As the Lines Between Film and TV Blur, the Academies Should Merge
The barriers that separate the two art forms are coming down, so the barriers that separate their most high-profile institutions must also be dissolved, writes Hollywood Reporter executive editor Stephen Galloway.
Hollywood has always clung to the past. I don’t mean that it’s burdened by nostalgia or even that it cherishes its most important works of art (film preservation is woefully underfunded, and I’m often shocked by how little the industry knows of its own history). What I mean is this: it’s welcomed change with about the same relish the dinosaurs welcomed the Ice Age.
Long ago, when rival studios heard that Warner Bros. was about to release a movie called The Jazz Singer in which an actor, Al Jolson, spoke for the first time using synchronized sound, they were skeptical. This was just a passing fad, they insisted, an oddity that would disappear as quickly as the Zeppelin.
They weren’t much more prescient about television. Who’d want to sit at home and watch a black-and-white box, they scoffed, unaware that an entire post-war generation was about to do just that, contributing to a decline in movie attendance that lasted from 1946 until the early 1970s, never to rebound.
Now the establishment is clinging to another outmoded idea: that film and TV are not just separate industries but also separate art forms, to be kept at arm’s length. It’s a specious notion that will soon seem as prehistoric as, well, the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
We were reminded of that again with the Motion Picture Academy’s July 1 unveiling of some 800-plus men and women who’ve been invited to become members. Take a deep dive into the list and it’s striking how many have roots in TV or earn the larger part of their living there.
The academy’s open-door policy toward these TV toilers has incensed its old guard, who cling to the notion that pictures can exist like the Boy in the Plastic Bubble, isolated from the viruses that have infected the rest of the media world.
But only the most churlish would gripe at including the likes of Claire Foy, Elisabeth Moss and Sterling K. Brown — actors of the highest caliber, all about to become members — or Jimmy Chin, the co-director of Free Solo, which has been watched by vastly more people in their living rooms than on the silver screen.
Anyone who thinks these are exceptions should think again. The osmosis we’ve seen between film and TV is increasing and will increase at a vertiginous pace as home entertainment improves, as screens get bigger and brighter, as 3D and VR enter the living room, as streamers continue to back thoughtful material of the sort the studios now largely shun.
The barriers between film and TV are tumbling down. So why aren’t the barriers between their most high-profile institutions, the movie and TV academies?
Carry the argument to its logical conclusion and it seems evident: at some point the two organizations must become one. And if they become one, what should prevent their most visible baubles, the Oscars and Emmys, from doing the same?
The more varied ways emerge to watch content, the more varied forms of content will emerge for us to watch; and the more varied forms of content emerge, the more passé it will seem to divide them into the simplistic species of film and TV.
All this is inevitable; it’s not a question of if, but when. And while the journey to that point — the point of multiple formats and multiple media — is still a years-long adventure, it’s already shaping our industry. Twenty years ago, a man like Jeffrey Katzenberg was already an OG of the film world; now he’s backing a company called Quibi that makes content for our mobile phones. And he’s not alone: all around, others are launching new products for new media that already make the question of film or TV almost obsolete.
And yet none of this seems to have penetrated the academies, which are still debating whether Netflix productions should qualify for the Oscars or whether a long-form show about O.J. Simpson should have merited the best documentary nod. It’s as if the revolution in how we watch filmed entertainment is operating in a different dimension from the people deciding which is best.
Now is the time for that to change. Now is the time to look ahead — five, ten, 15 years down the line — and prepare for a new era.
It won’t be easy. The movie academy, for one, has been battered by critics every time it’s instigated change. True, it managed to add more women and people of color to its rolls, but the instant its leadership suggested tiny alterations to the sacrosanct Oscars, the outrage proved overwhelming. This is hardly the kind of organization that’s going to reinvent itself readily. And yet it must.
First, it should form a committee of grandees who’ve worked in both film and TV, who can begin to look at the long term. How would the industry be better served if the two academies became one? What sort of timetable would that need to follow? Who would win and who would lose?
Second, it should start looking at where the Oscars and Emmys overlap and begin redefining what counts as a “film." The notion that a film is something shown on a big screen is laughable — indeed, it became so the moment movie palaces starting slicing and dicing themselves into multiplexes, where one squeezed in with all the pleasure of a canned sardine.
Third, it should start talking about the award shows and how to incorporate high-quality work that did not have an obligatory week-long theatrical run. Would a high-quality drama that started on a streamer be eligible? Should a new Oscar category be created for a certain kind of documentary series? And if Oscar and Emmy were to merge, would that mean just a single awards show or several spread across the year?
I don’t pretend to know the answers, nor do I claim that getting there will be easy. I’m not even sure these institutions will get there at all.
But I am sure of this: we’re bolting toward a future in which film and TV are not two competing states but rather members of the same imaginative country — one creative nation, as it were, under God.