LOS ANGELES — For filmmakers who grew up watching the Oscars, this Sunday is supposed to be their Super Bowl. With its parade of fashion, movie stars and acclaimed films, the annual awards ceremony, which once attracted tens of millions of viewers, has inspired generations of artists to get into the business.
But as television ratings have declined and films have been downgraded to a supporting role in pop culture, many in the industry fear that the glamor of honoring the greatest cinematic achievements will has faded.
There are growing fears that the Oscars have become a niche for an avid crowd as audiences turn to TV series, video games and TikTok influencers. This, some say, has created an identity crisis for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that votes on the awards.
The mission of the academy has always been twofold: to promote the motion picture industry while honoring the highest achievements of this art form. But it’s become harder for the Oscars to deliver on that promise, as the general public responds with a shrug and the definition of cinema evolves amid the rapid shift to streaming.
“The film industry finds itself in a particularly strange situation right now,” said Peter Newman, who produced the 2005 Oscar-nominated film “The Squid and the Whale” and directs the dual MBA/Graduate Program. MFA at the Tisch School of the New York University. Arts and Stern School of Business. “Obviously, acknowledging the best movies and the best performances isn’t necessarily required viewing right now.”
The Oscars face a litany of problems, some of which are beyond the organization’s control and some that are self-inflicted. These include the unpopularity of nominees, the fragmentation of television audiences, and controversial tweaks that were meant to preserve ratings but alienated the craftsmen the Oscars are meant to celebrate.
A major source of concern is that relatively few people have seen or heard of the films most anticipated to win the main statuettes.
A survey of 4,500 entertainment consumers in early March found that nine of the top 10 image nominees had less than 50% awareness among respondents. The former are not doing well. According to Screen Engine/ASI, 20% of people were aware of Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog” while 14% were aware of Apple’s “CODA”.
That’s a problem for the academy, which is under pressure from Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC to improve ratings. Last year’s Oscars, when “Nomadland” won the most coveted prize, drew a record 10.4 million viewers.
The only film approaching mainstream blockbuster status among the top nominees is Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” which grossed around $400 million in worldwide box office revenue and is nominated for 10 awards. Netflix’s apocalyptic comedy “Don’t Look Up,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, was also widely viewed, generating 360 million viewing hours in its first four weeks of release, according to the service. streaming.
‘Who is it really for?’
“The first question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Who is it really for?'” said a veteran film executive who requested anonymity to protect his connections. “You can’t say it’s for the audience when you’re honoring films that audiences haven’t seen and don’t care about.”
The academy was born in 1927, mixing art and commerce, and not in that order. MGM leader Louis B. Mayer came up with the idea for the academy as a way to thwart labor disputes and restore Hollywood’s image. They have become a massive promotional vehicle for the film industry and one of television’s biggest shows.
It was during the glory days that watching the Oscars inspired former academy president Sid Ganis, known for producing “Akeelah and the Bee” and “Big Daddy,” to get into show business. Ganis acknowledges the modern challenges, but said the academy’s sense of purpose is unchanged. Plus, the show is necessary, he says.
“The Oscar brand shouldn’t go away,” Ganis said in an interview. “We need it as a symbol of who we are as a society, who we are as a culture. And we also need it to do what his job is, which is to promote cinema. And yes, what that means is a little less defined these days. But if you ask anyone involved with the Oscars, they’ll say, ‘Go to the movies.'”
The value of an Oscar
The value of an Oscar has changed over the years. Winning the gold-plated trophy was once a way for movies to get a huge box office and home video bump, a strategy Harvey Weinstein honed with movies like “Shakespeare in Love.” Winning an Oscar remains a lifelong goal and the ultimate CV booster for actors, directors, hairstylists and composers.
Nowadays, however, the box office is much less important. Three of the top picture nominees — “The Power of the Dog,” “Don’t Look Up” and “CODA” — were released by streaming services. “Dune” and “King Richard” hit theaters and streamed HBO Max simultaneously months ago and have effectively ended their theatrical releases.
“You could say the academy kind of lost its original purpose in the studio era, because there just aren’t a lot of movies in theaters,” said Jonathan Kuntz, film historian at the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television.
And yet, studios are still losing a lot of money on awards campaigns. A full run for the top prize could cost a studio $10 million to $15 million in spending on TV ads, billboards, newspapers and other trappings of Oscar season. Some have spent much more. Netflix has deployed at least $25 million to promote its 2019 contestant “Roma”, according to people familiar with the matter. ‘For Your Consideration’ adverts for ‘The Power of the Dog’, ‘CODA’ and ‘Belfast’ have flooded social media and print publications in recent weeks.
What’s the benefit? For Netflix and Apple, it’s not about business performance or the value of movies in their libraries. Instead, these companies are driven to earn the respect of the city, secure bragging rights, and prove to skeptical filmmakers and rivals that they are legitimate forces in filmmaking. Plus, as tech giants, they can afford it.
“It’s a PR move for business,” Newman said. “The film industry is one of the few industries where vanity is a tradable commodity.”
Find a mass audience
Getting into the conversation about the Oscars is one of the few ways indie titles, festival favorites, international films and documentaries can find mass audiences. Take Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” a languorous, Chekhov-infused Japanese flick that’s nominated for Best Picture. Or even “Parallel Mothers,” Pedro Almodovar’s Spanish-language drama nominated for Lead Actress (Penelope Cruz) and Original Score.
“If you’re at the Oscars, you’re on the map,” Sony Pictures Classics co-chairman Tom Bernard told the Los Angeles Times in January. “Right now the Oscar movies are the ones with that awareness, and people seem to be going to the theaters for them and paying $20 for pay-per-view.”
Analysts said naming more commercial fare would keep the show relevant. Campaigns for “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, “No Time to Die” and “House of Gucci” ultimately failed. Still, why not nominate Disney’s popular phenomenon “Encanto” for Best Picture, rather than just in the Animation and Music categories?
It’s not clear that simply honoring more blockbusters would save the series. The decline in Oscars ratings followed the general trend of viewership erosion that affects live television broadcasts, with the exception of National Football League games.
Social media has been especially brutal for awards season. The Oscars were one of the few times viewers could catch a moving speech from Tom Hanks and watch the world’s biggest stars walk down the red carpet in designer dresses. Now stars seem to be available everywhere and all the time. Anyone who cares about fashion can find highlights online later.
An air of despair?
Seeking to appeal to a wider audience, the group changed the show in a way that smacks of desperation for Oscar purists.
Craft guilds and filmmakers balked at the academy’s decision to pre-record eight award categories, including original music and film editing, to limit runtime to three hours. More than 70 prominent film professionals – including Oscar winners James Cameron, Kathleen Kennedy and Guillermo del Toro – released a letter saying the plan would reduce some contestants to “second-class citizens”.
This year’s telecast will award a “fan favorite” award (but not an official Oscar) based on polls from Twitter and a dedicated website. The hope was that the award would be a way to recognize a hit like “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” But the plan raised the specter of the masses instead of picking something like Camila Cabello’s critically maligned musical “Cinderella.”
Oscars producer Will Packer has not apologized for his efforts to improve ratings by making the show more entertaining.
“I think it’s about being really honest and aware of the times you’re living in, and saying, ‘How can we make the best version of a show in today’s environment?'” “Girls Trip” and “Ride Along,” the producer recently told the LA Times.
Ganis is familiar with the kind of backlash Packer and the academy have received. In 2009, the final year of Ganis’ term as president, the academy widened the field for best picture from five nominees to 10 after failing to honor Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” The tactic has been lambasted for diluting the prestige of the nominations.
Now, with more slots available, it’s easier for studio movies like “Dune” to break in. Yet the odds are also higher that festival darlings like “Drive My Car” and “CODA” will enter the mix. For Ganis, this is not a problem; it’s an advantage.
“Thank goodness we’re considering ‘Drive My Car,'” Ganis said. “Thank goodness we’re considering ‘Dune’. That’s another reason the Oscars are so relevant, because we’re absolutely willing to reach out and find the films that might be obscure but are special and superb in terms of achievement.”