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Why MTV is adding TV to its movie awards and making its acting categories genderless

Staging an awards show is an art form. A balancing act in maintaining relevancy without resorting to gimmickry, in creating social media buzz without taking away from the honors given out.

This is the task ahead for producers of Sunday’s first-ever MTV Movie & TV Awards, to be hosted by “Workaholics’ ” Adam DeVine. The network’s revamped show, once limited to the movies, will now recognize content across visual platforms.

But the changes go beyond adding TV to the fold. The awards show is getting rid of separate categories for male and female performances, de-gendering its acting categories. And it’s adding an element of politics to the show by changing its best fight category to best fight against the system.

“We’re taking a fresh look at everything we're doing across the brand — the shows, events and the tent-poles — and want to lead culture,” MTV president Chris McCarthy says. “Part of that is acknowledging that this event was always about celebrating great content and stories and characters that our audience loves. With changing platforms and consumer habits, a lot of that content and those characters aren’t just in film anymore.”

The first MTV Movie Awards took place on June 10, 1992. Following a year when films such as "Point Break," "Terminator 2" and "Boyz n the Hood" debuted, the awards show set out to be a unique space to recognize the best Hollywood had to offer from the fans' perspective. No critics. No academies. No guilds.

In the show’s 26th year, such an approach persists as the network’s audience continues to drive the many changes in the show when it airs live Sunday on the East Coast from L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium at 5 p.m. PT and on tape delay for the West Coast at 8 p.m. PT.

The addition of television shows, scripted and otherwise, is allowing for some unusual match-ups in some categories. In the best duo category, for example, Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg of VH1’s “Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party” and Lakeith Stanfield and Bryan Tyree Henry of FX’s “Atlanta” are nominated against “Get Out’s” Daniel Kaluuya and Lil Rel Howery and “Beauty and the Beast’s” Josh Gad and Luke Evans, among others.

“Adding TV was a logical evolution of the show, especially around where our audience is in terms of where they're consuming content,” says Garrett English, the show’s executive producer. “There are no borders anymore in terms of where content is delivered and how people are enjoying it and [we’re happy] to be able to support the evolution of those constructs as they become less relevant.”

Some of the other shows landing nominations in categories with movies include ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” nominated with Oscar winner “Moonlight” for best American story; HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and NBC’s “This Is Us,” nominated in the tearjerker category with “Moonlight,” and Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and “Luke Cage” nominated with “Hidden Figures” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” in the best hero category. As always, blockbusters — often ignored by the Oscars — get MTV respect. “Suicide Squad,” “The Lego Batman Movie” and “Logan” all have nominations, along with “Beauty and the Beast,” “Moana” and “Get Out.”

English points out that the awards show “always was avant-garde, an irreverent celebration of film.”

Now the collapsing of the best female performance and best male performance categories into two best actor categories — one for movies and another for TV shows — is being called an industry first. All performers, regardless of their sex or gender identity, can now compete together for the top acting honors.

To show the importance of this change, the best actor in a movie award will open the show and be presented by “Billions” cast member Asia Kate Dillon, who made news earlier this year after writing a letter to the Television Academy questioning the group’s gender-specific acting categories. Dillon, who uses the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them,” identifies as nonbinary, or, as they say, “a gender identity falling outside the boxes of man or woman.”

At the Emmys, Dillon will be considered under the “actor” category. “When given the choice, I use ‘actor’ because it’s [historically] gender neutral. I use ‘performer’ when not presented with a choice,” says Dillon, who calls MTV’s decision to do away with binary categories a positive step forward.

“Binaries, whether it be man and women, actor and actress, black and white, were created to separate us, to create an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ ” Dillon adds. “But without binaries there's only ‘us,’ which means we’re all equal. I'm excited about the breaking down of binaries as a move toward ultimate equality.”

MTV’s McCarthy calls gender-divided categories “antiquated,” pointing to recent studies that say younger generations are more likely to identify as LGBTQ than heterosexual. “We not only want to respond to that,” he says, “but we want to reflect it and at our award show is the biggest way.”

“This is historic,” Dillon says about presenting the award, “and that's not lost on me. It’s a history that I share with my family and coworkers, but also the trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people, particularly those of color, who have been leading the way for change long before I was born.”

MTV, English says, has “always pushed the boundaries of what an award show is and what variety television should look like. This is again an evolution of that because our audience doesn’t see those gender walls the same way anymore.”

That audience of coveted 16- to 24-year-olds also prompted the augmentation of the best fight category into best fight against the system, in which “Get Out,” “Hidden Figures,” “Mr. Robot,” “Luke Cage” and “Loving” are all nominated.

“Young people have a spirit of activism that we haven’t seen since the ‘60s, and we see great stories and characters transcending,” McCarthy says, “because they are fighting the system that is oppressing them versus just a physical fight.”

With the changes — and performances by Big Sean, Pitbull, Noah Cyrus and others — the hope is that MTV Movie & TV Awards errs on the side of relevancy.

“The way you avoid [being gimmicky] is by making sure your show creatively is authentic with your audience, true to what they’re passionate about and interested in,” English says.

McCarthy adds that they are constantly “listening to the audience and hearing those early sounds of shifts in culture moving.”

Perhaps the awards show is what the future of Hollywood’s most cherished events will look like.


MTV Movie & TV Awards

Where: MTV

When: Sunday, 8 p.m. / 7 p.m. Central

Get your life! Follow me on Twitter (@TrevellAnderson) or email me: trevell.anderson@latimes.com.

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