The Oscars had a lousy year. Not only was there a sub-par roster of films (with a couple of classic bright spots), but the Academy stepped in deep piles of doo-doo multiple times.
Consider these missteps:
- They announced a new category called Best Popular Film, then retracting the decision a month later following an outcry and criticism.
- They chose Kevin Hart as host, but within the day, the Twitterverse lit up with past homophobic comments made during his standup shows and in past tweets. The Academy insisted he apologize.
- Hart made statements in response, but did not satisfy the Academy or the angry horde, so he stepped down. Even Ellen couldn’t save him. In fact, she got trashed for even trying.
- The Academy decided to feature performances of only two of the five Best Song nominees on the live telecast, but after criticism, they agreed to feature all five songs.
- They decided to present four of the 24 categories during commercial breaks, but after an avalanche of pushback from insiders, critics, and viewers, they reversed course and decided to feature all 24 categories live.
- Several nominated films and nominated individuals have been caught up in some degree of controversy, including Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, Viggo Mortensen, Peter Farrelly, and others. Basically all white guys behaving badly.
Just picking up the general vibe online and in the community, there seems to be little interest in the show this year, except how boring it’s likely to be.
When Queen was announced as a performer, the sentiment seemed to be more about how it will make an already looooong show even longer, rather than excitement that the veteran rockers were going to…well, rock us.
At this point, the Academy can’t win. If they add something, it’s too much; if they subtract something, it’s a horrifying injustice.
Every presenter is fraught with danger. Every decision is under the microscope.
You don’t have to be a brilliant social commentator to realize the Academy’s woes mirror the social upheaval and unease we’re all experiencing in our country.
We’ve become fractured—every tribe for themselves. Our social media has been weaponized—our Tweets daggers to the heart. It’s not just the Academy that’s a wreck.
We’re all a mess.
So maybe what will help the Academy will help us all. Here are five lessons we can all learn from this:
1. Start with Kindness
First, let’s agree that at the heart of the problem is a really good thing: we live in a society that is struggling to treat people with kindness and respect.
The Academy was tossed back and forth by competing needs to be pragmatic and a desire for respect (for marginalized people, for guild members, and so on). If our decision-making and statements could be guided by greater kindness, we’d be a far better country.
The impulse to show respect for everyone is very good and noble. Let’s acknowledge the Academy was trying to be respectful while also trying to find creative ways to make their telecast as relevant as they can. This year, those competing desires tore them up.
It’s a simple truth and a good place to start. But now, the harder truths…
2. Game Out Your Decisions
Whether you’re acting as an individual or an organization, if you are going to be in the public eye, you need to game out all your decisions. If this, then what? If we make this decision, what are the likely, and unlikely, reactions and consequences?
The Academy appears to have failed to anticipate the backlash of many of their decisions.
Take the decision to introduce the Best Popular Film category. The Academy President, John Bailey, acknowledged this was an attempt to salvage the show’s dwindling ratings, which is a legitimate concern.
But even when they announced it publicly, they hadn’t worked out the details. What constitutes popular? Could a “popular” film also be nominated in the good, old-fashioned Best Picture category? The reaction was swift and overwhelmingly negative. A month later, the Academy reversed course and withdrew the new category.
Now it doesn’t take a genius to have anticipated there would be backlash and negative reactions. Any time you mess with a tradition, you’re going to get punch-back. Now if you do anything, you’re going to take heat on social media. But the Academy seemed caught off-guard and quickly retreated.
It would have been much better for them to have gamed the scenarios all the way out and used that process to stress-test the decision before it was announced.
We don’t know all their internal processes, but making a big change, then pulling back so quickly suggests they did not play out all the angles ahead of time. And they did this no less than four times—the Popular Film category, Kevin Hart, the number of song performances, and the live category omissions.
With so many missteps, it’s apparent they lacked a good internal process for anticipating and thinking through criticism in advance.
As obvious as it should be, if you’re going to make a big decision for your life or your organization, anticipate all the possible reactions ahead of time and be prepared to address them when they emerge.
“Any time you mess with a tradition, you’re going to get punch-back.”
3. Have Moral Courage
However, let’s assume they did a decent job of anticipating at least some of the pushback. Let’s also assume that they felt they had made good decisions for good reasons.
Yet, when the heat got too high, they caved. This is one of the biggest lessons of this whole no good, very bad year:
If you’ve made a good decision for the right reasons, have some backbone.
I don’t want to overstate this (we are talking about giving trophies to movie stars, after all), but in many ways, this is about moral courage.
If they truly believed cutting the live categories down or adding the Popular Film category would save the show’s viability in the long-run, they should have stuck with it. If they really supported Kevin Hart and believed he was contrite, they should have stood in front of him and taken the bullets.
Notice I didn’t say whether I agreed with those original decisions or not. In many ways, that’s beside the point. Who cares what I think?
If they made a decision they believed was in the best long-term interest of their organization and its members, they should have stood up and fought. That’s what leaders do.
“As a culture, we have gotten great at finding fault, digging up dirt, criticizing, and piling on. It’s become a national sport.”
So, to my mind, it’s one of the two scenarios:
They either didn’t think it all the way through, or they did think it through and they still caved when the heat was on.
Both have their problems, but the latter is probably more egregious. It suggests a failure of leadership in the truest sense.
4. Let People Evolve
A fourth lesson of the bad year is also a moral one. As a culture, we have gotten great at finding fault, digging up dirt, criticizing, and piling on. It’s become a national sport.
But the lesson here is that individuals and organizations must give people the chance to evolve and grow. We either need to learn how to be more gracious and merciful or we’re going to eat ourselves alive.
Kevin Hart’s old anti-gay jokes and tweets were gross and hurtful.
For decades, I’ve seen gay clients who have been harmed psychologically and even physically by these kinds of attitudes. I care about these individuals so deeply I can’t tell you.
“Individuals and organizations must give people the chance to evolve and grow.”
Yet I believe Hart is ultimately a good and decent man who intends no harm, has changed his attitudes, and wants to do good in the world. He is a tremendous role-model with his positive mindset, strong work ethic, and desire to uplift many who are struggling.
What he said and the attitudes he held in the past were bigoted and wrong, but he has evolved. The fact that he has not apologized in exactly the way critics have skewered him for is not surprising.
He’s a proud man who has a commitment not to be backed into a corner by an angry horde. He’d rather step aside (which he did) than feel like he is playing a political game. He has, however, been clear that he has changed.
If we can’t let people grow and evolve—even imperfectly and even with imperfect statements and half-apologies—then we polarize more people.
“If our decision-making and statements could be guided by a greater kindness, we’d be a far better country.”
I’ve known many individuals in my life who want to treat others well, yet may have some disagreeable or even hurtful attitudes.
For many of them, the fact that they must have expert knowledge in their use of sanctioned language, terms, and attitudes doesn’t make them work harder.
It makes them want to give up.
I see a bigger connection with politically correct insistence that everyone get everything right all the time and the soaring rise of our angry politics. We’re driving away from each other, not moving closer.
I know Hart’s statements were not simply mislabeling or using terms too flippantly. He said some legitimately bad things. Yet the same principle applies.
He’s gotten the feedback and he has turned away from those old attitudes. We should embrace him rather than push him out.
The Academy missed an opportunity here for something that could have been good and maybe even redemptive.
5. Ignore the Angry Mob
And finally, we have just got to ignore Twitter.
The fact that every decision that any individual or organization makes gets blown up in the Twitterverse doesn’t mean we should listen to it.
You could argue this is true democratization. I’d argue Twitter has become a flaming heap of toxic crap.
Yes, it gives people without much voice a platform and a chance to be heard, but the promise of Twitter—that it opens up more democratic process—has crashed and burned and now we’re left with a bunch of cannibals who live to devour Liam Neeson and Kanye West or whomever the next target of wrath who stuck their foot in their mouth happens to be. It’s more bloodsport than a constructive tool.
For the Academy, an outpouring of vitriol on Twitter should be met with…silence. Just ignore it. If it won’t go away, at least don’t feed the monster by giving it more power than it deserves.
With that said, here’s hoping for a better year at the movies and with the Academy.
Movies are just as important as ever to our culture. They deserve a strong, thoughtful, morally courageous Academy. Let’s give them grace and the chance to evolve.