The Oscars show has its quaint peacock charms. The broadcast of the movie industry awards ceremony, which takes place tomorrow night, is the year's most popular evening on television after the Super Bowl. Much of it is good: The event raises money for worthy causes, honours more than a century of cultural tradition and values quality over commercial success. Yes, it's a celebration of vanity, but as a wise American, Ben Franklin, once wrote, people should thank God for vanity because it is "often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action."
Yet even ardent fans must admit that, at 87, the show has become a bit of a tiresome old bird. The so-called Oscar "race" is as predictable as a Civil War re-enactment. This year, for example, three of the four acting awards are considered locks (Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette), and the best actor is down to two choices (Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne). The best-picture decision is between a couple of good movies, Birdman and Boyhood, that collectively earned about $55-million at the box office, or less than a quarter of Fifty Shades of Grey's opening weekend.
The truth is, without a Fifty Shades gimmick or a comic-book hook, movies in theatres are not really on the cultural landscape these days. Yes, movies are still profitable (more than $30-billion a year is earned at the worldwide box office), but theatres are only the start. They are just way stations before movies move on to television, computer, phone and iPad screens. By next week, all but three of the Oscar-nominated best pictures (American Sniper, Selma and The Imitation Game) will be legally available to watch online.
Hollywood a lot about the growing power of video-on-demand movies in 2014. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's critical hit, Snowpiercer, earned $3.8-million in its first two weeks of VOD release, compared with only $3.9-million from five weeks in a more expensive theatrical release, and ended up a lot of critics' top-10 lists.
Then, last December, Sony quashed the theatrical release of Seth Rogen's comedy, The Interview, under pressure from hackers (presumed to be working for the North Korean government). After, it made the film available on the Internet and racked up more than $40-million from downloads before heading to Netflix and DVD for more sales.
Netflix, having already chomped into television's Emmy Awards with the series House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, also has an Oscar-nominated movie this year, the documentary Virunga, about the fight to save Africa's mountain gorillas. The movie was released simultaneously in theatres and on the streaming service.
This migration from big screens to video-on-demand was spotlighted by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg back in 2013 at a panel on film's future at the University of Southern California. The theatrical movie experience, Spielberg said, was soon going to be reserved for expensive occasions, the equivalent of a $50 Broadway show or a football game.
"What used to be the movie business, in which I include television and movies, will be Internet television," Lucas added.
That movie-television continuum is already a reality. Multinational companies such as Time Warner, Disney, CBS, NBC-Universal, News Corp. and Sony are producing content for every size of screen. In a world saturated with high-definition stories, terms such as "movies" and "television" are getting awfully blurry.
Once found only in film, leading directors including Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh are working for cable television or Netflix. Theatrical movies have all but abandoned 35-mm film (which can still offer a superior viewing experience to the best digital video). The film format lives on in cable television series from Breaking Bad to Madmen to True Detective.
All this content is available to entertainment consumers to watch in movies, TV shows and webisodes, on computers and phones, via services ranging from Netflix and Amazon to Canada's CraveTV and Shomi. You may prefer your long-form, Tolstoy-like TV series or a single Chekhovian movie hit, but the experiences are not distinct. Unless the title is Interstellar or Captain America, there's no compelling reason to watch it on a six-storey-high IMAX screen rather than a 60-inch television.
The Oscars tomorrow night will probably look like a last hurrah for two fading media, movies and television, but the event could and should be much more: A celebration of the artists behind visual storytelling in all its forms. If the awards hope to survive into a second century, they need to start acknowledging the flexible frame of the movies and the industry's many descendants in other media.
To catch up with the times, the Oscars might take a tip from their northern neighbours. Two years ago, the Canadian film and television industries combined forces to present an event called The Canadian Screen Awards (this year it's on March 1), which honours creators of film, TV series and web shows.
You can call this new U.S. awards show the Formerly Oscars, the Screenies or – let's be magnanimous – the American Screen Awards. People will watch. They always do.