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You can’t save the Oscars by making them sponcon

Figure out what the Academy Awards are for before you do another one.

Amy Schumer is dressed as Spider-Man and hanging from wires in front of a blue backdrop on a stage.
Amy Schumer on stage at the Oscars.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

It’s not that nobody’s interested, at least in the abstract, in what wins an Oscar. It’s that they don’t want to give up four hours of their evening on a school night to watch an event that feels eerily, well, like a telethon. Or a commercial. Or a pledge drive.

The Oscars come off as one big ad, which, in a way, they are. Why is Tony Hawk here? Oh, because his documentary will hit streaming next week. It’s not that Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes, and Rosie Perez are unwelcome presences, but why are they here? Oh, White Men Can’t Jump is turning 30. This tribute to James Bond looks like a trailer. Everyone’s got a project or a nostalgia play to promote. The Academy’s new museum gets a lengthy comedic bit by way of promotion. Twitter polls about “cheer-worthy moments” get air time. The Oscars are sponcon, an infomercial for movies. Cinema Is Magical! Movies Matter, Now More Than Ever! Really! We promise!

(If you didn’t already agree with that, would you be watching the Oscars?)

The Oscars have a problem. But that problem is not with the Oscars. The problem is that, somewhere along the way, we’ve decided the Oscars ought to be a TV show. That means it has to succeed by TV standards — not just TV standards, but network TV standards for live broadcasts: lots of viewers, lots of ad sales, some unpredictability but nothing that will upset any of the viewers, who can just turn it off at will.

(Admittedly, this year they got that when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on stage, yelled at him, and then won Best Actor minutes later. But you can’t plan for that kind of thing.)

94th Academy Awards - Show
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” — which was not nominated for an Oscar, but is a very popular song from Best Animated Feature winner Encanto — is performed at the Oscars.
Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

To “save the Oscars,” then, has taken on a meaning so narrow it’s self-defeating, stuck in a decade when I was still too young to see a PG-13 movie. And that’s ludicrous in an era when fewer and fewer people watch any live TV events; when it’s the norm to skip the live show and just catch the highlights on YouTube or TikTok the next day.

And this year, it became blindingly clear that the show will never recover its prior viewership, at least not if it sticks to its current format. Around 14 million people watched the chaotic show on Sunday night. And yes, that’s a sharp uptick from 2021’s all-time low of 9.23 million.

But compare that to the 29.6 million and 23.6 million who watched in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and the spike seems a lot less impressive.

People used to watch the Oscars. As the Ankler recently detailed, a mere 18 years ago, the average Oscar-nominated film had grossed $127 million, and 43.5 million people watched the show — 26 percent more than the previous year. But by 2020, only four of the nominated movies had made more than $100 million. In 2021, of course, box office numbers were meaningless, given most major-market theaters were closed because of the pandemic, and only 10.4 million people watched the ceremony — about half the audience for the 2020 ceremony.

Back in the early days, the Academy Awards weren’t initially planned as a TV show because they couldn’t have been; the first ceremony was held in 1929, a year after commercial TV sets went on the market. The 1929 ceremony was 15 minutes long and cost $5 to attend. By the next year, the Oscars were broadcast on the radio, and in 1953, the 25th edition of the awards, they first showed up on TV, simultaneously broadcasting from New York and Los Angeles.

Of course, if you put a bunch of showbiz people in the room and tell them all of America is listening or watching, then they want to put on a show. So they hire hosts, or a whole battery of presenters, and ask them to do a standup routine. They plan musical routines. They come up with goofy bits, like surprising a group of civilians in a movie theater or doing Da Butt dance with Glenn Close.

None of it is working. And why would you watch? Compared to 2004, your options on Sunday night are endless — everything from your favorite old show to your favorite new one, or one of the animated movies, or, heck, a video game.

Your TV might not even get broadcast TV, especially if you are in the highly desirable “youth” demographic. Do you even have a TV? Who cares? If something funny happens, you’ll see it on Twitter or TikTok 10 minutes later. Technology has always changed how we watch movies and TV; the Oscars are hardly immune to those changes.

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Extreme athletes Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater, and Shaun White present a tribute to James Bond at the Oscars.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

I’m no expert in making TV shows. But it seemed, watching the Academy and ABC make unforced error after unforced error in an attempt to “save” this year’s Oscars, that at least part of the problem stems from some fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet works — and what their ceremony is even for.

For instance, one week before the ceremony, Rachel Zegler — the leading lady of multi-nominated West Side Storyannounced to her fans on social media that she hadn’t been able to get an invite to the ceremony.

While plenty of people don’t get invited to the Oscars, the omission was especially silly for a ceremony visibly desperate to get younger viewers. Zegler, who landed the role of Maria by submitting videos of herself to an open casting call, has had a massive and passionate following on YouTube and social media since 2015; her attendance at the Oscars would certainly spark the interest of her fans. That ABC’s parent company Disney — which also owns West Side Story distributor 20th Century Studios and has cast Zegler as Snow White in its upcoming live-action remake — didn’t think to harness their star’s power for the audience it so desperately seeks seems unthinkable. After an outcry (of course), Zegler was invited to present an award at the ceremony.

The much-touted Fan Favorite category — an obvious attempt to harness the power of the web — is another misfire. Oscars naysayers usually posit that the problem is the movies themselves — not that they’re bad, necessarily, but that nobody watches them. If only they nominated more popular movies, then people would watch. (It’s also the argument for the short-lived Best Popular Movie category the Academy floated several years ago.)

So weeks before the ceremony, the Academy announced that fans on Twitter could use a hashtag to vote for their favorite movie, sort of an American Idol for the Oscars, and the winner would be announced during the ceremony. They conducted polls as well, for things like “most cheer-worthy moment.”

Dave Bautista in Army of the Dead, which won the “Fan Favorite” poll conducted on Twitter.
Clay Enos/Netflix

If you spend basically any time on Twitter, you instantly knew what would happen, and so it did. Fandoms on social media operate in a different way than just casual “fans” of movies. They’ve harnessed a combination of enthusiasm, obsession, and at times toxicity to divebomb films on Rotten Tomatoes before they’re even released, or to go after artists, critics, and other users who criticize, say, Justice League or the Marvel movies or Alita: Battle Angel.

So it was entirely predictable that Army of the Dead — Zach Snyder’s film, which garnered middling reviews but was backed by his rabid fan army — came out on top. The other four “nominees,” similarly backed by extremely enthusiastic groups of fans (and, in some cases, potentially also bots) were Cinderella, Minamata, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Tick Tick Boom. While that’s mostly amusing in retrospect, what’s unclear is what the Academy thought would happen. Would hordes of breathless fans tune into the broadcast for three hours, waiting for the moment when the winner would be announced? Or would they just pick up the news from Twitter or TikTok or whatever other platform they happened to be scrolling that evening?

In the end, it’s not clear they even know what the goal of the telecast truly was. The much-criticized decision to exclude eight categories from the ceremony to tighten up the running time, with edited-down, previously recorded speeches aired throughout the event, implied some categories are simply more important than others. People who love the Oscars, as well as some of the stars themselves, were angry to see the categories cut. But it also seems faintly ludicrous to make this trade: the ill will of Oscar devotees and industry insiders, on the one hand, and theoretical viewers who might now watch the ceremony, with those eight categories trimmed down.

Plus, there was a strong chance that fan favorite Dune — a big box office hit — was most likely to win in those cut categories, including Best Sound, Best Score, and Best Editing. And of course, it did. (As did Riz Ahmed, for his live action short The Long Goodbye.)

Look, here’s the question: Why do people pay attention to who wins Oscars? Because they like the curatorial aspect of the Oscars, the sense that this is a list of some good movies that are probably worth seeing. But why do people watch the Oscars’ TV show? Because they are fascinated with Hollywood, with the glamour, with seeing stars in a few rare semi-unscripted moments. Because they’re invested in the history, or excited for the unpredictability of a live show. Because they love the whole thing that is Hollywood and the history of the Oscars.

So if the Oscars want to remain interesting to their core audience — people who actually love the movies and want to watch the awards show — then they need to adjust expectations and relearn why those people are there in the first place.

A live (or livestreamed) show is great. But does it need to have 40 million viewers to be a success? (The finale of Game of Thrones didn’t even get 20 million.) Could success be measured not by how many people tune into the live broadcast, but how many engage across platforms? Would it ever be possible for the Academy and its broadcast partner, whoever that is — Netflix, maybe? — to find additional revenue streams that keep ad sales from being their endgame?

And does the Academy even know why it really does the show anymore?

The pandemic may have forced the issue faster than Hollywood expected. But everything’s changing — the technology, the platforms, the variety available to audiences, the audience’s taste and preferences, the movies themselves. It’s well past time for the Academy to recognize that big changes are going to come, whether they want them or not.


Update, March 28, 1:00pm: Viewership numbers for the 2022 Oscars now included.