Why This Year's Oscar Ceremony Is so Controversial

It's not even about the movies.

2022 oscars ceremony
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

When controversy about the Oscars arises, it typically centers on the movies nominated for the awards. And, sure, there's a little bit of that this year as we head into the final stretch of what has been a very long awards season. Online, for example, people are arguing about whether CODA deserves to be a Best Picture front-runner. But the most controversial element of the 2022 Oscars has been the ceremony itself.

Last year's telecast, which was reworked to be an intimate COVID-era affair, was the nadir of Oscar viewership, scoring all-time-low ratings. This year, there's clearly an attempt to restore the awards to their former glory. After three years with no hosts, Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall will preside. The event is returning to the lavish Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, but some of the changes have inspired more skepticism than excitement. 

In an effort to juice its audience, Academy officials, ABC, and producer Will Packer have made a series of decisions that have confounded both viewers and the people being honored. Heading into Sunday night, the question remains: Is this going to be a hilarious disaster? Or will all the changes prove doubters wrong?

Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Mikkel E.G. Nielsen winning Editing last year for 'Sound of Metal.' | Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

Categories presented before the broadcast

The decision that has baffled and frustrated the most Oscar loyalists was the one to present eight awards—among them Best Editing, a category historically seen as a Best Picture precursor—before the live broadcast begins. These mostly below-the-line accolades will be handed out during the red-carpet arrivals, with the speeches somehow incorporated into the event later. Other awards shows, like the Grammys and the Tonys, do something similar, but the Grammys have approximately a million awards to hand out and the Tonys want to make room for performances from nominated casts. With the Oscars, the point is—or at least should be—the craft of making movies. (Never mind the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in the late 1920s as a way to bust unions by notorious studio head Louis B. Mayer.)

The announcement from Academy president David Rubin that editing, sound, makeup and hairstyling, score, production design, and all three short-film categories would get second-class status was met with resounding outrage. The Motion Picture Editors Guild released a statement saying, "We understand the Academy’s desire to make a more arresting show, but this move renders the ‘invisible art’ of editing even less visible." The Cinema Audio Society Board of Directors also weighed in, explaining that the decision "to celebrate some categories differently than others ultimately communicates a sobering insensitivity to the affected creative arts and the indispensable contributions these artists afford the films being celebrated." Five-time Oscar nominee Tom Fleischman, a sound designer who works with Martin Scorsese, resigned from the Academy in response.

The choice has continued to backfire. Jessica Chastain told the Next Best Picture podcast that she will skip the red carpet if she can be in the building when her makeup and hairstyling team is up for their work on The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a sign that even some of the big-name stars will choose solidarity over the spotlight. According to Variety, sound guild membersa are going to protest by showing up with their guild badges upside down. Meanwhile, the president of the Cinema Audio Society told the publication that the solidarity might extend beyond just those categories with people accepting their trophies upside down. "This weekend, the Oscars may be turned upside down as we may see winners from all categories accept their Oscars upside down in a silent show of solidarity with the eight affected categories," he said. "We are all filmmakers of equal importance."

oscars fan favorite

The Twitter award

So what are they shafting the categories above for? We have some clues. There will be a performance of Encanto's "We Don't Talk About Bruno," which is not, in fact, the nominated song from the Disney hit. There will be tributes to James Bond and The Godfather. And there will be the presentations of the Oscars Fan Favorite and the Oscars Cheer Moment, also voted on via Twitter. This ill-advised program is meant to stoke engagement plans to give some stage time to the movie most celebrated via hashtag or online vote.

It seemed like a bad idea from the beginning, which was confirmed when the Academy announced the 10 films in contention for the dubious honor. While there were some expected appearances from the likes of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the box-office winner of last year, there were other signs that fan armies had hijacked the voting. This resulted in "nominations" for the little-seen Johnny Depp biopic Minamata and Camila Cabello's atrociously reviewed Cinderella jukebox musical. If Spider-Man wins, the production team will have gotten just what they wanted: an opportunity to heap praise on a juggernaut that some (read: Jimmy Kimmel) thought should have been nominated for Best Picture.

In another nod to the so-called power of social media, the Academy has invited a bunch of influencers to make Reels in a partnership with Instagram parent company Meta. 

rachel zegler
Rachel Zegler at the Critics Choice Awards. | Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for Critics Choice Association

The invite list

A new round of eyebrow-raising took place the Monday before the ceremony when producers unveiled the latest list of presenters. Along with movie star Tiffany Haddish and previous nominees Bill Murray and Elliot Page, the lineup included not one, but three extreme-sports stars: skateboarder Tony Hawk, snowboarder Shaun White, and surfer Kelly Slater. No shade to them, but what are they doing there? Hawk, at least, had a good retort on Twitter: "If being in every Jackass movie, xXx, Police Academy 4 and Sharknado 5 doesn’t qualify me to present at the Oscars, then your taste in movies needs readjusting." Which, fair. Still, the collection of athletes does still provoke the question: Who does the Academy and ABC want to appeal to?  

Adding to the fracas, this presenter news came a day after West Side Story star Rachel Zegler posted on Instagram that she would not be attending and would be cheering on "from her couch" unless some "last minute miracle occurs." While the situation is arguably more complicated than Zegler simply not getting an invite—she acknowledged she's in production on Disney's new Snow White movie in London—it still seemed pretty glaring that a Gen X skateboarding icon would be there and not the breakout star from one of the Best Picture nominees. After a day of Twitter anger over Zegler's would-be absence, she was asked to present.

That doesn't change the fact that, in all likelihood, few people who weren't already planning to watch the Oscars will be lured by a Tony Hawk appearance. The core audience for this event is a collection of movie nerds who care about editing and sound design and want to cheer on one of the most luminous young actresses to come along in recent years. They are enthusiasts who have seen Drive My Car and Spider-Man: No Way Home and think the latter was fun but the former is the more significant cinematic achievement. All of the Oscars' plans seem like an attempt to reach a group that was never going to care anyway. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.