The Oscars are a week away, but will anyone watch?
By Nicole Sperling and Brooks Barnes
Neither intimate looks into stars’ living rooms nor scantily clad pop stars performing provocative hits have been able to stop audiences from tuning out award shows this year. The ratings for the Grammys were down by 53%. Golden Globes viewership plummeted more than 60%.
Now, as Hollywood prepares for a coronavirus-delayed Academy Awards telecast April 25 on ABC, it is faced with the ultimate doomsday scenario: that the viewing public is ready to toss its premier showcase into the entertainment dustbin, plopped next to variety shows. Oscar, meet Lawrence Welk and his bubbles.
At a time when the traditional film industry is fighting for its primacy at the center of American culture — with at-home entertainment soaring in popularity and pandemic-battered theater chains closing — a collective shrug for the Oscars would send Hollywood deeper into an identity crisis. And a shrug certainly could happen. Guts + Data, a research firm that focuses on entertainment, said last month that only 18% of active film watchers (in theaters or at home) had heard of “Mank,” the Netflix film leading the Oscar race with 10 nominations.
“When even I find myself having a hard time caring, that’s a problem,” said Jeanine Basinger, founder of Wesleyan University’s film studies department and author of Hollywood histories like “The Star Machine.”
Some people in the entertainment industry, whether out of optimism or denial or both, believe that award shows are simply going through a temporary downturn because of the unique circumstances of the pandemic.
But Nielsen ratings for the Oscars were already in free fall before the pandemic, plunging 44 % between 2014 and last year, when 23.6 million people watched the South Korean dramatic thriller “Parasite” win the top prize. An additional drop on a par with the Globes show in February would put the Oscars audience in the catastrophic single-digit millions.
Much more than vanity is at stake. The Academy Awards have long been an economy unto themselves, with companies like Netflix spending $30 million or more to campaign for a single film and Disney, which owns ABC, committed to paying more than $900 million for the worldwide broadcast rights through 2028.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not conceding defeat. The organization, which generates about $90 million a year in after-expenses income from the Oscars telecast, has handed the show to one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors, Steven Soderbergh.
He and his fellow producers, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, have been asked to shake up the telecast while also sticking to tradition (awarding statuettes in 24 categories, including the “boring” technical ones) and complying with pandemic safety restrictions.
If that wasn’t difficult enough, the three have the additional challenge of attempting to jump-start theatergoing when most of the world is more than a year out of the habit.
“If we can get out at three hours and deliver a show that we see on paper right now, we feel like we will have had a cultural moment where the nation, the world, will say, ‘Yes, I love movies!’” said Collins, a veteran live-events producer who oversaw both this year’s Super Bowl and the Grammys. “That will get us another step back to theaters.”
The three are trying to reinvent the show, yet are hamstrung by COVID-19 safety costs, which alone are taking up one-third of the production budget. The group is also adamant that the show will not take place over Zoom. Soderbergh, who directed the 2011 virus thriller “Contagion” and headed the Directors Guild return-to-work task force, had that provision written into his contract when he signed on to the project.
“I made it clear that that has to be the absolute worst-case scenario,” Soderbergh said of the ubiquitous pandemic technology. “It’s the Academy Awards. We all want it to be special, and that doesn’t feel special. It just doesn’t. It reminds us of the pain of the last 14, 15 months. Not the joy of cinema or going to the movies.”
In an attempt to make the show like an exclusive gathering, the producers are stepping into a logistical morass that will aim to get every nominee in front of a television camera at a designated location, whether at two Los Angeles sites — the downtown Union Station and the usual Oscars location, the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood — or one of 20 satellite spots around the world. (The largest hub will be in London.)
For Soderbergh, the decision to take the job at such a fraught time stems from his long history of complaining about the show. Whether he was in the room as a nominee or at home watching it on television, “the lack of intimacy” always bothered him.
“I didn’t find it a very pleasant experience to be in the audience,” he said of his two visits, one in 1990 as the screenwriter of “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and again in 2001, when he won best director for “Traffic.”
This year, the producers want to focus less on winning and instead make sure the notably diverse group of nominees has a better-than-average time by making the event more communal and intimate. They also intend to create a mask-free telecast that reminds audiences at home why they like going to the movies.
Not helping the producers’ cause is the slate of films they are celebrating. Even though the majority of the best picture contenders are available on streaming services, they remain relatively obscure. According to the Guts + Data survey, conducted the week of March 21, the best-known contender was “Judas and the Black Messiah,” with 46% awareness. The front-runner, “Nomadland,” registered only 35%.
Soderbergh acknowledged that there is only so much the producers can do.
“People’s decision-making process on whether to watch or not doesn’t seem to be connected to whether or not the show is fantastic or not,” he said, pointing to the strong critical response for this year’s Grammys, which notably featured a risqué performance by Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B.
With ratings expected to tumble for the coming telecast, ABC has been asking for $2 million for 30 seconds of advertising time, down about 13% from last year’s starting price. Some loyal advertisers (Verizon) are returning, but others (Ferrero chocolates) are not.
“We’re really not getting much advertiser interest,” said Michelle Chong, planning director at Atlanta-based agency Fitzco, “and it’s not something we’ve been pushing.”