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Disney’s Stranglehold on the Oscars

By Mark Laherty

Disney has an inappropriate level of control over the Academy Awards. I don’t mean that they’re winning too many. I mean that Disney owns ABC, which is the channel that broadcasts the Oscars – and they’re placing the commercial break during four awards with no Disney-produced nominations. I hope none of you dear readers have any interest in editing, cinematography, costumes/hairstyling, or short films, because why would anyone watching the Oscars care about those?

[Between time of writing and time of publication, the Academy has rolled back its decision. However, the huge influence of Disney remains an issue – and the fact that the experiment was only scrapped after huge public pushback says a lot.]

A qualification to make here is that a meagre concession has been made; although the four categories will not be shown live, their speeches will apparently be shown in the later telecast so long as they stick to the time limit. But, there surely can’t be a way of severely truncating runtimes without presenting the unlucky categories as lower priorities. Another qualification to make is that one of the films up for cinematography, Never Look Away, is distributed by Disney. So, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about Disney’s outsized influence on the film industry causing damage even where that damage isn’t intentional rather than trying to imply that there’s some deliberate conspiracy afoot, because that just wouldn’t hold water.

There has, fortunately, already been outcry about the categories getting bumped. Steve Pond reports for the Wrap that Academy officials decried “inaccurate reporting”, and suggested that the public would be less outraged if they knew what the edited presentations were going to look like. But, as Pond notes, “no one outside the Academy has seen what it will look like, and neither have most Academy members.” The Wrap says they have also been able to ascertain that the Academy is trying to move toward a three-hour Oscars telecast “at the urging of ABC.” The negotiation process for awards to be bumped into commercial purgatory seems to be a false choice; a committee member negotiating with the Academy higher-ups said that “they said it was going to happen… and if we didn’t volunteer this year we’d be in the rotation [to be moved to the ads] next year.

The power that the Mouse wields here, now understandable as a symptom of a wider problem, is a result of his first tentative movements toward taking over the world. Disney’s 1995 acquisition of ABC is regarded as one of the greatest media deals of the 20th century. I would agree, in a sort of Ollivander ‘terrible, yes… but great’ way. Writing for Forbes, Antoine Gara says that the deal was a result of the Disney method of acquisition. Referencing Bill Marriot’s hotel management strategy of ‘management by walking around’ (MBWA), Gara says that Disney’s acquisition strategy was ‘ABWA.’ But, the conscientious observer shouldn’t be so fannishly impressed by Michael Eisner or Bob Iger walking around buying things, especially now they’re a decade into the strategy of buying the best of everything.

I wrote about this last year. When everyone involved signed off on the Disney-FOX merger and the US government regulatory body failed to intervene, it made a lot of people uneasy about the shape of the media industry and our culture. While it’s not literally a monopoly, it’s about as close as anyone is likely to get right now. As I wrote: “every Star Wars movie that comes out is Disney. The Avatar sequel will be too, eventually. So will the next Alien, the next Predator, and the next Indiana Jones.” Add to this the range of TV adult animation heavyweights that FOX owns (Simpsons, Family Guy, Bobs Burgers) and you’re starting to see a grim picture. A postmodern mish-mash of cultural signifiers with Mickey Mouse as king should be kept as the plot of Kingdom Hearts, not the real world.

The first step in this process of genuinely damaging our economy and culture was the acquisition of ABC. It expanded Disney into broadcast and cable TV distribution. ESPN’s exceptional financial performance through the Noughties made the acquisition a victory. And now, Disney’s ownership of ABC is enabling the conglomerate to once again shape cultural narratives. I don’t want to belittle cinematography, costuming/hairstyling, or short films by exclusion, but I want to single out editing as an especially egregious choice of victim here. Dancyger writes that there is a genuinely artistic dimension to editing, that combining two or more shots can and often does take the meaning to the next level, inspiring “excitement, insight, shock, or the epiphany of discovery.” If you’ve studied film, you’ll remember the Kuleshov effect: an expressionless actor appears after, in sequence, shots of a dead woman, a child, and a dish of soup. The audience viewing this film reportedly believed, incorrectly, that the actor was reacting to each stimulus by changing his expression appropriately – sorrow for the dead woman, tenderness for the child, and hunger for the soup – when his expression remained the same. So, it should be clear just how much storytelling in film relies on editing. Lady Gaga can act her damn eyeballs out but the audience can only make sense of it in terms of what shot it cuts from and what shot it cuts to. Why should the Academy shunt the award for that off the air? Is that appropriate?

If the Oscars are so out of touch and can be so easily morphed by powerful outside groups (again – not proposing a conspiracy theory here, just talking about structural power problems), can they and ought they remain culturally relevant? Well, maybe that’s an unfair question to pose. After all, it implies that there was some point in rosy history when the Oscars were a pure, apolitical celebration of film. Really, the Oscars have always been a political institution, started in 1929 because the film industry was being severely damaged by tabloid fearmongering. Putting on an annual awards show celebrating the most respectable middle-brow stuff Hollywood did that year was their best idea for a defensive measure. And it worked!

These origins mean that the choice of nominees and winners is, often by design, meant to be a representation of what the Academy (and now ABC) wants the public face of the Hollywood film industry to be. This is not to say that there’s no correlation between cinematic creativity and film awards; a study by Simonton found that Oscar awards provided meaningful information about cinematic creativity and achievement and that the awards matched up with later movie guide ratings, especially in the categories of picture, design, screenplay, and acting. I think it’s fair to say that, since that 2004 study, the Academy hasn’t gone totally off the rails, although it has had notable shortcomings (see: the racism). The point stands that it’s still a political institution (see: the racism). So, the Oscars can remain relevant and arguably they even should – just not like this.

So, ABC is using its power over the Academy Awards in a way that shapes how our culture views itself. Some people and films are rewarded, others are stymied at the moment they ought to be celebrated, and while I can’t really argue that this is all a deliberate scheme to increase profits for Disney, that is the effect that it’s going to have. This calls attention once again to the outsized influence that the conglomerate has over our media landscape. Usually, I try to end this kind of ‘everything is on fire’ essay with a hopeful call to action but, as I wrote before, pretty much the only group with the power to check Disney now is the relevant regulatory body, which has failed to take any meaningful action. So, that’s the state of the Oscars right now.

[Ed: Or, I mean, it was.]


References:

Dancyger, Ken. The Technique of Film and Video Editing: Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. (Boston: Focal Press, 1997), xiv-xv

Simonton, Dean Keith. ‘Film Awards as Indicators of Cinematic Creativity and Achievement: A Quantitative Comparison of the Oscars and Six Alternatives.’ Creativity Research Journal, 16.2/3, 2004, pp. 163-172

Mark Laherty writes about media and politics on WordPress. You can offer monthly support via Patreon.

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