Excluding the distinctly farcical conclusion, this year’s Academy Award’s ceremony was mostly just business as usual. Excessive features, forced comedy, laboured political references; all present and accounted for. Over in the UK we even got the customary appearance of Alex Zane, who through his sheer presence managed to once again prove that the Schmidt pain index does not go high enough. On a whole it was a fairly by-the-numbers affair.
So in-keeping with tradition, roughly 3 days into the show, we finally arrived at the elusive Sci-Tech Oscars.
1) Wait, what the hell are is Sci-Tech?
The Sci-Tech Oscars are essentially a specialist offshoot of the Academy’s main ceremony and are dedicated to more behind-the-scenes accomplishments. More specifically, they celebrate the individuals responsible for making scientific and technical advancements in film.
This means that they recognise anything from the development of innovative effects programmes and editing systems, to the creation of new production equipment, and even the realisation of original exhibition formats like IMAX. It can therefore feature a pleasingly diverse line-up of winners. For example, one of this year’s recipients was commended for building an animatronic horse puppet, whilst Weta Workshop were simultaneously applauded for breaking new ground in the field of performance capture.
So just to clarify, Sci-Tech is less concerned with specific films, and more with advancements that may go on to have long-lasting effects on the industry itself. Accordingly, it is a really worthwhile event, especially if you have even the slightest interest in the future of film-making.
Now with that out of the way, I’ll answer your next most pertinent question;
2) Why have I never seen or heard of the damn things?
Well long-story short, the event isn’t even televised in the first place. Not even online. You simply cannot see the Sci-Tech Oscars unless you were there. It’s like they’re the bloody Stone Masons or something!
Sure, the awards get a brief flicker of exposure when a pitifully short ‘highlight reel’ is aired during the main ceremony, but even then it’s basically just a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it recap. Which is sad, because there’s bound to be an audience out there for it
As well as that, the mainstream media make next-to-no effort to draw any attention to the event. For all the vapid red-carpet coverage, award predictions, and constant articles about celebrity blunders, the Sci-Tech awards basically go by without so much as a mention from the press. Let’s put it this way, the show has historically received less publicity than Jennifer Lawrence tripping down some fucking stairs and John Travolta stroking someone’s face.
However, the real reason that you cannot watch Sci-Tech is that there simply isn’t much of a demand for it. As far as most people are concerned, it’s just the boring techy bit that gets in the way of all the celebrity and glamour of the ‘real’ Oscars. After all, no one wants to see those geeks blather on about their literal inventions and scientific discoveries. No, what the people really want is a ‘Mean Tweets: Oscars Edition’ video.
3) What a Bunch of Losers
Consequently, I would say that you shouldn’t feel too bad for not knowing about Sci-Tech. After all, how could you? It’s genuinely difficult to find any evidence of the damn thing even occurring . To be perfectly honest, the outward contempt displayed for the awards is frankly staggering. I’m not 100 percent certain (it was like 4am GMT and I was starting to nod off) but I vaguely recall Jimmy Kimmel referring to the recipients of the accolades as ‘Nerds’. Sorry is this fucking high-school or something!? ‘Nerds’! Really?
Now before you jump down my throat, I understand that it was obviously intended (and indeed received) as an affectionate jest, and I fully acknowledge that Kimmel was in no way being malicious here. But the thing is, his joke isn’t a million miles off the depressing reality of how these people are treated. These ‘nerds’ work their assess off, making genuine breakthroughs that can completely change the craft of movie making, and the validation that they receive is frankly laughable. I mean what thanks do they get from their industry? A 60 second highlight reel followed by some dismissive ridicule.
Granted, everyone claims to have great respect for these geniuses who are shaping the future of the art-form, but it’s all just vapid lip service. The academy doesn’t demonstrate any discernible reverence or admiration. They might vocalise it occasionally, with a couple of half-hearted references to the ‘hard work and dedication’ of their engineers and inventors, and every now and then they might real off a few names so that it feels like they’re meaningfully crediting someone. But that’s about as far as it goes.
None of these pioneers and innovators are given any real attention. They’re contributions are completely taken fore-granted. Their basically the industry equivalent of the smart kids that you manipulate at school to help you on a test and then never speak to again afterwards.
4) And it doesn’t stop there!
It’s not just the Sci-Tech people either. Even the technicians who actually get to go to the ‘real’ Oscars are frequently brushed aside in favour of their celebrity counterparts. For instance, let’s just compare the length of this year’s technical speeches with the length of the acting ones. On the one hand, Viola Davis’ celebratory diatribe went on for longer than the actual running time of Fences itself! Meanwhile, the animation team were being played off after only 20 seconds of trying to say ‘thanks’ to their mums. How is that fair? Why does Davis get to give a full-on soliloquy whilst the behind-the-scenes guys don’t even get a minute between them?
Before I continue, let’s make something crystal clear. I am not insinuating that Davis and her fellow stars are in any way at fault here. This is not another ‘hot take’ attack on the ‘rich narcissists’ of Hollywood. Getting an academy award is absolutely a life-changing occasion and it’s also a momentous pay-off for years-upon-years of hard work and genuine effort. There’s truly no reason why actors shouldn’t be allowed to embrace this spotlight and revel in their victories. I know I definitely would in their position.
But the thing is, as great as it must be for the stars, it must mean even more to the sound mixers, to the costume designers and to the editors, none of whom ever get the chance to be in the public eye. For them, winning an Oscar dramatically opens up their career prospects in a way that is completely unparalleled. It gets their names out there, showing them off as the promising leaders in their respective communities. Not only that, but it suggests that for one brief, shinning moment, someone actually respects them and gives a shit about what they do. Surely these unsung heroes deserve to have that moment play-out in full. Not cut short in favour of some more comedy sketches and pointless features.
5) Chasing Ratings
What’s clearly happening here, is that the academy are trying to respond to recurring criticisms that their ceremony is always ‘too long’ for the average viewer to tolerate. Which is fair enough, as it really does need trimming down. The problem however, is that their solution for remedying the widely-perceived bloat, is to sacrifice the time dedicated to the little guy. Because the general public doesn’t care what Sylvain Bellemare has to say when he wins his award for sound editing. They only care about Emma Stone and Casey Affleck’s higher profile (but equally valid and important) wins.
So if the general public can stand to lose the focus on technical artists, then it would seemingly make sense to axe both the smaller speeches and also Sci-Tech. After all, if the audience isn’t interested in these things, then they have no commercial value. And make no mistake, the Oscars do operate under the same basic principles as commercial entertainment.
If ABC intends to break-even on the $75 million that they spend on the television rights for the awards, then they obviously need to make sure that sponsors are willing to pay top dollar for a spot on the show. This aspect of the evening is often overlooked, but it’s honestly a big part of what sustains the Oscars financially. As recently as 2015, ABC were reported to be asking for as much as $2.2 million dollars per 30 second add. That’s an insane amount of money and so, as you can imagine, in order to justify such ludicrous costs, they’re going to need high viewing figures. In other words, ratings dictate everything here, because without them, the awards are not economically viable.
Unfortunately, this has a tangible knock-on effect on the television coverage, because the general population isn’t too interested in the ins-and-outs of film production. In fact, you could say that the majority of people find the technical awards to be an active turn off. They don’t know what production designers actually do. And they don’t care.
So, in an effort to kill two birds with one stone, the academy opt to skip through the technical categories as quickly as possible; thereby reducing both the lengthy runtime of the overall ceremony, and also the amount of ‘boring’ bits that will frustrate the average viewer. Now that might seem logical to you, if a little cutthroat, but it doesn’t even hold up under too much scrutiny.
6) The Average Viewers Only Watch the Highlights Anyway!
You see, this rationale falls apart completely as soon as you realise just one thing.
The people who are taking the time to watch the Oscars live (and are therefore passionate about film) are the ones that the Academy should be appealing to. That’s their audience!
If your viewers are willing to sit through the entirety of your 6 hour event, then I’d wager that they must have an intense appreciation for cinema. By extension, it’s safe to assume that they actually value the various elements of film craft; from sound design, to cinematography, right through to visual effects. After all, these people are so committed to the movies, that they are willing to devote a whole night to watching people hand over trophies to each other.
Therefore, I think they’d likely be interested in the technical stuff that the academy is so intent on hiding from them.These people would be interested in all of the innovations discussed at Sci-Tech. These people would love to see the editors and costume designers have their moment in the sun. These people care, and they’re the ones who are actually watching!
Elsewhere, the viewers who are only concerned with the big awards (a viewpoint that I respect by the way) aren’t that likely to be watching the show live. They’re gonna want to get the gist from the edited highlight coverage the next day, and skip over the bits that they don’t like.
So my question is this; who are the Oscars actually catering to when they whittle down the focus on technical categories? The people who aren’t even watching them in the first place? Because that doesn’t make any sense!
You have a highlight show for a reason Academy! It’s there to appeal to those who just want to focus on the main categories. Who want to be entranced by the stars and who want to see all the water-cooler moments and embarrassing fuck-ups. So why the hell do you need to cut the specialist stuff from the live show!? Surely that’s the ideal venue to showcase the more obscure/ specialist content.
7) Do we really need the never-ending stream of putrid sketches and desperate publicity stunts?
Assuming that we absolutely, positively HAVE to cut the ceremony down, then why does it need to be content with actual substance (like Sci-Tech) that gets removed? The Academy Awards are certainly padded and overlong, but you can rectify that without belittling technical achievements in such an egregious fashion. In fact, all you have to do is lose the (and I am using this word with the broadest possible definition) ‘comedy’.
Because let’s be frank, there’s no shortage of expendable fluff that could be jettisoned if the Oscars just accepted that they are categorically unfunny. Which they are. To an embarrassing extent. Lord knows I still suffer from vivid ‘nam flashbacks whenever I think of James Franco’s torturous hosting back in 2010. It honestly causes me to wake up in the middle of the night panting, drenched in sweat, and with my heart ready to burst. I can’t make it go away. It’s a part of me now.
Truthfully, the Oscars’ toe curling attempts at comedy are the only parts that ever make me reassess why I’m watching the awards in the first place. 2017 was certainly no exception in this respect. From the relentless jokes centred around the Matt Damon feud, to the endless Trump gags (none of which were particularly funny), it felt like there was more time devoted to lame, meme worthy humour than there was to cinema itself!
In recent years, a related epidemic has also formed, which sees the academy cynically chase virality in a cringeworthy effort to appeal to the social-media generation. This particular approach kicked into overdrive this year; with on-stage tweeting and a popular youtube series (Mean Tweets) interrupting the main ceremony on several occasions. It all reeked of desperation and it just got in the way of what the night is supposed to about; film.
I mean what the hell was that Tour Bus prank!? It was so awkward and uncomfortable to watch that it might as well have been a scene from The Office, Remind me again why we have time for garbage like that, but we don’t not have time for Sci-Tech?
8) Don’t play the music yet! I’m not finished!
This was originally conceived as a shorter piece; no longer than a thousand words. So evidently I too have with issues with discipline and self-editing. However, I’m going to promptly wrap things up with one final point.
It might have escaped your notice (seeing as barely anyone in the media gave a shit), but at this year’s ceremony- amidst all of the tweeting, speechifying and envelope fumbling- a record ‘losing’ streak was finally put to an end. Kevin O’Connel, the sound mixer for Hacksaw Ridge, finally won his first Oscar after being nominated a total of 21 times. That’s right; prior to 2017, this guy had been snubbed on 20 separate occasions, and it was only this year that he managed to pick up his much-deserved accolade. To put this into context, that’s 5 times the amount of losses endured by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Admittedly, the sound awards are among the most niche of all the technical categories, but still, you’d expect someone out there to care. Yet I’m willing to wager that you didn’t see O’Connell’s name appearing in any articles the next morning. You didn’t see any memes dedicated to his belated victory.
His name was called out. He came up on stage. He collected his award. He gave a gracious speech and then he sat back down and no one thought about him again. He instantaneously faded into a footnote on one of the most important nights of his entire life (Well it must be up there at least).
Of course, it was always inevitable that O’Connell’s win would pass by with minimal fanfare and there’s no one in particular to fault for that. If the general public doesn’t care about sound mixing, then who am I to tell them differently? Equally, I cannot begrudge the Oscars for focusing more on their tentpole awards when that’s what earns them ratings.
I guess that’s the worst part of all of this; I don’t have anyone to direct my frustration towards. I’m ultimately ranting at no one because there isn’t really anyone to blame. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I suppose the only coherent thing that you can extrapolate from all of this pontificating of mine is that I care. I truly care about the remarkable achievements of these technical artists, and as someone who is truly passionate about cinema, I really wish that the industry’s biggest event would share in my enthusiasm.