The Oscars have been around for 94 years, but if they want to make it to 100, a major rethink is needed. The Academy Awards have never been more out of touch with public tastes than they are now, which is why their upcoming awards ceremony on March 27 is likely to be another ratings disaster, after last year’s show hit an all-time low.
The controversial decision to cut eight lesser categories from the live ceremony is not enough to save this sinking ship. Instead, the Academy’s 54 governors need to rethink the entire thing—but when has a board as large as that ever been able to agree on anything?
Once again this year, box office hits have been largely ignored in the nominations in favour of more artistic, downbeat, independent films. “Popularity” continues to be an ugly word among voters, as it has done for 20 years now.
In times past, crowd-pleasing movies were nominated for Best Picture, like Jaws, The Towering Inferno, Rocky (which won), E.T., Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghost, The Full Monty and The Sixth Sense. Today, it would seem unthinkable for blockbuster films like these to be nominated. But for the sake of this struggling event, that needs to change. People tune it to see how a film they love has done.
For proof, we need only consider that the most watched Oscar ceremony ever was in 1998—the year when mega-hit Titanic took home Best Picture. More than 55 million viewers watched the ceremony on American TV that year. Viewing figures have declined ever since to last year’s all-time low of just 10.4 million.
It’s hard to see things changing this time, considering so few people have seen most of the Best Picture contenders. As former Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel joked on his late night talk show: “The Power of the Dog got 12 nominations—one for every person who saw it!”
Box office juggernauts like Spider-Man: No Way Home and No Time to Die didn’t just make big money, they received big acclaim too—except from Oscar voters. And so, instead of James Bond versus Spider-Man in an Oscar battle of the blockbusters, Academy Awards viewers are left with a clash between little-seen indies: Drive My Car versus Coda. That’s like turning into the FA Cup Final and finding that Notts County are playing Preston North End.
The Academy has vastly expanded its voting membership in recent years to bring in more much-needed diversity, and that’s great. But along the way, they seem to have recruited even more cinema snobs, who are alienated from what the moviegoing majority appreciate.
Oscar bosses need to explain to all voting members that just because a film is commercial does not mean it is without artistic merit. And if they keep nominating films hardly anyone has seen, then they may soon lose their rich TV contract by virtue of having a ceremony hardly anyone watches.
Instead of changing their voters’ mindset, the Academy has changed the ceremony format, with a couple of ideas for a shorter, slicker and more appealing ceremony. This seems to have backfired, prompting a firestorm of criticism.
First, they have removed eight minor categories from the live ceremony—presenting production design, documentary short, animated short, live action short, film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score and sound prior to the telecast, incorporating edited versions of those presentations into the broadcast. Many guilds, societies and craftspeople have spoken out against the move while Oscar-winning sound mixer Tom Fleischman resigned from the Academy in protest over it.
Those members who remain are clearly unhappy. Mitchell Block of the animations branch attacked Academy bosses by writing on Facebook: “Top-down leadership is good for Putin but not good for volunteer honorary organizations with a membership.”
Personally, I think the Oscars could lose another eight categories from the telecast, because what most viewers at home care about is not the technical categories, but who wins the big acting awards and Best Picture.
The second piece of Oscars’ new thinking is the introduction of a vote by Twitter users for their favourite film of 2021, regardless of whether it was nominated by the Academy. That would likely give snubbed films like Spider-Man: No Way Home the chance to be recognised at the Academy Awards. But while the winner will be announced at the ceremony, it will not be presented with an Oscar. So what’s the point of that?
It will only go prove once again to the fast-evaporating Oscar viewers that this creaky, old, self-important, self-congratulatory ceremony remains glaringly detached from the large audience out there who truly love movies. What a mess.