Give disruption a chance.
The Academy Board of Governors has danced on a tightrope for years. In order to be rich and powerful, the Academy is sustained by the hefty license fees and global audience attracted by the ABC global telecast. That’s its sustenance, but the show must also satisfy more than 9,000 members from 17 branches —the very industry insiders and artists whose votes make the Oscars meaningful.
This year, after the ratings disaster of the stripped-down pandemic Oscars dominated by Best Picture-winner “Nomadland,” the Academy is on notice to swing the pendulum back to a commercial, audience-pandering show complete with star hosts (Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall), star presenters, and star performers. You can bet Billie Eilish, Beyoncé, and Van Morrison are at the top of producer Will Packer’s wish list, vaccinated or not.
Oscar producers struggle to accommodate Oscar presentations in 23 categories within a three-hour broadcast along with comic banter, song-and-dance numbers, clips, and the In Memoriam segment. The annual question isn’t if the show will run over, but by how much. Now, equipped with sophisticated tune-in and tune-out data from ABC, the Academy is trying to change the narrative, along with its precipitous ratings decline, by making a change it threatened for years.
There will be 15 awards presented live during the Oscars broadcast, with eight more presented in the hour before the live show begins. Same stage of the Dolby Theatre, in front of the same audience. These will be the three short film awards as well as Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score, Production Design, and Sound. The winners will be edited into the show’s broadcast.
Clearly, Costume Design won out over Production Design and Score, even though composers Alberto Iglesias (“Parallel Mothers”) and Hans Zimmer (“Dune”) are well-known, and Zimmer could win his second Oscar after “The Lion King.”
If Zimmer wins, he’ll still wind up on the Oscar show with his speech — or at least, some part of it. How these wins are edited into the broadcast is the question; so are the logistics of wrangling attendees to whip through the red carpet and into their seats. One of the highlights of attending the Oscars is slowly extending one’s time on the red carpet, rubbernecking the celebrity interviews, followed by A-list mingling in the lobby with a glass of champagne.
During that 4pm PT hour, ABC viewers will track the red carpet as usual. And in all likelihood, those that make it inside will hang in the lobby looking at the monitors — as many do during the show. That’s why the Academy hires seat fillers. But this year, they will need an army of them.
On the one hand, shots of the audience aren’t a necessity. On the other, the Dolby audience will want to know who wins those eight awards, because key wins like Editing and Production Design will signal who will win the rest. The core audience of any Oscar show includes the obsessive watchers who track the winners in real time — and on social media, which is how the Academy will announce the winners live.
How will this all play out? We don’t know the answers and the risks are real, but here’s why the Academy has to try: The Oscars face decline. We want the Oscars to survive. Doing the same thing and expecting different results… well, we all know what that is. It’s worth seeing if this format can move the needle and bring back the audience. Oscar purists insist that things should remain the same. They can’t.
The risk is losing the continuity of the major races. Many people will live with not presenting the three shorts categories during the live broadcast, but the purity of who wins what and when it’s announced is part of the excitement leading up to the Best Picture win. (Academy President David Rubin promises that it will be presented last.)
A smattering of reactions from Academy members indicate they know the Oscars need saving — but the proof will lie in the execution.
“Everyone needs to calm down,” said publicity branch member Melody Korenbrot on the phone. “They made the right decision, which they’d talked about for quite a few years, to pull stuff out of the show. It’s exciting. If you watch an awards show, you want some razzle-dazzle.”
“It’s shameful and appalling,” wrote another publicist. “In an effort to get higher ratings, they continue to devalue the awards, alienating their core audience. It’s really sad.”
“I think this change is right on,” wrote one executive branch member in an email, “although I imagine a huge hue and cry from all these branches. There must be changes to this show to keep it from dying.”
“Call me old fashioned, but people who want to watch the Oscars, want to watch all the Oscars,” wrote one director’s branch member. “I don’t know if any of these ideas will necessarily bring viewers back, so let the traditions stand. Cutting the categories is not a good precedent to set, as showing people winning for Best Short, Score, Editing et. al., is what marks the show out from the Critics Choice, People’s Choice or the Globes (as they were). It’s a celebration of all the guilds, the people behind the camera as well as in front, and being onstage can be life-changing moments for the winners. I for one, would rather see these eight categories, than a Twitter-based popularity award, three separate hosts, comedy skits, or whatever stunt with the public they might do. But then I would also argue that it’s a crying shame that lifetime achievement speeches for legends like Samuel L Jackson, Liv Ullman, and Elaine May don’t even make the show. I want to see those speeches. Let it be long.”
“This smells like desperation in the face of declining ratings and widespread criticism,” wrote another publicist. “There was a time when the Oscar broadcast used to be fun and entertaining and all of the awards were presented. That should be The Academy’s goal today. But, remember, the decision to cut awards from the show comes from the same folks who gave them out in a train station last year. [Note: all eight awards will be edited into the broadcast.] Maybe one day they will ask members to weigh in before The Academy makes controversial changes and ends up backpedaling or having to reverse itself once again.”
“The comings and goings of the Academy I have never really followed,” wrote one member-at-large, an agent who was granted voting status in 2020. “It always seemed to me like an old boys club trapped in the past. Any slight move seems to be a big deal. It still seems calcified and out of touch. So putting these other categories earlier, seems to make sense. Who cares about them anyways?”
“I understand the need to cut down the show to save the show,” said one costume designer, who was relieved her branch “dodged a bullet. It brings income to the Academy. If it’s folded into the program well, it could be positive. I’m relieved we’re back with hosts this year. It’s a diminishing situation with less and less people tuning in.”