The 89th Academy Awards: Is AMPAS Still Relevant In The Selection Of The Best Picture?

Many of us watched the 89th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday evening, February 26, 2017.

Some of us may still be in shock over the awarding of the Oscar for Best Picture.

The Best Picture award is the key event of the night, the opening of the envelope we all anticipate, the highlight of the evening.

They opened the wrong envelope. It wasn’t their fault. They, Bonnie and Clyde, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, did not hold up the event. The robbery duo of 50-years past was handed the wrong envelope. They opened the envelope containing the name of the Best Actress winner, Emma Stone of La La Land. Perplexed, they passed the card, looked at each other, and with a funny Warren shrug on her side, Faye announced to the audience, “La La Land.”

La La Land’s producers and cast rushed to the stage and jubilantly received and cradled their Oscars. As we watched, mice scurried in the background and we wondered what was happening. Mumbles and jumbles rushed to the microphone and kindly, worriedly and interruptively announced, “I’m sorry, there’s a mistake.”

Moonlight had won, not La La Land, as the stage collapsed in a nervous rush to the commercial break.

But does this, one of the greatest guffaws in Oscar history, end there?

Or is there something more to the story?

Are there contributing causes?

For 65 years, a certain process had existed.

For 65 years, no more than five films in a given year had been nominated for Best Picture.

For all that very considerable time (1944-2009), the Academy’s voters had been called to cast a single vote for one of the Best Picture nominees. The winner was simply and straightforwardly the nominated film that received the most votes. The method employed was one called First-Past-The-Post voting.

In 2009, however, the voting and tabulation process was changed to something called Instant Runoff Voting or Alternative Voting or Transferable Voting or Ranked-Choice Voting or Preferential Voting. Don’t ask what it is or how it works? The explanation will hurt your head. The process is used in national elections in several countries. In this year, do we need say more? Elections are one thing; Oscars, we had hoped, are another.

In 2009, things were radically changed. Since then and with due respect, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has been nominating far too many films and using a process that is far too complicated for the Best Picture determination.

Evidence the fact that they can’t even get the envelopes straight.

Please note that this is not a comment on the picture finally selected by the Academy and so confusedly announced on the TV. This is a comment addressed to the credibility of the process employed to select the Best Picture. More fundamentally, it is also a guarded statement of concern regarding the continued relevance of the Academy and its Best Picture award.

A process should be seen as credible.

For the Best Picture process to be credible, it might be said that the process should be transparent and understandable both to the AMPAS voting participants and the movie audiences intended to receive the results.

A process that nominates too many films and is too complicated may not meet this standard.

On the one hand, the Academy could be viewed as abdicating its responsibility to the movie-going public and its voters in not make an expert judgment as to the very best nominees for Best Picture for that year. There is a concern here that this responsibility has not been met where there are too many candidates. In fact, there will only be one Best Picture; and in reality, it is unlikely there are more than two or three comparable films for that particular year. Judgment needs to be exercised before the ballots are distributed.

On the other hand, a process that is too complicated and perhaps best served in other applications could be viewed as doing a disservice to the AMPAS voters by not allowing their views to be reflected fully and truly in the results. Furthermore, a complicated exercise more appropriate for degreed statisticians may do a disservice to the more widely represented theatre audiences by not being fully transparent or easily understandable to the average ticket holder. Ballots should be easily marked and results straightforwardly tabulated.

Again, this is not to question the result for the Best Picture selected for 2016.

With deference and respect to the Academy, it is to question the continued relevance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the exercise of its unique responsibilities to nominate the best pictures of the year, to assist the AMPAS voters in their selection of the one Best Picture, and to present a winner determined by a credible process. That process should reflect at its heart that the Oscar is determined and presented not by the Academy, not by the AMPAS voters, not by stars on a stage, but by the moviegoing audiences around the world who love the magic of film and are the true measure of a movies worth.

Allegiance is owed, by the Academy and its voters, first and foremost to those audiences.

When the maintenance of this sacred bond ceases to be the primary and determinative factor in the process of selecting and presenting the Best Picture, the risk exists that the Academy may have lost its credibility and relevance in the eyes of those it serves.

It is our sincere hope that this has not yet happened.

The debacle of the other night raised eyebrows.

The changes of the past years raise doubts.

It is for now to quell those concerns.

With hope for the future.

Grandpa Jim