I love ritual. I love routines, traditions and rehashing elements of the past because it’s incredibly comforting. For anyone with an affinity with the past it makes sense to harbour a degree of respect and admiration for the Academy Awards because by and large this annual event has remained largely consistent since its inception. But while the institution is steeped in movie-making history, it is just as equally self-obsessed and oblivious to the changes happening around it. The stale format, controversial host issues and declining viewership all coupled with the challenges imposed by COVID have spelt out trouble ahead of this years’ Oscars.
Viewership is steadily on the decline
Maths has never been my strong suit but you would think it logical that more people at home plus greater access to television, multiplied by boredom to the nth degree would mean an increase in viewers. What the pandemic has illustrated however is that even with an abundance of time, people are not carving out precious hours to sit down and watch live telecasts. Zoom fatigue has meant that many have opted out altogether and we’ve seen this with plummeting figures across industries with the Golden Globes ceremony down 62% and the Grammys telecast down 51%. Even the Superbowl which is almost guaranteed to draw in significant numbers because it’s more of a cultural event, fell by 4 million this year. This trend doesn’t bode well for the Academy in the run up to Sunday’s show, particularly as its pre-pandemic show last year averaged 23.6 million viewers, the lowest in over forty years.
Hosts have been run out of Tinseltown
Any of the brave souls from the past that have grabbed those Oscar hosting reigns take the future of their career on to a world stage. Only a few years ago, it was their performance that decided if this three-and-a-half-hour gig will be a godsend or a curse to the host’s professional career, but some don’t even make it to the stage because their personal history is judged first. This was seen most prominently with Kevin Hart’s swift departure and we have been left without a host ever since because no one is willing to put their reputation on the line. Once the most stable, talented acts in the room no longer exists and this trend has forced the Academy to spread out the liability by defaulting to a format where numerous guests pass the baton on, one as clueless as the next. With no one running the show, screen actors whose experience with live shows tend to be limited, the stars must deal with the perils of live television and political outbursts themselves, rather than handing the proceedings back to a talented ringmaster. People used to hang around to watch how Chris Rock or Billy Crystal dealt comically with a particular issue; now they don’t even bother trying anymore.
The Production is lousy
We all know the drill by now, the stage production standard of the Oscars is on par with a well-meaning amateur theatre group. This trend of low expectations was most recently exemplified when the production team decided to shoot A Star is Born’s Hit song Shallow from the back of the stage, facing the audience. The adoration and self-congratulatory manner of the achievement was similar to how I imagined it was when they discovered fire. It’s always been a bug bearer of mine to watch a renowned institution that celebrates the highest standard of artistic talent to be so bland, boring and lacking in creativity. Steven Soderbergh was hired as a producer to lead the team this year so there is hope. The plan this year however has taken an unusual turn, by creating a dual-studio approach, one in the Dolby as usual and bizarrely another downtown in Union station. Transportation officials have already warned of a “horrible town car parade of people trying to come up to a train station.” With a Dodger game on in the vicinity and the fact that the station doubles as a COVID testing site, to say that the live production element will be a challenge is an understatement.
Streamers have been a blessing and a curse
Due to the global shutdown, the attendance numbers in cinemas recorded last year were the lowest since records began back in 1928. All businesses have had to adapt their approach and the decimated landscape of the Arts is no different. The film industry in particular is based on the collective power of people, hinging most importantly on those who sit in a darkened room, sharing a collective experience. A pernicious move to streaming had taunted the Academy in recent years and it has remained staunch in its principles to resist the emerging streaming services. But even the most positive of optimists never thought the Academy would have to rely so heavily (and so soon) on the power of streaming in the way it has during COVID. As films are spread out across platforms and difficult to find unless you go looking for them, the lack of hype has meant there is not a lot of draw to watch the awards show this year. Even for a seasoned film nut like myself, it took a huge amount of effort to source the films that had been nominated. It has also given streamers a strategic foothold in the market, one that the Academy could do little to resist when cinemas shut their doors.
It’s business is showbusiness
Surprisingly, the Academy is no less adept at business than it is at showbusiness. It isn’t in any financial trouble, mainly thanks to lucrative rights deals in hundreds of countries across the world, but where the trouble lies is in its billion dollar museum which is now gathering dust on Hollywood Boulevard. Since it was first announced in 2012, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has consistently missed every reopening date that had been set each consecutive year; but hey the Oscars hate to break tradition. And while this years’ nominated songs are set to be sung from the rooftop of the snazzy development to showcase The Academy’s new lease of life, all the signs are pointing to viewership falling off a cliff which means less eyes on its most prized possession. The Academy must face the sombre thought that people may choose not to visit its museum if they no longer connect with the disjointed chaos they see on screen once a year.
With the allure of the show waning, the fact that viewers are less familiar with the films in the running has also contributed to its steady decline. Films have gotten more niche and you can decide for yourself if that’s a good or a bad thing but it has certainly affected the hold the Academy has on the public. It will need to reevaluate the value proposition is offers to the average joe because archaic approaches aren’t going to fly in a post pandemic world. With a conservative drop of half of expected viewers this year, the Academy will be on its knees until it finds a sustainable way of rejuvenating an ailing format, whilst attempting to maintain the magic it holds for so many.