The Oscars don’t understand their audience

In 1998, the year that James Cameron’s “Titanic” won Best Picture at the Oscars, the Billy Crystal-hosted show amassed an average of 55.25 million viewers. It’s safe to say that things have changed since then. 

For one, in the 1990s, 2000s, and even parts of the 2010s, movies were at the center of popular culture and the theatrical moviegoing business was booming. Yet there was little variety in these movies and the awards. It felt like everyone was going out to watch the same films and that everyone was locked into the award show. 

Now, in 2022, coming off of the worst-rated Oscars in history (a lowly 9.23 million viewers in 2021), TV has dominated the cultural conversation on social media, and with the panoply of options that streaming provides there is always something for everyone, meaning that everyone gets to watch whatever they want, no matter how small or niche it is. Now, with the explosion of internet usage and streaming, the monoculture — where everyone’s eyes and ears are on the same thing— has never been further away. This year, the Oscars are desperately trying to get that monoculture back. 

The slogan of the upcoming 94th Academy Awards is “Movie Lovers Unite” according to a press release sent out by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences (AMPAS). This phrase matches up with what Oscars producer Will Packer has been preaching about in several statements ahead of the show: they want this show to be for everyone. 

In theory, that is a good thing! Making the show more accessible to mainstream audiences, and not just hardcore cinephiles, would be a great thing, not just for the show, but for movies in general. But, it’s the way that they are doing it that is flawed. 

On February 24th, AMPAS President David Rubin announced that eight out of the twenty-three categories would not be presented live on the telecast and that they would be pre-recorded and edited into the main broadcast. 

The eight awards that will not be presented live are: documentary short, film editing, makeup and hairstyling, music (original score), production design, animated short film, live-action short film, and sound. 

It’s unknown what the true motives of this change were. Is it that the Academy thinks that mainstream audiences care less about technical categories? Do they want to make the show shorter? Did they want to make more time for pointless musical performances? 

One can only infer that this decision was made to try and keep casual viewers locked into the broadcast, only showing the big names and stars of Hollywood live on the broadcast. If the Academy thinks that the crafts and technical awards will bore audiences, why don’t they just make the presentation of those categories more interesting? 

Instead of just listing the nominations and handing out those awards, why don’t they have the nominees of those categories actually explain and show what they really do for movies? Have Jonny Greenwood and Hans Zimmer (both nominated for Best Original Score) talk about how they compose a film score. Or have Patrice Vermette (nominated for Best Production Design) show the details that made his world of “Dune” come alive. 

They don’t have to do this exactly, but they should find ways to honor and celebrate the achievements of craftspeople in more interesting and engaging ways, instead of treating them as second-tier artisans. 

Predictions

2021 was one of the greatest film years in recent memory. Distinguished auteurs — Jane Campion, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Steven Speilberg — triumphantly returned to the big screen, while international icons — Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Joachim Trier — brought fresh perspectives to the problems that trouble our daily lives. 

And, surprisingly, the Best Picture slate is pretty great too! The nominees are: “Belfast,” “CODA,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Drive My Car,” “Dune,” “King Richard,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley,” “The Power of the Dog,” “West Side Story.” 

At the moment, the Best Picture contest is a two-film race. “The Power of the Dog” has long been considered the favorite to win the main prize since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September. Since then, the Jane Campion-directed film has been primarily uncontested. That is until Sian Heder’s film “CODA” started to pick up momentum in recent months. 

“CODA”, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, is about a teenage girl—whose parents and brother are deaf—that discovers a passion for singing while in the school choir. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age story that doubles as a very crowd-pleasing family drama. Not your typical Best Picture winner!

Since I saw “CODA” at the Sundance Film Festival all the way back in January 2021, it has checked almost all of the Oscar precursor boxes that would lead a film to Best Picture. It won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, another SAG Award for Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur, and the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture. 

Winning these awards often correlate to a Best Picture win, but the Oscars are always unpredictable. So who will win? I’m taking “CODA.” “The Power of the Dog” is an incredible film and is definitely very highly respected amongst Academy voters. But the film is a slow-burner; it’s very methodical and patient in its filmmaking and that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. “CODA” on the other hand is a very well-made, entertaining, heartwarming, crowd-pleasing, sometimes even comedic film that has the audience leaving the film feeling better about the world than they did before. I think that, historically, has played better for Academy voters. 

When talking about this year’s Best Picture race, a question that is worthy of discussion is: Is “CODA” really the best film of 2021? And that answer is subjective, but I’ll just say: probably not. 

“Drive My Car” is my favorite, and probably the most critically adored, out of this slate; but Hamaguchi’s three-hour drama about grief has effectively no chance at the top prize. But has Best Picture ever really been about giving the best film the award? Not usually! But this show will be a success if they can get a large audience to get excited and just actually watch these movies. If “CODA” is what gets people back into movies, I’m fine with that. 

Here are a few more predictions:

Best Director – Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog”

Best Actor – Will Smith, “King Richard”

Best Actress – Penélope Cruz, “Parallel Mothers”

Best Original Screenplay – Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt, “The Worst Person in the World”

International Feature Film – “Drive My Car”

The Oscars should be more about the actual movies, and that is where most of my frustration with this show stems from. The show has never decided on its identity. It should be a celebration of the best achievements in film in a given year, and Best Picture should be given to the best film of that year. But instead, the Academy has spent so much time bending over backward trying to appeal to the masses that they’ve lost sight of why they exist.