Filmism.net Dispatch April 7, 2022

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I don't usually get too topical here, and ordinarily the infamous Oscars slap wouldn't be more than a curiosity to me. It was a celebrity moment, after all, not a movie moment.

But I thought I'd unpack what I think happened and what it means from an industrial perspective, and what better place to do so than my own newsletter? If you're sick of hearing about it and don't want to read the Filmism.net Dispatch this time around by all means don't...not many people do anyway.

Being the cynic I am, my first thought was that the whole thing was staged. The Academy is just as aware of its increasing irrelevance as anyone, and when Nomadland won last year it wasn't the first time people complained about how these socially aware award winners don't appeal to average moviegoers. It's been a running theme for years.

Remember the flap when the Academy announced it was going to have a Most Popular Award, a thinly veiled attempt to give Black Panther something so as to appear in touch with the masses?

They tried it again this year with a stupid viewer voting thing that gave Zack Snyder's Justice League some token award for popularity. Even worse, it came at the expense of the below-the-line categories that were cut from the telecast (not the first time they've tried that at the Oscars either, they backed down after the outcry last time).

So when the fresh prince took to the stage and struck like a black mamba, I immediately imagined some secret plot between he, Rock and the producers where they cooked the whole scheme up in a bunker, the subsequent fallout in the media a very precise guerrilla marketing campaign to get people talking about the Oscars again.

Just look at the way Rock stayed completely immobile even when Smith was within slapping distance, not even shrinking back or setting his feet. He either never dreamed Smith would get physical or he was extremely practised (rehearsed?) at presenting an easy target so the hit landed properly.

But that's just me, I'm a conspiracy theorist. On reflection, maybe I'm being a bit too cynical this time.

For one thing, Rock looked like he genuinely didn't know what to do with himself afterwards, looking offstage as if for direction, and assuring Smith (kind of fearfully) he'd indeed keep Jada's name out of his &%#@ mouth. Those few seconds afterwards were too awkward and too real, and Oscar scriptwriters aren't that clever.

But here's what I still believe about it. Hollywood types are incredibly aware of how they appear when they know there are cameras on them. It's what they do for a living, after all.

Remember when Jennifer Lawrence tripped on the steps to accept her Oscar a few years ago? If that wasn't carefully orchestrated by her and her publicist to foster a down-to-earth image I'll fly to LA for the next Oscars and run naked across the stage (although a guy already beat me to it way back in 1972, another era when cinema was losing its appeal... hmmm).

As soon as Will stood up in his seat, I guarantee he had two concurrent thoughts; this guy hurt my wife's feelings, and hundreds of millions of eyes are upon me.

He's fully aware of his friendly and likeable persona. I think he bargained that if he set upon Rock he'd been seen as a knight in shining armour protecting his lady's honour, and public opinion would come down firmly on his side.

As history now shows, poor Will couldn't have been more wrong. More below.

But I'll bet the Academy, by contrast, has been over the moon. They're a movie organisation, after all, and if there's one thing the movie industry relies on it's attention. Public awareness, publicity and perception are forms of currency in Hollywood that are as important as call girls and blow.

Not long after Rockslap (I'm trying to make it a thing, denoting a sudden bout of unexpected but calculated violence; maybe 'Willhit' is better) a story appeared in the trades asking how the Academy can 'recover'. In my notes to put this story together I wrote 'Recover?!? They loved every minute of it!!!'

Disagree? The media immediately reported that Will's subsequent Best Actor acceptance speech got 600,000 extra viewers thanks to Chrishit (perhaps not) permeating the internet.

And now, the official-sounding AAMPAS 'investigations' and 'reviews' of the incident that followed have just strung it out in the news cycle, keeping the show uppermost in people's minds.

Suddenly you couldn't swing a cat without hitting another story about Rock deciding not to press charges, Smith being asked to leave the ceremony, Smith not leaving the ceremony and dancing at the afterparty with his Oscar in his hand, Smith being asked to leave the ceremony only being a suggestion, possible censure and disciplinary action and horrified, hands-to-face opinion pieces about whether his Oscar might be stripped from him.

If there's any chance it was all actually a carefully planned conspiracy for pubic awareness it's the secretive PR company behind it that deserves an Oscar, not Will.

The daily talk shows and morning variety gabfests gleefully reported every detail and outcome (while taking the opportunity to show us the infamous moment a few more times), and you know what the desired effect is? A pervasive sense that The Oscars is where shocking and incredible shit like Smith hitting Rock happens.

And what's more likely to make more people tune in next year? The thought of another socially conscious indie film on a streaming service few people will ever watch winning Best Picture? Or imagining what a four-way brawl between Billie Eilish, Morgan Freeman, Jacob Tremblay and Tim Cook might look like (a few decent jokes about Will and Chris at the very least)?

The Academy and ABC (the TV network behind it all) will spend the rest of 2022 rubbing their hands with glee at the thought. Their single most important measure of success is ratings. If they didn't think it would tarnish their reputation as a classy, serious cinematic institution, they'd would be asking Dia Lupa and Olivia Rodrigo to flash the photographers on the red carpet by now if it would get more viewers.

And now, Smith has been left holding the bag. I imagine he thought his lovable, media-friendly image would not only weather this but extend his fanbase.

Maybe he hoped it would start a cultural discourse (in his favour) about manners and honour, with old school blokes who'd similarly knock a guy out for insulting their wife or girlfriend and ladies who swoon at the thought of their man so visibly standing up for them all expressing solidarity.

But the word 'assault' seeped into the narrative quicker than the Monday morning firing of an executive who greenlit the latest weekend flop.

Everyone from the media to other stars lined up against him. Zoe Kravitz called the Oscars the show where we're 'apparently assaulting people on stage now'. Wanda Sykes called it 'sickening'. Pedro Almodévar said he had a feeling of 'absolute rejection', adding that Smith's acceptance speech was 'like that of a cult leader'.

The decision about whether to kick Smith out of the ceremony or not swirled in every direction. They said they did. They said they didn't. They said they only suggested it. They said they couldn't find him quick enough. There was a suggestion they lied about asking him to leave. Whoopi Goldberg explained Kick-Smith-Out-gate by saying 'you're up before you even know you've done something stupid'.

Soon the press was asking whether Smith, rather than the Academy or Oscars themselves, could survive it all.

And as we now know, Will's resigned from the Academy. The only practical change that makes to his career is that he can't vote on the Oscars anymore. How in demand he is by producers and studios is another question entirely, and whether the public still likes and wants to see him (the ultimate arbiter of maintaining a career as a movie star) is the biggest question of all.

What do you think? Toxic masculinity on display? A man honourably standing up for his woman? A storm in a teacup? Wealthy privilege (we've seen police officers in the US kill people on camera without this much media coverage, much less slap them)?

When all the dust has settled I think there's only one measure the industry cares about, and that's the fact that a lot more people are going to be watching the Oscars next year...

On screens now is Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, one of the smartest (and best) time travel capers you've seen in ages. The Japanese comedy sci-fi romp has an incredibly entangled script and complicated premise that still somehow manages to come across as breezy, effortless and fun.

I also saw Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a movie that should have had me jumping out of my seat with excitement after the impact the original had on my formative years. But after the first couple of trailers my enthusiasm dwindled, and the film itself did nothing to restore it.

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