Photo By: Mirko Fabian from Unsplash
This year’s Academy Awards was unintentionally headlined by an unscripted, on-stage, altercation between mega-stars Will Smith and Chris Rock.
Although the “slap heard around the world” was not one of the many attempts from the Academy to increase viewership, it generated a conversation about the show that hasn’t been seen since 2017’s best picture snafu involving Moonlight and La La Land.
For better or for worse, the Academy Awards were at the centre of popular culture once again, albeit for only a brief moment. In years past, the Oscars have served as the cultural dessert to the entrée that is the Super Bowl every February. Now, the two events are heading in the complete opposite directions. So the question must be asked: what’s gone wrong?
2022’s broadcast averaged a viewership of 16.62 million viewers, a 60 per cent increase from last year’s record-low numbers, but still the second lowest viewership in Oscars history. In 2020, the last pre-pandemic Oscars, only 23.6 million viewers tuned in to see Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite win best picture. This was an all-time low at the time.
For context, the 1998 Oscars netted a whopping 55.3 million viewers, as the largest audience in the show’s history tuned in to watch Titanic, the now third highest grossing film of all time, sweep the show.
There are endless reasons for the declining ratings of the show in recent years. Most obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a change in larger moviegoing habits that is showing no signs of slowing down. Why would a culture that is now so accustomed to stopping and starting content at their convenience tune in to a nearly four-hour long awards show? With this core question in mind, it’s important to remember that the Academy isn’t entirely blameless for their impending demise.
The Academy made a concerted effort to try and increase viewers since last year’s hostless disaster. The show featured the presence of a host for the first time in four years, as Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall commandeered hosting duties for the evening. The hosts certainly provided some much-needed structure to the proceedings, but multiple jokes at the expense of the films being nominated were strange, and some might argue an insulting inclusion.
Quips about films like The Power of the Dog being hard to watch, or other sentiments perpetuated in this clip from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, are not doing anything to help the state of the film industry, nor are they properly honouring those nominated for the awards.
One of their other attempts at generating a buzz around the awards, quite frankly, fell on its face. There has been an ongoing conversation during the last decade about the chasm between the movies that dominate the global box office year and those that are recognized at the Academy Awards. Give or take a few exceptions here and there, you won’t see a movie like Spider-Man: No Way Home or Avengers: Infinity War nominated for any major categories at the Oscars.
The general consensus is that making audiences who largely consume tentpole studio pieces from Marvel and Disney care about the Academy Awards is a nearly herculean task. Without featuring these films, except for in “below the line” categories such as best visual effects or best sound, those audiences simply will not tune in to a show that features a film like Jane Campion’s slow-burning character study The Power of the Dog, or Kenneth Branagh’s love letter to his childhood Belfast so heavily.
In an effort to make “mainstream” audiences interested in the Academy Awards, the Oscars hosted two fan voted awards for the first time ever. Fans could take to social media and vote for their favourite movie of the year and the most cheer-worthy moment as well. These awards, though, turned out to not be awards at all. Instead, the show devoted a few minutes each towards a montage of the top five vote-getters from both polls, and then moved on. There was no presentation, no physical reception of any kind of trophy, and hilariously, very little applause.
This frivolous attempt at viewer attraction is a prime example of how the Oscars are taking the wrong approach to increasing their viewership. The same voters who voted Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s Justice League for these two “awards,” will just simply never care about the Academy Awards in its current format. Instead of trying to cater to this demographic of moviegoers, the producers of the show need to focus their efforts on not alienating those who actually do care about the Academy Awards.
Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel with new categories, or by changing around the order in which the awards are presented, some suggest that the Academy might be more well served to embrace tradition.
“The people who tune in to the Academy Awards relish in the tradition of the event, so reward them by celebrating the facets of the show that has drawn them to it, like a great host to guide the show along, blockbuster performances, and yes, faces from the past that warm us with nostalgia,” said Nekesa Mumbi Moody of The Hollywood Reporter.
There were some halfhearted attempts at respecting film history this year. The show featured brief reunions from portions of the casts of White Men Can’t Jump, Pulp Fiction, and Juno. A montage dedicated to 60 years of James Bond films was featured, as was a bizarrely-scored tribute video honouring The Godfather on its 50-year anniversary.
These moments, designed to draw on nostalgia, were a nice gesture from the Academy, but they are muddled by their concurrent decision to cut eight awards from the broadcast, instead pre-taping them and splicing them in at various points throughout the night.
The awards for best live action short, best animated short, best documentary short, best editing, best score, best hair and make-up, best score and best production design were all axed from the telecast in an effort to shorten the show, perhaps enticing more viewers to watch if the proceedings clocked in at three hours rather than four. The decision turned out to be a head-scratcher, as the show still ran over its allotted time regardless.
The point still stands that pre-taping these segments is exactly the type of move that will alienate true admirers of cinema, the audience the Academy needs to cling to with everything they have. Films have been made without “cheer-worthy” moments, but a film simply can not exist without editing or production design.
“It’s a live event television show and we must prioritize the television audience to increase viewer engagement and keep the show vital, kinetic, and relevant,” said Academy president David Rubin, on the choices to cut craft awards from the show.
It’s hard to believe that the Academy truly cares about film when they disrespect artists on the biggest night of their lives so publicly. Cutting these awards out of the telecast in favour of out-of-place appearances from the likes of DJ Khaled and Tony Hawk, or a musical number of a popular song from Encanto that was not even nominated for best original song, is nothing if not a tonedeaf choice from the producers. Just because short-filmmakers or costume designers aren’t the household names featured in acting and directing categories, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve recognition for their crowning achievements.
This wasn’t the only piece of the show axed from this year’s telecast either. The Academy also snubbed some legends of the film industry, this year’s recipients of the Academy honorary award, unofficially known as the “lifetime achievement award.” Samuel L. Jackson, Liv Ullmann, and Elaine May were all denied their moments in the sun. If it’s a cheer-worthy moment the Academy wants, those in the audience at the Dolby Theatre certainly would have provided it for these awards.
Granted, including the honorary award recipients in the show’s telecast likely won’t solve the larger issue of attracting new viewers. There isn’t a whole lot of overlap in the audiences of Spider-Man: No Way Home and Liv Ullmann’s Persona or Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. Even where there is overlap, such as with Samuel L. Jackson, simply seeing these figures on stage doesn’t move the needle anymore in an era where everything is clipped and available on Twitter, Instagram or TikTok moments later.
The Academy doesn’t need to worry about this portion of their audience, what they need to do is make decisions that won’t drive away the faithful supporters of a show designed, at least in theory, to celebrate the wonders of filmmaking. Recipients of past honorary awards have included industry titans such as Spike Lee, Lauren Bacall and Sidney Poitier. Nothing signals an appreciation of film history more than a proper presentation of this award.
Despite all the changes that the Academy has tried to implement over the past few years, none have created as much buzz around the show as a completely unscripted act of violence from Will Smith, which is of course mired in controversy in its own ways.
The Smith-Rock incident put the Oscars into the public eye like it hasn’t in years, but it’s the equivalent to one hole being plugged in the bow of the sinking Titanic. There are larger issues at play here, and if the Academy doesn’t start making some serious commitments, they may even lose even more of the film industry’s most dedicated followers.