The Academy’s Bold (But Misguided) Bid to Reclaim the Favor of the Masses

Richard LeBeau
Aug 9, 2018 · 9 min read

Yesterday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced some notable changes to the doggedly traditional Oscar telecast that are intended to reignite viewer interest. But, in my assessment, the proposed changes miss the mark.

Promotional Image for the Oscar Telecast (Copyright: AMPAS)

A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Oscar Telecast

The First Annual Academy Awards were held on May 16, 1929. There ceremony was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and was hosted by Douglas Fairbanks and William C. DeMille. A total of 12 categories (including now defunct categories like Best Unique and Artistic Picture, Best Title Writing, and Best Director of a Comedy Motion Picture) were presented over a span of 15 minutes to an audience of 270 people.

Following the decision to broadcast the ceremony live on television for the first time in 1953 (the 25th Annual Academy Awards), the Oscars gradually grew from an industry event into a cultural phenomenon. Viewership of the telecast peaked at over 57 U.S. million viewers in 1998, when the unprecedented box office sensation Titanic swept the awards.

Much ado has been made about how ratings have been on the decline since its 1998 heyday. It seems that more headlines after this year’s telecast were about it garnering an all-time low viewership of 26.5 million viewers than the Best Picture winner (which, for the record, was Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water). Despite the clear trend of declining ratings, the telecast has nevertheless continued to be a ratings juggernaut (and as a result, a cash cow) in recent years. It still frequently ranks as one of (if not the) top rated entertainment telecast of the year and generating a huge amount of cash (as of 2015, a 30 second commercial airing during the Oscars set advertisers back a cool $1.95 million).

Read my review of the 90th Annual Academy Awards.

When it comes to explaining the ratings decline, three factors are usually cited. The first is that the show is too long and contains too few surprises. Indeed, the show follows a very traditional format, is stuffed with technical categories that general audiences don’t typically care about, and is long. Like really long. In fact, you have to go back 45 years (or halfway through Oscar history) to find the last telecast that clocked in under 3 hours (1973’s ceremony, which saw the top awards split between The Godfather and Cabaret, was “only” 2 hours and 38 minutes). The all-time longest ceremony was the 2002 ceremony (when A Beautiful Mind took home Best Picture and Halle Berry became the first black woman to win Best Actress), which clocked in at an utterly exhausting 4 hours and 23 minutes.

Ellen DeGeneres’s famous Oscar “selfie” during her hosting gig, a highlight among recent telecasts. (Copyright: AMPAS; Ellen DeGeneres)

The second factor is that the movies being awarded are increasingly low-grossing films that are not ever seen by the majority of the general public. And indeed this has data behind it. Of the ceremonies held in the 1990s, 7 out of 10 years the Best Picture winner grossed over $100 million. Again in the 2000s, 7 out of 10 winners hit the $100 million mark. So far in the 2010s, only 2 have (The King’s Speech and Argo), with many barely breaking $50 million. (And none of this is accounting for inflation, which would make these figures far more lopsided.)

The third factor is that awards season has become unbearably long. As other industry awards like The Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards gain in stature (both in their own right and as predictors for the Oscars), the result is an exhausting nearly 4 month slog from the Golden Globe nominees being announced in early December to the Oscars, which — up until recently — occurred in late March. Moving them up to late February has helped, but the fact is that by the time they finally air the winners are often foregone conclusions and even film fanatics are fatigued.

The Academy’s Proposed Solutions

On August 8, 2018 the Academy controversially announced three major changes to the 91st Annual Academy Awards (scheduled for February 24, 2019) that would attempt to address the three factors described above.

  1. They are committing to a three hour broadcast.
  2. They are introducing a new category called “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.”
  3. They are moving the ceremony to early February starting in 2020.

I personally don’t mind the lengthy telecast because I’m an Oscar enthusiast, but admittedly even I sometimes get bored. Thus, I agree with the need to cut down and am cautiously optimistic about Solution #1. Although the Academy has stated an intention to get the telecast down to 3 hours at multiple points in the past, this time they have a plan: they are not going to show all of the categories live. They plan to give out some of the minor categories during commercial breaks and show condensed clips of the winners later in the show. (The Tonys have had some success with this approach in recent years.) Those whose awards will be minimized will undoubtedly protest this decision, but as a viewer and film fan I don’t mind it.

I am particularly enthused about Solution #3. With Oscar voting occurring earlier on in the season (before winners of all of the other awards are announced) there may be more competition and unpredictability in the major categories. And it’s a lot easier to stay interested in the race for 2 months than nearly 4.

But Solution #2 was highly divisive and — in my opinion — utterly perplexing.

The Four Key Problems with the New Category

  1. It is impossible to define ‘Popular Film.’

The Academy’s language describing this change was decidedly unhelpful: “Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” That has many people wondering, ‘How do you define ‘Popular’ Film? Unlike the Animated Film, Foreign Language Film, or Documentary Feature categories, there are no objective parameters for popularity.

The most obvious answer would be the highest grossing, but it seems unlikely the Oscars are going to pick the 5 highest grossing films of the year and just tell the Academy to vote which is best. Furthermore, what do you do about films like A Beautiful Mind, which were Oscar bait to the max but had mammoth grosses (adjusted for today’s ticket prices it grossed $272 million in the U.S. alone)? Or a movie like Blade Runner 2049, which was well-reviewed and intended as a blockbuster but didn’t even make $100 million in the U.S.?

I suppose they could define it as films of particular genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, action, thriller, horror, musical, and comedy. But just because a film is of a specific genre doesn’t determine how popular or mainstream it is. Technically, Ex Machina and Transformers 4 were both science fiction films and A Quiet Place and The Human Centipede are both horror films. And then there’s films that defy genre categorization. Look at this year’s Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. It’s a Cold War-set period piece about a lonely mute woman who falls in love with a monster. It’s at once an Oscar-friendly period drama, a science fiction film, a romance, and has more laughs than a lot of comedies.

There are of course other options. For example, they could say a ‘Popular’ film is one that debuted in wide release, but again that’s a poor proxy for how mainstream something is. Or they could just leave it up to voters to decide what a ‘Popular’ film is. With such little guidance, voting would likely be all over the map with different interpretations of popular.

2. It could paradoxically shortchange hit films in the traditional categories. Let’s take a look at Black Panther. It became the highest grossing and best reviewed superhero movie of all time upon its release earlier this year and has been hailed as a watershed moment in film for the scope and nature of its representation of black culture. It appears likely to become the first superhero film to get a Best Picture nomination. Or it did until this announcement. Although the Academy issued a clarifying statement saying that films will be eligible in both categories, the existence of this category may lead a swath of voters to think that films like Black Panther belong in the Popular Film category whereas more traditional Oscar films belong in the Best Picture category.

Also, it could cheapen the Oscars as a whole. Depending on the types of films that end up winning this award, the designation of “Oscar-winning film” could become less esteemed.

Read my take on the impact of “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” on the film industry here.

The cast of “Black Panther” walks the red carpet at least year’s Academy Awards (Copyright: AMPAS, The Cut)

3. Adding more categories probably isn’t the solution. The Academy has already noted that there are too many categories and the show is too long. So why add another? There is no need to turn the Oscars into the Golden Globes or the Critics Choice Awards, which celebrity-bait by giving out acting awards in multiple, ill-defined genre categories. I think the Academy was on a much better path to fixing this problem with other recent changes like increasing the number of Best Picture nominees (now it’s at least 5 and no more than 10, with the exact number depending on a complex algorithm and a preferential voting system) and vastly expanding and diversifying the voting body. The former was imperfect (the expanded number of nominees last year made room for Phantom Thread not Wonder Woman) and the latter will likely lead to a slow shift over time. But what they sought to do was to create a broadening of the type of films and talent that are feted by Oscar. That seems to me to be a better solution than simply adding categories.

Read my analysis of the Academy’s problem with films prominently featuring women here.

4. The solution doesn’t address the other (and perhaps bigger) factors in the telecast’s ratings decline. Yes, there is a clear contribution of low grossing Best Picture nominees, lengthy award seasons, and boring telecasts to the declining ratings. But there are other significant factors that the Academy’s solutions don’t address. First of all, the astounding diversification of viewing platforms and the ability to get live updates and after-the-fact clips online mean that all live telecasts (notably award ceremonies) are declining in viewership across the board. This is not an Oscar-specific problem. Second, in the pre-social media era, events like the Oscars were the only way for people to see the elusive and glamorous Hollywood royalty. Many tuned in for the celebrity not for the films. In an age when you can simply go on Twitter or Instagram and feel a personal connection with a superstar, is that incentive to watch the Oscars still there? Third, movies are changing. With the rise of independent film and streaming platforms, there are more movies than ever to be consumed. And so-called summer popcorn flicks are increasingly high quality, thoughtful, and inspired. Simply adding a category doesn’t address the fact that the distinctions between what is mainstream versus not is more blurred than ever.

Concluding Thoughts

In reality, there’s no real reason the Oscar ceremony has to appeal to the masses and get giant ratings. It existed for a quarter century before it even aired on television. Yet the popularity of the telecast is clearly a cash cow and a source of bragging rights for both the Academy and ABC (which has had the broadcast rights for decades). But ultimately, these solutions address only the problem of public perception and popular interest. They do nothing (or at least nothing positive) for the Academy’s true mission of feting outstanding achievements in motion pictures and serving as a rich chronicle of the history of the art form. Thus, in some ways, the Academy’s announcement is much ado about nothing.

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