It’s not that no one is interested, at least in the abstract, in what wins 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 feels creepy, well, like a telethon. Or a commercial. Or a solemn ride.
The Oscars come across as one big advertisement, which in a way they are. Why is Tony Hawk here? Oh, because his documentary is streaming next week. It’s not that Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes and Rosario Dawson are unwanted attendees, but why are they here? Oh, White men can’t jump turns 30. This James Bond tribute looks like a trailer. Everyone has a project or a nostalgic play to promote. The Academy’s new museum will receive a long comic piece for promotion. Twitter polls about “happy moments” get airtime. The Oscars are sponcon, an infomercial for movies. Cinema is magical! Movies matter, now more than ever! For real! We promise!
(If you didn’t agree with that already, would you watch the Oscars?)
The Oscars have a problem. But that problem is not with the Oscars. The problem is, we decided somewhere along the way that the Oscars should be a TV show. That means it has to pass by TV standards – not just TV standards, but network TV standards for live broadcasts: Lots of viewers, lots of ad sales, some unpredictability, but nothing to upset the viewers, who can just turn it off at will.
(Granted, this year they got that when Will Smith punched Chris Rock onstage, yelled at him, and won Best Actor minutes later. But you can’t plan like that.)
So “Saving the Oscars” has taken on a meaning so limited as to be self-defeating, because I was stuck in a decade when I was too young to see a PG-13 movie. And that’s ridiculous, in an age where less and less people are watching each live TV events; when it’s the norm to skip the live show and just watch the highlights on YouTube or TikTok the next day.
People used to watch the Oscars. Such as the Ankler recently detailedjust 18 years ago, the average Oscar-nominated movie grossed $127 million, and 43.5 million people watched the show — 26 percent Lake than the previous year. But in 2020, only four of the nominated films had made more than $100 million. In 2021, of course, the box office numbers were meaningless, as most major theaters were closed due to the pandemic and only 10.4 million people watched the ceremony – roughly half the audience for the 2020 ceremony.
Back in the day, the Academy Awards weren’t initially planned as a TV show, because they couldn’t be; the first ceremony took place in 1929, a year after commercial TV sets came on the market. The 1929 ceremony lasted 15 minutes and cost $5 to attend. The following year, the Oscars were broadcast on radio and in 1953, the 25th edition of the awards, they made their first appearance on TV, broadcast 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, they want to put on a show. So they hire hosts, or a whole battery of presenters, and ask them to do a stand-up routine. They plan musical routines. They come up with crazy stuff like surprise a group of citizens in a cinema or Doing Da Butt Dance with Glenn Close.
But unless this year’s audience exceeds anyone’s wildest expectations, even ABC’s, none of it will work. And why should you watch? Compared to 2004, your options on Sunday nights are endless — everything from your favorite old show to your favorite new one, or one of the animated movies, or, hey, a video game.
Your TV may not even get broadcast TV, especially if you’re in the highly sought-after “youth” demographic. Do you also have a TV? Who cares? 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 those changes.
I’m not an expert at making TV shows. But it seemed like the Academy and ABC were making casual mistake after casual mistake in an effort 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 multi-nominated West Side Story † announced to her fans on social media that she could not have been invited to the ceremony.
While many people don’t get invited to the Oscars, the omission was especially silly for a ceremony that was visibly desperate to get younger viewers. Zegler, who landed the part of Maria by submitting videos of herself to an open casting call, has had a huge and passionate following on YouTube and social media since 2015; her presence at the Oscars would surely pique the interest of her fans. That ABC’s parent company Disney – which also owns West Side Story distributor 20th Century Studios and has cast Zegler as Snow White in his upcoming live-action remake — not thinking of harnessing their star’s power to the audience so desperately seeking it seems unthinkable. After a protest (obviously), Zegler was invited to present an award at the ceremony.
The acclaimed Fan Favorite category – an obvious attempt to harness the power of the web – is another misfire. Opponents of Oscars usually argue that the problem is the movies themselves — not that they’re bad per se, but that no one is watching them. If only they nominated more popular movies, people would watch. (It’s also arguing for the short-lived Best Popular Movie category the Academy put forward several years ago.)
So weeks before the ceremony, the Academy announced that fans could use a hashtag on Twitter to vote for their favorite movie, a sort of American Idol for the Oscars, and the winner would be announced during the ceremony. They also conducted polls for things like “the happiest moment.”
If you actually spend some time on Twitter, you immediately knew what was going to happen, and it did. Social media fandoms work in a different way than just casual “fans” of movies. They’ve used a combination of enthusiasm, obsession, and sometimes toxicity to bombard movies on Rotten Tomatoes before they’re even released, or to go after artists, critics, and other users who criticize, say, Justice League or the Marvel movies or Alita: Battle Angel†
So it was completely predictable that Army of the Dead — Zach Snyder’s movie, that amassed mediocre reviews but was backed by his rabid army of fans – came out on top. The other four “nominees”, also backed by extremely enthusiastic fan groups (and possibly bots in some cases) were Cinderella† Minamata† Spider-Man: No Way Homeand Tap Tap Boom. While that’s mostly amusing in retrospect, it’s unclear what the Academy thought would happen. Would hordes of breathless fans tune into the broadcast for three hours, waiting for the winner to be announced? Or would they just pick up the news from Twitter or TikTok or whatever other platform they were scrolling that night?
Ultimately, it’s not clear that they even know what the purpose of the broadcast really was. The much-criticized decision to exclude eight categories from the running-shortening ceremony, with edited, previously recorded speeches broadcast during 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 have been deleted† But it also seems a little ridiculous to be doing this trade: the ill-will of Oscar supporters and industry insiders on the one hand, and theoretical viewers who might now watch the ceremony, with those eight categories truncated.
Moreover, there was a high probability that the fan favorite Dune – a big hit at the box office – had the best chance of winning in those categories, including Best Sound, Best Score, and Best Edit. And of course it did. (Just like Riz Ahmed, for his live action short The long goodbye†
Look, here’s the question: why do people pay attention to who wins Oscars? Since they like the curatorial aspect of the Oscars, feel like this is a list of some good movies that are probably worth checking out. But why do people watch the Oscars TV show? Because they are fascinated with Hollywood, with the glamour, with seeing stars in a few rare semi-unscripted moments. Because they’re invested in history, or excited about the unpredictability of a live show. Because they love all things Hollywood and the history of the Oscars.
So if the Oscars want to stay interesting for their core audience—people who really love movies and want to watch the awards show—then they have to adjust expectations and relearn why those people are there in the first place.
A live (or livestreamed) show is great. But does it need to have 40 million viewers to be a success? (The final of Game of Thrones didn’t even get 20 million.) Can’t measure success by how many people tune in to the live broadcast, but how many people participate on different platforms? Would it ever be possible for the Academy and its broadcast partner, whoever that is – Netflix maybe? – to find additional revenue streams that keep ad sales from being their end game?
And does the Academy even know why it really does the show more?
The pandemic may have forced the issue faster than Hollywood expected. But everything changes: the technology, the platforms, the variety available to the public, the tastes and preferences of the public, the movies themselves. It’s been a long time since the Academy realized that big changes are coming, whether they like it or not.