By Paul Hardister
We are now a few days removed from the 90th Oscars. Hangovers dissipated. Trophies found new homes. Yet even before the Oscar stage got struck, inevitable think pieces predictably came out of the woodwork attacking the show. The Oscars celebrate not only the year’s achievement in film but some of the greatest moments in Oscar history. So I’d like to take a moment to defend the show and offer some ideas to potentially attract new audiences and bring back old ones.
Often people point out politics as a deterrent when it comes to the Oscars. These complaints make it seem as though this is a recent phenomenon. In the year he won for “The Godfather,” Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeater to attend in his place to protest the treatment of Native Americans in cinema. In 1993, presenter Richard Gere advocated for the people of Tibet. In his acceptance speech for “Bowling For Columbine,” Michael Moore ranted against George W. Bush and the Iraq War. I do agree that I prefer the evening to be a celebration of cinema over anything else. By potentially turning off audiences, you end up preaching to the choir. However, this didn’t necessarily permanently hurt ratings before.
A lot of articles target the length of the show. Critics say yank the montages or I even heard someone say remove the In Memoriam segment. Others think the speeches should be shorter or certain categories should be cut. Would cutting the third quarter out of the Super Bowl bring in more fans? I don’t think so.
I like the montages! I plan to revisit the 90th-anniversary clip compilation that opened the show more times than some of the nominated films. It was that well done. As far as the In Memoriam segment, some say many names get left out so just don’t do it at all. I think this argument throws the baby out with the bath water. I look forward to the In Memoriam every year – one last goodbye. Perhaps, the segment could be spread out throughout the show if producers feel the complete section as it exists now runs too long. For example, after the screenwriting awards, a segment with screenwriters we lost can lead us into the commercial break. Directors after directors, Actors after actors, and so on. Or would this be too morbid?
As far as speeches, some can be dry. However, the highlight of the show that gets played the most in the news coverage afterward is a speech. In years past, think of Halle Barry’s touching speech honoring trailblazing women of color who came before her or Graham Moore’s decree to ‘stay weird, stay different’ after sharing a moment how he almost committed suicide because he felt like an outcast. So many other favorites can be rattled off including Frances’ all-timer speech this year.
I also say keep all the other categories. These categories elevate the Oscars above all other award shows. The technical awards remind audiences of all the necessary elements to make a film excellent. Short films provide a proving ground for future filmmakers. Celebrating them keeps this important medium alive. Documentaries spotlight overlooked issues. An Oscar pool would be a lot less challenging without them. You want to keep the show as apolitical as possible? Keep the crafts. When was the last time you heard an Oscar-winning sound mixer give a stump speech for proper food labeling or the like?
Cutting any of these things from the show will not help the ratings. The show has always been long. The length of the show, I’ve found, doesn’t affect the ratings. Out of the top ten most watched telecasts in the past three decades, half of them have also been the longest. The year “American Beauty” won, the ceremony ran four hours and nine minutes and it was also one of the most popular. Watched by over 46 million people despite being the second longest ever.
I do agree with those that say the host matters. Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg hosted eight of the top ten rated shows. Jimmy Kimmel did a great job this year. Ironically, the show felt less political than in years past. Jimmy skewered Hollywood, not Washington. I actually liked the Jet Ski joke. It’s hard to tell the stale annual joke about the event’s overlong runtime in a fresh way. I also liked the sentiment of the audience appreciation stunt. The audience does matter. That said, I think the show needs someone like Billy or Whoopi again. In addition to their immense talent and impeccable timing, they were comedians you didn’t see every day. Their opening monologues had fun with the crop of films competing for Best Picture. I’ll never forget Billy coming out as Hannibal Lecter the year “The Silence Of The Lambs” won big.
Speaking of that film, the popularity of the nominated films do matter. The Academy Awards draw big ratings when Best Picture nominees showcase top ten box office hits. The field of nominees expanded in 2009 after blockbusters “The Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” got snubbed. The strategy was supposed to give these films a chance and ratings a boost. In fact, the opposite happened. Since the expansion, over half of these shows since then have landed in the bottom ten for all time ratings. Furthermore, we have not seen a surge in blockbusters getting nominated either. Going back to five may actually help the ratings. If the average moviegoer hasn’t seen any of the Best Picture selections once announced, then five films are easier to catch in theaters than ten. Lastly, even though “Dunkirk” and “Get Out” lost Best Picture, they did win prized awards. I hope studios see that releasing quality product throughout the year gives audiences a chance to see potentially award-worthy films versus cramming them all in at the end when realistically a lot of people can’t see them all. You can still win awards with early release dates. Now with MoviePass, hopefully, audiences can see more of the nominated films in the future.
I appreciate the Academy thinking outside the box with the attempted expansion strategy. However, they can go back to five and think of other ways to draw a crowd to the live show. Perhaps, they can take a page out of the BAFTA playbook and present a Rising Star Award as voted upon by the public. Imagine the strong possibility of seeing Timothée Chalmet, Daniel Kaluuya, Tiffany Haddish or Brooklynn Prince take the stage to give a speech. More people may be invested because they voted. The Academy needs advertising dollars to keep their organization going. So ratings are important. They could partner with Netflix or MoviePass by giving them spots in the mix of the commercials. Netflix or MoviePass could promote Oscar Night to its customers in advance of the show. They could do a drawing for a lifetime subscription with winners to be announced during the commercials.
For the 1990 Oscars, the Oscars presented some awards live via satellite in various cities around the world. They could do this again in various places or theaters, perhaps in areas where the show was once popular to boost interest again. This particular show drew in over 40 million viewers.
There are 416 members of the Academy in the Public Relations Branch. I hope they enlist their help in thinking of great marketing ideas for next year’s show. I hate to see the ratings diminish to near Golden Globes levels. Regardless, I plan on watching like I always do and hope you will too.
You can follow Paul and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @AcademyPicks