The Academy Awards fashions itself Hollywood’s Biggest Night – but all signs point to this Sunday’s ceremony going down as Hollywood’s Biggest Dumpster Fire.
Coming off last year’s record-low ratings (10.4 million viewers, a 55 per cent drop from 2020), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is desperate to keep audiences engaged and broadcast partner ABC flush with advertising revenue. The result? Everyone is unhappy.
Lower-profile awards will be cut from the live ceremony in order to keep the show tight (including, ironically, Best Editing). The perennial hosting problem has been trifurcated into three buzzless emcees. The pathetic #OscarsFanFavorite campaign has proven to be an embarrassment. And there is enough confusion about vax requirements and testing and masks to make airline travel look smooth. Oh, and we almost forgot about the nominated movies, which is fair because it doesn’t seem that audiences are that interested in them, either.
The entire evening seems destined to unintentionally reflect the film industry’s tremulous, anxiety-racked state … but it doesn’t have to be this way. If we believe that movies are a medium worth celebrating – if we recognize the universal truth that cinematic storytelling can offer escape and enlightenment, that filmmakers can transform the way we see the world – then the Oscars are worth saving, too.
Ahead of Sunday night’s extravaganza, The Globe and Mail’s resident Oscars obsessives Barry Hertz and Johanna Schneller put their shiny golden heads together to offer six easy steps to save both the Academy Awards and Hollywood while we’re at it.
Step One: Go Big
You know what people like to see? Confidence. In the past decade, the folks behind the Oscars have lost theirs. Audiences can smell their fear. Hollywood used to radiate this certitude that it was cool – the Oscars need to re-seize that. They need to announce, loudly, that they are Must-See, and then prove it. That starts with the right emcee. I love the three women who are running the show this year – Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes – but I wouldn’t call any of them a mega-host. Why not throw all the money in the world at, say, Beyoncé and Mindy Kaling, people who can entice every demographic? Hire them early, and then release epic teases of the glamour and hijinks to come.
Razzle-dazzle the show itself from end to end. Commission a fun or laudatory or moving short film from a hot director to kick things off, and promote the heck out of it. Jam the ads with exclusive trailer launches. The nominated films are too small and indie, you say? Bosh. They’re boutique, they’re outré, and the Oscars will polish them to a high gloss for you. You can’t call yourself Hollywood’s biggest night and then go small and apologetic. Johanna Schneller
Step Two: Go Early
Think about it: we’re celebrating the best movies of 2021 almost four months into 2022. While this year’s ceremony is coming late due to an assortment of reasons – carving out space between the Olympics and the Super Bowl, and then there’s that pesky pandemic – it is ridiculous to expect audiences to still be carrying a torch for movies that have come and gone through the discourse cycle. Back before it imploded, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association had the right idea by airing the Golden Globes at the start of the new year. They caught the zeitgeist while the conversation was still hot, or at least lukewarm.
Now that the Globes are dead, or at least zombified, the Oscars must claim that first weekend in January. There will be few competing distractions, the major awards-season movies will still be fresh in people’s minds and the Academy could even employ Ricky Gervais to star in an opening sketch about salting the Globes’ earth. (Or, knowing Gervais’ humour, urinating on a Globes statue, Calvin style.) Everyone wins. Barry Hertz
Step Three: Go Long
I’m baffled by the idea that Oscar fans want a show that’s shorter and less full of memorable moments. It’s as if the producers are deliberately alienating people who love the spectacle, and courting people who couldn’t care less. Why not make a show for diehard movie lovers? Doesn’t the internet prove every day that there is a bottomless appetite for entertainment intel, that people across the world love feeling like insiders, that we’re all aching for glamour? Why not wear that proudly: We will give you three full hours of lusciousness.
Winners should not have to rush through their big moment like a telemarketer who can’t believe you picked up your land line. Let the nominees know that winners will not be cut short, and challenge them to write speeches worthy of that. Because the moments that last are in those speeches. Not only are they the emotional core of live, anything-can-happen television, a glimpse of the “real” person – they’re also a celebration of the grinding hours spent unseen. The speeches give winners a chance to acknowledge that they actually made the thing they worked all those months and years to make: art that moves people, art that may last. Our entertainments kept us going these past two years. Can we not properly acknowledge how important they are, and how hard to do well? I want to cry, Oscar – make me cry! J.S.
Step Four: Go Deep
When I was a kid, watching the Oscars with my mom and sister – eating our annual snack, Fritos and onion dip – I lived for two things: a peek at the magic of moviemaking, and clips that enticed me with snippets of the final product. I loved seeing the people I never got to see, costumers and sound engineers, effects experts and film editors. I loved the introductions that showed me sketches and storyboards, frame-by-frame analyses and before-and-after shots. Most of all, I loved the clips, including and perhaps especially for the films that never made it to a theatre near me.
Recent Oscar telecasts have jettisoned clips in favour of montages, which is a terrible idea. Montages are for trailers. Clips are windows into a movie’s soul. I wanted to see why an actor, director or composer was nominated, and nothing showed me like a well-chosen clip. I’d sink into the scene, which was always over too soon, and it would leave me wanting more. Which – guess what – set me up for a life of loving movies, and in turn, loving the Oscars. You want to build a passionate, loyal audience? Start with the perfect clip. J.S.
Step Five: Go Streaming
If ABC is unhappy with the Oscars, then the Oscars should look for a happier home. True, the Academy is locked into a contract with the network until 2028, which is when the show will celebrate its 100th anniversary. But barring Avatars 2, 3 and 4 sweeping the next three years’ worth of telecasts, I cannot see the Oscars achieving the ratings glory that ABC is hoping to recapture from, say, the record-high Titanic era. So: It’s time to ditch TV and embrace streaming. Netflix, Prime Video, Apple TV+ or even Hulu/Disney+ (which are under the same corporate umbrella as ABC) would love to host the show, and would pay handsomely for the privilege. Certainly they’d fork over enough to justify however much it costs to break the ABC contract (which reportedly has the Academy collect an annual US$125-million license fee from the network).
The non-monetary benefits alone would pay serious long-term dividends. Unconcerned by commercials or live viewership, the streamers would likely let producers run the show as long as they want. There could be algorithmic suggestions to catalogue content related to the nominated films, thus exposing viewers to more of the often under-the-radar work. Far more audiences will have access to the show, too, given how many subscribers streamers boast and how relatively few people still pay for network TV (the Oscars are the one night of the year I pull out my digital antenna from the basement). And we could finally stop obsessing over ratings, given that streamers are loath to reveal any coherent viewership information any way.
The film industry has been unsuccessfully attempting to reckon with streaming for the past decade. Here is one way to come to grips with reality, while benefitting the Academy, filmmakers, and audiences. B.H.
Step Six: Go Jump Off a Cliff
This fix is so quick and easy (but not exactly painless) that it’s a wonder we’re still talking about it: Give out an Oscar for Best Stunt already! The film industry is so built on blockbusters – action-packed spectacles that prop up everything else – that failing to recognize the men and women who put their bodies on the line is almost criminal. Imagine the entertainment value of the clips alone. The presentation possibilities. The acceptance speeches peppered with broken-bone anecdotes and maybe even an on-air demonstration! It is surefire (emphasis on “fire”) live-TV meme-able excellence. B.H.
The 94th Academy Awards air live March 27 at 8 p.m. EST on CTV/ABC
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