An article in Sunday’s New York Times lays out some pretty harsh facts. The Academy Awards telecast ratings were already dropping before the pandemic, and the number of people tuning in to other awards shows during the pandemic year has been drastically low. These two trains could collide next week at Los Angeles’s Union Station, where the 93rd Oscars will be held, and it may mean a tipping point of irrelevancy for this grand institution.
The film with the highest number of nominations, Mank, has only 18 percent name recognition amongst “active film watchers,” according to a research firm. 23.6 million people watched the Oscars last year, which is a lot of people, but that number is down 44 percent from 2104. (The record was 57.2 million viewers in 1998.) Ratings for the Golden Globes dipped 60 percent this year. And the rates that ABC is charging for advertising is down 13 percent.
It’s more than just the movie biz’s ego at stake. An entire sector of the entertainment industry is reliant on Oscar campaigning, and all the ad buys and (in a non-pandemic year) the catered lunches those campaigns represent. Hollywood needs the Oscars to succeed.
While there isn’t much that the Academy can do to get people to turn the damn show on in the first place next Sunday, the people they’ve hired to produce it, Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher, and Jesse Collins, are doing everything they can to retain eyeballs that may take a glance.
In what may ultimately prove to be a genius move, the Academy has hired what can safely be called “constructive critics” of past shows. Soderbergh, who has attended in person twice (first as a best screenwriter nominee for sex, lies, and videotape, then winning best director for Traffic, beating himself for Erin Brockovich), had, as the paper put it, “complaints.” He’s felt, both in the audience and watching at home, that the show “lacks intimacy.”
Stacey Sher said her first time attending, as an executive producer on Pulp Fiction, was anti-climactic. “When I got out of the car and saw those giant Oscars, it was one of the most mind-blowing moments in my life,” she said, before admitting it was “downhill from there.”
In addition to being adamant that the show not be held over Zoom (this was in his contract) the director, who led the Directors Guild return-to-work task force, has stressed that this year’s show will definitely represent change, and even though the nominees may be all over the world, there will be a consistent look and feel to the show.
For those nominees who can not come to Union Station, there will be remote hubs in 20 other locations, the largest of which will be in London.
To make this happen, there will be substantial COVID-19 safety measures, which the Times reports will be a third of the production costs.
In an earlier conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Soderbergh said that there will be a “very rigorous and specific aesthetic approach to the show” and that “each of those remotes have some direct sort of visual correlation to what we’re doing or at least contribute to the movie-like feel of what we’re doing in terms of where they will be.”
While remaining somewhat vague, the producers said that each section of the broadcast will be like an “act,” and that each nominee, in every category, was interviewed at length, so the show’s writers could have a backstory to give to the presenters. “They have a lot more to do here than a typical presenter situation,” Soderbergh said. “It’s their act, and they’re out there telling these stories.”
Concerning the challenges of preparing a live show during a pandemic with the fate of an institution on his shoulders, the never tight-lipped Soderbergh didn’t hold back: “This thing is a fucking bronco and it will be right up until show time.”
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