It’s not that no one is interested, at least in the abstract, in what win an Oscar. It’s that they don’t want to give up four hours of their evening on a school night to watch an event that looks suspiciously like, well, a telethon. Or an advertisement. Or a pledge campaign.
The Oscars look like big publicity, which they are, in a way. Why is Tony Hawk here? Oh, because his documentary will be streaming next week. It’s not that Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes and Rosario Dawson are unwanted presences, but why are they here? Oh, white men can’t jump celebrates its 30th anniversary. This tribute to James Bond looks like a trailer. Everyone has a nostalgic project or piece to promote. The new Academy Museum gets a long comic piece as a promotion. Twitter polls on “cheerful moments” get airtime. The Oscars are sponcon, an infomercial for movies. Cinema is magical! Movies matter, now more than ever! Really! We promise!
(If you weren’t already okay with this, would you be watching the Oscars?)
The Oscars have a problem. But that problem isn’t with the Oscars. The problem is, somewhere along the way, we decided the Oscars had to be a TV show. That means it has to pass by television standards – not just television standards, but network TV standards for live broadcasts: lots of viewers, lots of ad sales, some unpredictability but nothing that will bother viewers, who can just turn it off at will.
(Admittedly, this year they got it when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on stage, yelled at him, and then won Best Actor a few minutes later. But you can’t plan that kind of thing. )
“Saving the Oscars” then took on such a narrow meaning that it’s self-defeating, stuck in a decade when I was still too young to see a PG-13 movie. And that’s ridiculous, in a time when fewer and fewer people are watching any live television events; when it’s the norm to skip the live show and just catch highlights on YouTube or TikTok the next day.
People used to watch the Oscars. As The Ankler recently detailed, just 18 years ago, the average Oscar-nominated film grossed $127 million and 43.5 million people watched the show, or 26%. Continued than the previous year. But in 2020, only four of the nominated films had grossed over $100 million. In 2021, of course, the box office numbers made no sense, given that most theaters in major markets were closed due to the pandemic, and only 10.4 million people watched the ceremony, or about half of the 2020 ceremony audience.
At first, the Oscars weren’t originally planned as a TV show, because they couldn’t have been. the first ceremony was held in 1929, a year after commercial televisions were introduced. The 1929 ceremony lasted 15 minutes and cost $5 to attend. The following year, the Oscars were broadcast on radio, and in 1953, during the 25th annual awards, they appeared on television for the first time, broadcasting simultaneously from New York and Los Angeles.
Of course, if you put a bunch of showbiz people in the room and tell them that all of America is listening or watching, then they want to put on a show. So they hire hosts, or a whole battery of presenters, and have them do a stand-up routine. They plan musical routines. They come up with crazy stuff, like surprising a group of civilians in a movie theater or having Da Butt dance with Glenn Close.
But unless this year’s ratings exceed anyone’s wildest expectations, even ABC, none of this is working. And why would you look? Compared to 2004, your Sunday night options are endless – from your old favorite show to your new favorite, or one of the animated movies, or, heck, a video game.
Your TV might not even show up on TV, especially if you belong to the highly sought-after “young” demographic. Do you even have a TV? We do not care? If something funny happens, you’ll see it on Twitter or TikTok 10 minutes later. Technology has always changed the way we watch movies and TV; the Oscars are hardly immune to these changes.
I’m not an expert in creating TV shows. But it seemed, watching the Academy and ABC make unavoidable error after unavoidable error in an attempt to “save” this year’s Oscars, that at least part of the problem stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet works – and what their ceremony is even for.
For example, a week before the ceremony, Rachel Zegler – the leading lady of several nominations West Side Story — announced to her fans on social networks that she had not been able to obtain an invitation to the ceremony.
While many people aren’t invited to the Oscars, the omission was particularly silly for a ceremony obviously desperate to attract young viewers. Zegler, who landed the role of Maria by submitting videos of herself to open casting, has had a massive and passionate following on YouTube and social media since 2015; his presence at the Oscars would certainly arouse the interest of his fans. ABC’s parent company, Disney, which also owns West Side Story distributor 20th Century Studios and cast Zegler as Snow White in its upcoming live-action remake – didn’t think harnessing their star power for the audience it so desperately seeks seems unthinkable. After an outcry (of course), Zegler was asked to present an award at the ceremony.
The vaunted Fan Favorite category – a clear attempt to harness the power of the web – is another misfire. Opponents of the Oscars usually posit that the problem is the movies themselves — not that they’re necessarily bad, but that no one is watching them. If only they named more popular movies then people would watch. (It’s also the argument for the short-lived Best Popular Picture category that the Academy launched several years ago.)
So, a few weeks before the ceremony, the Academy announced that fans on Twitter could use a hashtag to vote for their favorite American Idol movie for the Oscars, and the winner would be announced at the ceremony. They also conducted polls, for things like “the happiest moment”.
If you practically spend any time on Twitter, you instantly knew what was going to happen, and it did. Social media fandoms work differently than just casual movie “fans”. They’ve exploited a combination of enthusiasm, obsession, and sometimes toxicity to bomb movies on Rotten Tomatoes before they’ve even been released, or to go after artists, critics, and other users who criticize, for example , Justice League or the Marvel movies or Alita: battle angel.
It was therefore quite predictable that army of the dead – Zach Snyder’s film, which garnered lackluster reviews but was buoyed by his army of rabid fans – came out on top. The other four “nominees”, also backed by hugely enthusiastic groups of fans (and, in some cases, potentially bots as well) were Cinderella, Minamata, Spider-Man: No Coming Homeand Tic Tic Boom. While this is mostly fun in retrospect, what’s unclear is what the Academy thought would happen. Would hordes of breathless fans listen to the show for three hours, waiting for the moment when the winner was announced? Or would they just take the news from Twitter or TikTok or whatever platform they were browsing that night?
In the end, it’s not clear that they even know what the purpose of the telecast really was. The much-criticized decision to exclude eight categories from the ceremony to reduce running time, with edited and previously recorded speeches played throughout the event, implied that some categories are simply more important than others. People who love the Oscars, as well as some stars themselves, were angry to see the categories removed. But it also seems slightly ridiculous to make this trade: the ill will of Oscar devotees and industry insiders, on the one hand, and theoretical viewers who might now look at the ceremony, with these eight reduced categories.
Plus, there was a good chance the fan favorite Dunes — a major box office hit — was most likely to win in those cut categories, including Best Sound, Best Score and Best Editing. And of course he did. (As Riz Ahmed did, for his live action short film The long goodbye.)
Look, here’s the question: why do people care who wins the Oscars? Because they love the curatorial aspect of the Oscars, the sense that it’s a list of good movies that are probably worth seeing. But why do people watch the Oscars TV series? Because they are fascinated by Hollywood, by glamour, by seeing stars in a few rare semi-improvised moments. Because they’re invested in the story or excited by the unpredictability of a live performance. Because they love all things Hollywood and Oscar history.
So if the Oscars want to stay interesting for their target audience — the people who really love the movies and want to watch the awards show — then they need to adjust their expectations and relearn why those people are there in the first place.
A live (or live) broadcast is great. But do you need to have 40 million viewers to be a success? (The final of game of thrones didn’t even get 20 million.) Could success be measured not by the number of people tuning into the live stream, but by the number of engagements across all platforms? Could this be possible for the Academy and its broadcast partner, whoever it is – Netflix, perhaps? — to find additional revenue streams that keep ad sales from being their endgame?
And does the Academy even know why it’s really doing the show?
The pandemic may have forced the issue faster than expected in Hollywood. But everything changes – the technology, the platforms, the variety available to audiences, audience tastes and preferences, the films themselves. It’s high time for the Academy to recognize that big changes are coming, whether they like it or not.
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