In a little over a month, the Oscars ceremony will be broadcast live on ABC. No matter what happens during the show, here’s what will happen immediately afterward: A day or two following the event, we will be presented with the dispiriting news that viewership, while likely an improvement upon the catastrophic, COVID-curbed numbers of 2021, continues to decline. Whether that news will arrive before we’re done arguing over the quality of the hosts or finding greater meaning in the one surprising thing that will have happened during the ceremony (be it an unexpected win, a weird speech, an enormous awards cock-up, or some amazing combination thereof) remains to be seen. Regardless, we’ll all be convinced that the Oscars are in trouble, and over the following year, there will be more agonizing about what they need to do to make themselves relevant again and reconnect with average viewers. The Oscars, forever broken, will yet again be in need of fixing.
But what if we didn’t fix the Oscars? What if we didn’t even try? Because, frankly, the people who take it upon themselves to fix the Oscars keep making the situation worse. Every year, the folks behind the show — some combination, I assume, of the event’s producers, the Academy, and ABC — come up with all sorts of foolish ideas designed to solve what are sometimes imaginary problems. This year, they’ve outdone themselves. First, in an effort to get more blockbusters into the mix, they announced some bizarre popular-choice scenario in which people from Twitter (never a good idea) will vote on their favorite movie. (That movie will then proceed to … not get an Oscar? But be mentioned, somehow? Whatever, I’m sure it will be super-exciting.) And just yesterday, they announced that they’re going to shunt off to the side eight whole categories, including Best Original Score and Best Editing, which will be awarded during a preshow ceremony that will not be broadcast live. (They tried a variation on this silly proposal a few years ago, but outcry from both the public and the industry thankfully scuttled the plan.) Hilariously, a couple of those disappeared awards might actually go to some popular choices. Hans Zimmer, a man whose concerts regularly fill stadiums and arenas all across the planet, is heavily favored to win Best Score for Dune this year.
Change in and of itself is not a bad thing. Over the past decade, the Academy has worked to broaden and diversify its ranks. This has been an overwhelmingly positive development. And I’ve always been fond of their 2009 decision to reexpand the Best Picture nominees to ten titles, which has made it a bit easier for smaller films to get into the mix. I was less pleased, however, with the decision to move the winners of the Lifetime Achievement Oscars to the Governors Ball. And in recent years, it seems like the show’s producers have tried to do away with the things that have always made the Oscars the Oscars. Cutting down on the film clips. Doing away with the hosts. And now, these most recent indignities.
Many of the bizarre annual efforts to reorganize and streamline the program itself and make it more “popular” have felt not just disastrous but downright hostile. It’s hard to tell if such decisions are being driven by people who hate movies (like, say, TV executives) or people who simply hate themselves (like, well, artists). The thinking behind these efforts does have a whiff of self-loathing to it, doesn’t it? Our choices for Best Picture aren’t popular enough. The brilliant technicians who make our movies look and sound good are too boring for the average viewer. Let’s not let anyone actually see Jackie Chan or Spike Lee or Donald Sutherland win an award for a lifetime of work. Let’s not show footage from the movies we’ve nominated.
So let me put it as clearly as I can: Someone who is angry that a film like The Power of the Dog was nominated for Best Picture over Spider-Man: No Way Home is not a person who has ever given a shit about the Oscars, and the Oscars should stop worrying about trying to get that person to watch the Oscars. Someone who gets bored at the idea of watching editors or sound mixers or production designers win awards is not a person who will ever be a member of your audience. Someone who actively doesn’t want to see David Lynch or Liv Ullmann win a Lifetime Achievement award is not someone who cares about movies. Someone who decides to watch the Oscars because it’s only three hours long this year instead of three hours and 20 minutes long is … not a person that actually exists. In pandering to these people, some of whom may well be imaginary, the Academy is alienating its actual audience.
If the Oscars have continued to fall in viewership, that’s not because of anything the Oscars themselves have done or not done. The audience for live TV in general has been declining for decades now; unless you’re the Super Bowl, your numbers are looking fairly grim. But that’s a broader sociocultural trend that changes to one ceremony will do nothing to solve. And all things considered, the Oscars are not (again, with the notable exception of last year’s ceremony) even in that bad shape. They’re still ahead of the pack when it comes to awards shows. The Grammys, which feature such obscurities as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé and Harry Styles, would kill to have the Oscars’ ratings. (Pre-pandemic, the Grammys pulled in 19.9 million viewers in 2019, while the Oscars drew 29.6 million the same year. Meanwhile, the Emmys brought in under 7 million.)
A major reason the Oscars have declined in viewership in recent years probably has to do with the recognized films themselves. That’s not to say that assorted pundits who are upset that Drive My Car and Coda were nominated for Best Picture over Spider-Man: No Way Home are right. But it’s true that the show has tended to do better ratings-wise in years when films like Titanic and Avatar and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were real contenders. But those movies were, at least in the Academy’s eyes, still exceptional on an artistic or technical level, as were such previous blockbuster Best Picture nominees like E.T. and Jaws and Star Wars. The truth is that the Academy does pretty well with nominating blockbusters — Joker was just two years ago, people — when those blockbusters are movies that the Academy seems to genuinely like. To just start going around willy-nilly nominating whatever hit has caught the industry’s attention that year wouldn’t just be counterproductive to the academy’s reason for existing, it would be giving in to Hollywood’s worst tendencies. In a world where superhero movies and other blockbuster action franchises reign supreme, the studios have already been obliterating just about everything else from the marketplace, including the kinds of pictures that tend to compete for Oscars. To start awarding blockbusters simply for being blockbusters would just further hasten the demise of any and all grown-up movies. (You want to be recognized for making a lot of money? I seem to recall a Don Draper meme that you might want to reacquaint yourself with.)
So, that’s the bad news. The good news is that when you do look at actual engagement — admittedly, a somewhat more nebulous metric — the Oscars do fine. They rule Twitter. They generate memes galore. Indeed, the fact that so many people complain about the movies that are nominated or not nominated for Oscars (or, for that matter, the categories that are included on the show) is proof of the hold that the Oscars continue to have on the popular imagination. And more and more people catch up with the winners, speeches, highlights, and lowlights in the days following. That’s because the show has always been well-suited for morning-after discussion. Once upon a time, the Oscars regularly went viral before we even had a term for going viral. From the atrocity of the infamous Rob Lowe–Snow White duet to the unintentionally hilarious interpretive dance re-creation of Crash to James Cameron declaring himself “King of the world!” to assorted impassioned, teary-eyed speeches, the ceremony has always been a mix of bad taste, earnest sincerity, theater-kid enthusiasm, and Hollywood megalomania.
To put it another way: The Oscars, despite the declining ratings and the constant self-flagellating by the industry, remain relevant. There are probably things the Academy can do to build on that relevance. Gutting the show itself is not one of them. So, what if we just let the Oscars be the Oscars, in all their extravagance and glamor and kitsch and self-importance? Those of us who actually watch the Oscars embrace the goofiness and grandiosity and bloat of the Oscars because, in the end, there is an implied agreement that we all share a love of movies. But the people behind the Oscars seem to be forgetting that. They need to stop hating themselves and remember why they’re all gathering in that room in the first place.