From Vaxxing to Twitter, Oscars 2022 Are Straining to Meet ABC’s Commercial Demands

Can this marriage be saved? Every Academy decision is a hope that the show will seem cool.
Oscars 2022 Are on a Collision Course With ABC’s Commercial Demands
Ellen DeGeneres' 2014 Oscar selfie
Academy Awards

On February 8, the Academy wanted to make the tony Academy Awards seem more homey: TV stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Jordan made the nomination announcements on ABC’s Good Morning America, with Southerner Jordan repeatedly mangling “Denis Villeneuve.” Monday, ahead of another GMA announcement of a planned trio of Oscar hosts (who we now know are Amy Schumer, Regina Hall, and Wanda Sykes), the Academy tweeted an invitation to movie fans:

The Academy may want to engage directly with Oscar watchers and collect their information in exchange for the chance to announce a “Fan Favorite” on the Oscar telecast (“Spider-Man: No Way Home,” anyone?), but the disconnect between Oscar viewers and the Academy that produces them has never been greater.

Seth Rogen may be right: It’s crazy to expect the world to care about our industry awarding itself. “I don’t care who wins the automobile awards,” Rogen told Insider. “No other industry expects everyone to care about what awards they shower upon themselves.”

At one point the Venn diagram was more generous, on all sides. Viewers cared more about movies and Oscars honored more popular films. Today those circles barely graze each other as the world moves on, but it is entitlement of the highest order to expect that a wide audience “should” care.

Veteran Oscar-winning screenwriter (“Forrest Gump”) and “Dune” nominee Eric Roth is fantasizing about bringing the subject of his latest movie, Cher, onto the red carpet for his seventh go at an Oscar. However, even he reluctantly said: “It’s like so much else — a thing of the past.”

After grabbing back the Oscar telecast from NBC in 1976, for decades the annual celebration of movies on ABC was a marriage made in heaven. The network and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) are under contract through 2028, which will mark the 100th Academy Awards. This partnership still remains lucrative for both: ABC licenses from the Academy the right to sell ads on the show worth hundreds of millions.

The partners have danced around their different needs: The network demands viewers to stay tuned into an accessible and entertaining show, while the Academy must serve its 17 branches as it hands out awards in 23 categories, from shorts to crafts.

There’s nowhere to go but up after last year’s pandemic safety-first, entertainment-last event, which brought the audience down to 10 million from the all-time peak of 57.2 million in the “Titanic” year of 1998. However, noise around Oscars 2022 is not what ABC might have hoped.

For years, the network pressured the Academy to trim the three-hour-plus show. That forced the Academy Board of Governors to twist themselves into pretzels, since it would also mean cutting into Academy members’ speech time if not the categories themselves. In 2018, the board proposed a Best Popular Film option that the Academy drummed out under protest from their members. In 2019, the board planned to give out four awards during the commercial breaks; another unpopular move, also rescinded.

The Academy is barrelling toward the main event live at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood and Highland on March 27 — a date that let Oscar planners pull away from both the Olympics and an expected winter Covid surge. Invites are going out to the nominees for the annual Nominees Lunch March 7 as well as the Oscar show. Distributors and reps are figuring where the nominees needs to be and when; so many events were pushed back. LA’s DGA Awards, or London’s BAFTAs? These are the questions.

Preparations for the Oscars outside the Dolby Theatre, Hollywood
The Dolby TheatreMichael Buckner/Variety

With Omicron numbers trending down, Academy sources leaked the notion that they might demand attendees show a negative Covid PCR test to gain entrance, not proof of vaccination. (The Academy has not made a formal announcement.) Those traveling from overseas will need both to enter the country, but “Belfast” musician Van Morrison and Best Original Song nominee is an outspoken anti-vaxxer.

Other celebrities being wooed by Oscar show producer Will Packer (“Girls Trip”) to appear on the telecast may be hiding their unvaccinated status. One of the four 2021 acting winners traditionally expected to present to this year’s counterparts is not vaccinated, per The Hollywood Reporter. Both Anthony Hopkins and Youn Yuh-jung were publicly jabbed, and no attendee of last year’s New York Film Festival, including Frances McDormand, could get around the strict no-exceptions safety protocols at Lincoln Center. That leaves last year’s Supporting Actor winner Daniel Kaluuya as possibly not vaccinated.

While the SAG and Critics Choice Awards demand vaccinations, the BAFTA Awards does not because all UK restrictions will be lifted by the time of the show. As numbers fall, California is on the verge of pulling back some of its stricter indoor restrictions as well. But why wouldn’t the Academy use its leverage to demand vaccinations, rather than make exceptions? The answer: They are desperate to have celebrities on the show pull as many viewers as possible.

“I don’t think people should come unvaccinated,” said one Academy voter, who is not alone. “People should be tested with a rapid antigen test beforehand. The PCR test is not helpful: You need proof of vaccination, too.”

DRIVE MY CAR, (aka DORAIBU MAI KA), from left: Reika Kirishima, Hidetoshi Nishijima, 2021. © Janus Films / courtesy Everett Collection
“Drive My Car”Courtesy Everett Collection

There is another looming chasm between ABC and the Academy that will not be addressed by celebrity attendance. Film critics hailed this year’s Oscar nominations, giving the expanded ranks of 9,487 Academy voters high marks for anointing a rich panoply of art films like “The Power of the Dog,” “Drive My Car,” and “Flee,” along with mainstream crowdpleasers like “Belfast” and “Dune.” More voters participated, and watched the films online, than ever before.

However, they voted for movies that underperformed at the pandemic box office, like “West Side Story,” “Nightmare Alley,” and “Licorice Pizza,” which are trying to drum up interest in theaters after scoring seven, four, and three nominations, respectively. Where are the Golden Globes when you need them? The disgraced Hollywood Foreign Press Association may be less than respected, but the show drummed up rooting fan interest for the movies and their glammed-up stars.

Oscar ratings steadily declined along with other awards shows; the discrepancy between Academy voters’ increasingly highbrow tastes and the demands of the ABC telecast is a growing concern. It’s getting tougher to bridge the gap between a commercial ABC Oscar telecast and the Academy’s unwieldy governance and sprawling global membership.

“Dune”Warner Bros.

The Academy Awards still represent excellence. Getting into the Oscar race means a great deal to everyone attached to 37 nominated features plus 15 shorts. Nominees can build their career cred; studios, distributors, streamers, and countries boost the value of their pictures and score bragging rights.

The pandemic curtailed more than theatergoing; it also cut into the buzz around movies. They used to be a national pastime and shared cultural currency. How does Hollywood pull the rest of the country into the conversation when more people don’t go to movies? Marvel dominates the box office; at home, each moviegoer taps into a tailored diet of content.

Will PackerBen Rollins

That’s why the Academy selected Packer to commandeer Oscars 2022. He has a flair for mainstream appeal. Each of his three hosts will be in charge of one show segment to share the love as well as the blame; hosting in our viral world is a risky business. Hill, Sykes and Schumer boast high TV profiles, comedy chops, and some hosting experience, but it’s unfair to think that they can make the difference, any more than the hosts Packer couldn’t land for the show, including Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short of “Only Murders in the Building.” Blockbuster years that highlighted “Titanic,” “Avatar,” and “The Lord of the Rings” drew the most eyeballs because a large number of viewers cared about the movies.

Back in 2010, the Academy abandoned 10 guaranteed Best Picture titles because they wanted to encourage voters to add more passion and diversity to the lineup. This time, they went back to 10 in hopes that the choices would return to the mainstream. While “Dune” and Netflix hit “Don’t Look Up” boast passionate followers, the rest of the Best Picture lineup did not deliver the commercial hits that ABC hoped for. Daniel Craig’s last outing as James Bond, “No Time to Die” is up for three other awards, including likely performer Billie Eilish’s Best Song.

Billie Eilish
Billie EilishJames Bond

While Oscars 2022 are bound to pull more fans eager to see movie stars reacting to a live show, it feels like ABC and the Oscars are on a collision course. Adding diversity, youth, and a more international cast to the voting pool made for a great list of Oscar contenders, but not the sort that will pull in viewers.

“The Board and the folks running the Academy have very good intentions,” said recent Academy Governor and documentarian Rory Kennedy. “It’s a great group of people working hard. There are some basic challenges they need to overcome. Ultimately they need to make a show that is going to both celebrate film and also get good ratings. That’s what drives the Academy, where the financial support comes from. There’s a way to do both, but they need to make some hard choices.”

The Academy needs to do more than consolidate two sound categories into one: They need to push some awards onto a satellite show, as other events do. This will never happen as long as all the governors are elected by their branch to represent them. The strength of the Oscars is that the best and brightest in Hollywood vote for their own. Cave in too much to ABC and that provenance could be lost.

ABC isn’t wrong to want glamour, glitz, laughs, music, dance, and entertainment, or to want comedy and horror and Marvel included. Why does the Super Bowl get to break brand-new trailers? Why not the Oscars? It’s hard to reinvent the show when it’s stuck handing out gold statuettes in 23 categories.

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