Are the Oscars telling us it doesn't matter how movies actually LOOK?

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune
"Roma" is nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including best picture.

There's a wonderful behind-the-scenes photograph, in black-and-white like the film itself, of a street scene from Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma." It's full of lighting equipment, illuminating what look like several genuine Mexico City blocks, set-dressed to look like 1971.

It's not real. While much of "Roma," up for 10 Academy Awards, was filmed on real streets and sidewalks, the scene in the photograph first published by American Cinematographer magazine and then, later, the Chicago Tribune, is an illusion.

Cuaron and his designers poured cement, erected storefronts and created a life-size version of Cuaron's memory of what the streets looked like in 1971. It was built from the ground up, in an industrial lot outside of Mexico City. Then, acting as his own cinematographer, he fussed with the lighting to get the raindrops on the cars to look a certain way, and the actors moving around the set to look another way.

And it all looks like magic.

Cuaron is up for a cinematography Oscar as well as awards for screenwriting, direction and best picture this year. This year, three of the five cinematography nominees come from foreign-language pictures. (The other two are "Cold War" and "Never Look Away.")

So this is a particularly galling year to marginalize the art, craft and magic of cinematography — a huge contribution to how movies actually look, and feel — on Oscar night.

On Monday, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president John Bailey, himself a cinematographer, announced a long-rumored change in the ABC Oscars telecast. In the interests of keeping the show around the three-hour mark, the categories devoted to cinematography, editing, live action short film and makeup/hairstyling are getting an abbreviated moment in the spotlight.

Those four categories will be taped and edited and popped into a later spot in the program. During the commercial breaks, viewers can livestream those awards if they choose.

Who knows, maybe it'll look all right. If you're tuning in to the Oscars on Feb. 24 to see if ABC (owned by Disney) will pay sufficient, self-interested corporate tribute to "Avengers: Endgame," the Marvel movie (also answering to Disney stockholders), then none of this stuff about cinematography, editing, makeup and live action shorts may matter to you. At all.

"I want to reiterate," Bailey's letter to the Academy members said. "All 24 Academy Award-winning presentations will be included in the broadcast. We believe we have come up with a great way to do this, and keep the show to three hours." The Tony Awards do something like already. It's not without precedent.

ABC is committed to the Oscars through 2028. Ratings hit a new low last year. ABC, among others, draws a direct correlation between the ratings and the lack of blockbusters up for Oscars, although this year's crop includes "Black Panther" (huge hit, really good film), "Bohemian Rhapsody" (huge hit, not a good film) and "A Star is Born" (huge hit, good film, the awards season's also-ran so far).

Next year, the Oscars move to Feb. 9, to curb awards-season fatigue. I like that change.

Next year, the Academy may well implement a plan, first floated in August 2018 before going back to the drawing board, to add a "best popular film" awards, aka "the popcorn Oscar." It'll be designed to recognize the biggest hit the Academy can live with, awards-wise, and potentially boost the ratings.

That, I don't like. That sounds like a bad marriage between the People's Choice Awards and the Oscars, not a revised Oscars.

And that's not this year's problem. This year's problem is more about the perception of marginalizing the below-the-line artists whose work can help make or break a film's success, box office figures aside.

Cinematographers and editors, particularly, set the tone and the rhythm of a film. They respond to the director's vision and the footage and complete the fresco. They directly affect what we see and how we respond to a movie. Every single second of it.

The wrong editing can ruin a film, either flagrantly or subconsciously. The right editor can salvage it. A routine cinematographer can pour the wrong, flat, inexpressive light on a scene and before you know it, you're mentally checking out as a viewer, often without knowing precisely why.

And the right light, as Cuaron's "Roma" asserts so beautifully, amplifies a singular achievement.

If the Oscar telecast, and ABC, can't get interested in making what these below-the-line artists do for a living part of the big show, then the big show is messed up.

Ratings are tough all over for the decades-old institutional affairs. Sports, entertainment, none of it's immune to competition and a cluttered, assaultive marketplace. But giving the people what they want has to make some sense.

As critic Mark Harris tweeted, hilariously, following a recent Sunday: "Lowest rated Super Bowl in ten years. They should definitely cut the songs, keep it to three hours, and take out all the field goals, which younger audiences have a hard time relating to."

On Monday, Harris and many others couldn't help but notice one other thing. Not a single nominee in the four soon-to-be-Oscar-marginalized categories comes from a film made by Disney, ABC's parent company.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But if ABC and the Oscars keep this up, by 2028 we may be watching a 90-minute infomercial with no host, no technical or design awards, no sense of craft or history and a whole helluva lot of "Avengers" cast members, whoever they are by then.