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Let's celebrate the mistakes the Oscars didn't make

Directors Daniel Kwan (left) and Daniel Scheinert pose with their best director trophies for <em>Everything Everywhere All at Once.</em>
Frederic J. Brown
/
AFP via Getty Images
Directors Daniel Kwan (left) and Daniel Scheinert pose with their best director trophies for Everything Everywhere All at Once.

If you've ever worked on an annual project of any kind – maybe it's an event, maybe it's a report, maybe it's the Academy Awards – you've probably been part of a debriefing process, wherein various stakeholders gather to discuss what went right, what went wrong and what went really wrong. Maybe, for example, your best actress winner gave a lovely speech, but your best actor winner got up on stage and slapped a famous comedian across the face. It happens.

These debriefing sessions are bound to look different depending on the circumstances, of course. But their general shape is usually the same: positives, negatives, notes for next year, maybe a few shoutouts for jobs well done. What sometimes gets missed is an unsexy-but-crucial rundown of the mistakes that got avoided. Because, as anyone who's been involved in an annual project for many years can tell you, bad ideas have a way of sneakily reintroducing themselves once you've avoided them long enough.

So consider this one last word about the 2023 Academy Awards, which wrapped up Sunday night in a manner largely free of catastrophic embarrassment. I'll leave out the obvious stuff – "No one was physically attacked on stage," for example, or "No one announced the wrong best picture winner" – in favor of the mistakes that might get reintroduced one day, should we be foolish enough to let our collective guard down.

They gave out all the awards during the telecast.

It's easy to forget that, just last year, the Oscars elected to give out several awards in previously taped segments, with the ostensible purpose of speeding up the show. This was a terrible idea for basic reasons of decency and watchability – yes, people actually do care to see people pick up awards for, say, cinematography – while also making viewers seethe at the filler that made the cut. It also robbed the Oscars telecast of a strength: It's harder for a show to lag when you're constantly returning to the official business of handing out trophies. There was certainly filler in last Sunday's telecast (ahem, Little Mermaid promo), but the pace felt noticeably quicker than usual.

They cut the little things.

As Glen Weldon noted at the time in NPR's Oscars live blog, this year's Oscars cut way back on intros – particularly when it came to clips of the 10 films nominated for best picture. "Consider: They're introducing tonight's best picture nominees with an offscreen announcer," Glen wrote. "In years past, that job has been done by presenters. Actors who walk out, pause, engage in stiff presenter banter, and then introduce the best picture nominees. It seems like a small tweak but it's easily shaving, what, at least 10 minutes off this broadcast?" This was a small tweak with a legitimately massive payoff. Imagine if, every time you took a four-hour drive, you had to pull over to the side of the road on 10 separate occasions and wait for 60 seconds each time. Then, imagine taking the same drive without those stops. Streamlining the process of screening clips didn't seem like much on Oscar night, but it represented a huge, hidden quality-of-life improvement.

They showed clips! They showed clips! They showed clips!

On occasion in recent years, Oscar producers have tried to shave time by skipping clips of the nominated performances – sometimes by simply listing names, sometimes by having a presenter gas on about each nominee's greatness. You'd think the Academy Awards would know the value of showing rather than telling, but this mistake keeps seeping back to the surface every few years. Showing clips reaffirms the value of the nominated work, gives unfamiliar audiences an idea of the movies they might yet want to see, and, perhaps most relevant to the Oscars' interests, celebrates the awesome power of the movies better than a million "A Salute To... The Movies!" montages ever could.

They killed the audience mics during the "In Memoriam" segment.

Whenever you've got a musician playing a song as names of the recently departed scroll by, you run the risk of the event turning into a tasteless workout of the Applause-O-Meter. You could hear the occasional bit of applause this year – presumably picked up by Lenny Kravitz's mic – but it was easy to miss. Here's to an avoidable catastrophe, successfully avoided!

Naturally, these Oscars still made other mistakes, including inconsistent uses of the orchestra to play people off stage and the Academy's insistence on nominating a Diane Warren song yet again. But this year still felt like progress.

This piece first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)