')

Hollywood bit the hand feeding it Thursday when the 88th annual Academy Awards nominations were announced.

Then, it shotgun-blasted its foot for good measure.

Fresh off a record-setting $11 billion year at U.S. box offices, the Oscars decreed Hollywood's most valuable movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, isn't worthy of a best picture nomination.

And neither are any 2015 movies about, or performances by African-Americans, a year after #OscarSo White trended on Twitter. Instead, The Revenant led with 12 nominations, followed by George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road with 10 and Ridley Scott's The Martian with seven.

This year's comedian host Chris Rock got plenty of monologue material from Thursday's announcements. He'll roast the major award snubbings of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, in addition to actors Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan, whose performances have been rewarded elsewhere.

Others won't see the humor in an institution remaining so unrepresentative of the public supporting its cause.

A downward trend in TV ratings indicates the red carpet glow is fading, so the academy would benefit by attracting a more diverse crowd through its nominations. Bring in more viewers of color, or of geekdom, by celebrating their movies, too.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens did receive five Academy Award nominations in technical categories, so quality isn't the issue.

Moviegoers haven't plunked down more than $820 million to appreciate sound mixing, and The Force Awakens isn't revered only for its visual effects. Buying John Williams' nominated musical score on iTunes would be cheaper than a movie ticket, if that were the main attraction.

Six years ago, the academy expanded its number of best picture finalists to as many as 10, after The Dark Knight was similarly stiffed. The reasoning then was more slots meant better chances for blockbusters to be nominated.

This year there are eight movies contending for the best picture Oscar.

The Force Awakens could fill the remaining two spots by itself.

Movies don't come any blockier or bustier. Disney's continuation of the Skywalker saga is poised to sell $1 billion in tickets to U.S. moviegoers. Worldwide grosses will end up behind only James Cameron's Avatar — which earned a best picture Oscar nomination — and ahead of Cameron's Titanic, which won the prize.

Yet in the academy's balloting math, quality plus popularity multiplied by four decades of an industry-changing franchise doesn't equal a best picture candidate.

Be assured that potential advertisers on ABC's Academy Awards broadcast on Feb. 28 didn't like the news. The network charges near-Super Bowl rates for ad time, and a best picture chance for The Force Awakens would keep eyes glued until the last minute.

It isn't coincidence that the show's highest ratings ever — 55 million viewers — occurred in 1998 when Titanic, then the top grosser ever, won a boatload of Oscars.

Quick solution: Create a major award or two for most folks watching at home, who won't see Carol but loved Furious 7 (another blockbuster snubbed Thursday). Make room by handing out technical awards earlier, like the Grammys.

Oscar's recent color barrier — two years running with all-white acting nominees — isn't as easily corrected. In recent years the academy added members of color, increasing diversity but obviously not enough.

One suggestion: Expand the acting and directing races to 10 nominees. The move did make the academy's best picture voting more inclusive of small films like Room, if not box office hits. It might allow smaller groups supporting, for example, director Ryan Coogler (Creed) or Straight Outta Compton to be heard.

Creed and Straight Outta Compton each earned one Oscar nomination. Both went to white artists: Sylvester Stallone for playing Rocky Balboa again, and two screenwriters, one a self-described "white Jewish gay guy from Connecticut."

Even when the academy gets it right, it comes out wrong. Rock will roll with this material, on another Oscar night whiter than Kylo Ren's stormtroopers.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

     
                     
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