Behold the Incredible Shrinking Oscars, Again
How to get people to care and watch again? Producer Michael Shamberg (and Academy litigant) shares his big ideas in a year of more small movies
Part I, Richard Rushfield’s Thoughts
Ready or not, here they are. Oscars 2022.
And clearly, the Academy is no longer trying to dance around the lack of audience around film, they are leaning into it. It's become a point of pride. And if you are Disney/ABC, writing your annual mega-check to license a declining TV asset, well, I’m guessing Dana Walden right about now is probably counting on one hand the number of people who will be on the edge of their seat wondering if Power of the Dog is going to take the big prize and figuring out how to program around that.
Some thoughts on the nominations just unfurled.
First, none of this is a slight on the quality of the films nominated. There are some wonderful ones. Films that, if I'm a film school professor, I'd be excited to show to my students.
But Oscar has never been about picking the best movie of the year. (Science has shown, they've done that exactly four times in their 94 years.) It's about the entertainment industry sending a message to the world. The message used to be "Come, global citizens! Experience the magic and wonder of movies!" And now it's: "Aren't we special!"
In the past, death at the box office spelled death at the noms. But now apparently, it's not even a speed bump; it's a matter of pride.
The extent to which The Academy has turned its back on public success as a factor is remarkable. I suppose you can blame the pandemic, but does anyone think this is a temporary condition?
So the Academy exists to ratify the esoteric choices of guilds and 400 critics groups; critics who themselves are largely now unread, except by each other. But of course, it was impossible to hold the theatrical category to any viewership standards once the floodgates opened to the streamers, which are a black hole of information from which only glimpses of light emerge. And instead of taking public reaction into account, it's just thrown out the window, and Oscar can become…another critics’ film circle?
Which, if you're looking at it from a perspective of honoring craftsmanship in cinema, is wonderful.
If you're looking at it from a perspective of maintaining a mass medium's connection with a mass audience, then well, what would you say is the level of public excitement for one’s local critics’ circle announcements? Have you sensed an unfulfilled public demand for more of those?
As one friend put it, “For years the promotion of movies and moviegoing was the collaboration of studios and the press. That’s over. The press has taken up streamers and indies to ‘save’ indies and studios have all but said f- it.”
So in the Best Pic category, we have a cluster of films that were...flops, disappointments, underperforms, at best given a Gentleman's C for COVID. And then a bunch of films whose audiences are total mysteries.
To put it another way, is there any evidence that there is a single person under 40 on the planet who has watched a single one of these movies?
A couple of data points trying to peer into the Netflix numbers from our own Entertainment Strategy Guy. (He'll have a complete analysis tomorrow.)
He notes that in Nielsen streaming numbers, Power of the Dog was 9th place overall in its first week of release and 1st in film with an estimated 11.3 million hours viewed. Pretty good. Second place was A Castle for Christmas with 6.3 million hours viewed. By the following week Power of the Dog had fallen 7th place in film. For further comparison, that week Shang-Chi, in its fourth week of release had 3.5 million hours viewed.
So what AMPAS has managed to create is an event that has the scope of the Independent Spirit Awards, minus the fun lunch and zany bits. Now, it’s the smallness of the Spirits combined with the pomposity of THE OSCARS. (Which gives the Nobel Peace Prize committee a run for its money in self-seriousness.)
For your consideration: a bunch of films, many you never heard of or chose not to see, with the seriousness of Mideast peace negotiations. Come experience the magic of movies everyone!
All that said, it looks as though Ted's day has come at last. Interesting that Netflix's previous contenders had been massive star-packed spectacles and with Dog, they are finally going to win (probably) with something a little more modest and quiet. It's like they had been running for Best Picture of 2005 the past few years, and finally have a modern Oscar nominee.
So now we look ahead to our annual civic nightmare of the show itself. As a prelude, the fact that they can't get two movie stars to get out of bed and recite the nominations isn't encouraging. Nor is the fact that we enter the third year of the host drought — when no major movie star wants to touch this with a 1000 foot pole — also! Not exactly a dazzling endorsement.
Maybe Will Packer will mix it up and actually create something different here. Although last year is certainly a cautionary tale on how different is not necessarily better. Apparently when looking for a new tone, “funereal” is not the crowd-pleaser one might expect.
In case you forgot, last year's show drew 10.4 million viewers. Down from 23.6 (55 percent decline!) from the previous year.
There is nothing in the above that would suggest the trend will be reversed. But will 10.4 be the new floor? Or will the trend line continue, knocking another 55 percent off last year's tally, bringing it to...4.6 million?
I'm optimistic myself. I'm putting my early prediction money on 7 million viewers, in the range of last night's Winter Olympics audience, just on a par with a typical Young Sheldon viewership. And quite possibly the exact same people now that you mention it.
Part II, Michael Shamberg: ‘Blow Up the Show and Start from Scratch!’
For further thoughts, I turned to Michael Shamberg, veteran producer (The Big Chill, Erin Brockovich, Django Unchained) and current litigant of a suit against the Academy that alleges it strayed from proper procedure when the board declined to vote on bylaw amendments he proposed to boost Oscars viewership. He’s seeking a court order forcing the Academy to vote on his plan overhauling its social media approach and a requirement of an annual member survey to solicit ideas.
He kindly allowed me to share his prescription, in his own words, for a path out of this hole, which you may enjoy below:
The most likely Best Picture winner this year will again be The Great Unwatched, just like Nomadland was last year. Ask teenage and college age kids if they care about an Irish family’s “troubles” 50 years ago, a 60-year old musical, how to poison a cowboy a 100 years ago, or even a contemporary story about driving around Tokyo talking about Chekov. The Oscars are out of touch with the generations who are growing up on streaming. The ratings which are already down 75 percent in the last decade are going to be even worse this year. The format of Academy Awards hasn’t changed in the 69 years since they were first televised!
As a filmmaker and longtime Academy member, I appreciate the artistry of films like The Power of the Dog and West Side Story and I am glad movies like that are being made and celebrated. But cinema is a 20th century art form and the Academy has betrayed its “Mission Statement” of “shaping the future of motion pictures” by failing to make movies special in the 21st century. The Oscars will be dead by the end of the decade without a radical reset.
First off, the Academy needs to rewrite or cancel the ABC contract because ABC forbids live streaming the Oscars. Kids today are cord-cutters who can’t afford a carrier of broadcast TV. The ABC deal runs for another six years. Let Disney+ , which owns ABC, stream the Oscars. Or get Netflix, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, or HBO Max to bid for the rights. Each of these streamers has more than 70 million subscribers which dwarfs the maximum ABC broadcast television audience. The annual license fee of $125 million is a drop in the bucket to these deep-pocketed companies.
Several of the Best Pic nominees still aren’t on streaming. That means the Academy is “honoring” movies the public hasn’t seen, even although we voters can watch all 276 eligible films at home on the Academy screening room app. The rules should mandate that in order to be eligible, nominees have to be available on streaming to the public before nominations start.
Streamers should have to release viewer numbers like the studios do with box office grosses so voters can assess how popular the contenders are.
The Academy needs to release voter statistics. How many members are actually voting. How many or few votes does it take to win. If only a few thousand Academy members are selecting the best filmmaking, maybe it’s time let the members nominate, and then let the public vote on winners.
Hollywood movies premiering online is more revolutionary than when talkies replaced silent films. The internet has changed everything, but the Oscars are the only well-known consumer brand that has no social media strategy, no vibrant connection with its audience. Despite the influx of younger members, management is out of touch because only three of 54 Governors are under 50. The Academy CEO only has 5496 Twitter followers. The Academy President has no social media accounts.
Academy members are literally the best storytellers in the world. Online surveys are part of our lives every time we buy something. But the Academy has never once asked voters for ideas of how to reinvent the Oscars. If only five percent of the 9921 Academy members have a good suggestion, that’s still almost 500 things to try!
Blow up the show and start from scratch. Even if every Marvel character gives out every award in costume it still won’t make a difference. Compared to the energetic and lively videos we see all the time on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, it’s dullsville to watch presenters read off a Teleprompter to a stiff audience sitting side by side. Nobody cares if all of the show is live.
Why not make every nominee submit a 60-second video of their acceptance speech beforehand. Show the excitement of them winning live, then cut to videos of their speeches instead of instead of walking up to the stage. Winners will be motivated to entertaining if they have be entertaining on video. Only show the winners live being handed their Oscar where they can fist bump, hug, and celebrate.
Change the dress code to festive, not black tie, so it’s a party. Move the Oscars out of the Kodak Theater to LA Live so it’s like a rock concert. Let the public attend and cheer.
The internet is two-way. User-generated content is its lifeblood. Nobody cares if the show is all live. They just want it to be entertaining. The Oscars should enlist nominees themselves to produce parts of the show on their cell phones. The most singular Oscars moment in recent memory was Ellen’s selfie, another social media basic. Why not have stars in the audience shoot selfies with other stars and pop them into the telecast. No doubt every nominee is videoing themself getting ready and driving to the theater. Live streaming stars going to the show would be a lot more entertaining than the Red Carpet. Likewise, the infectious energy of carpool karaoke would engage the audience a lot better than dance numbers that look like are from your grandparents’ era.
Finally, TikTok is the new cinema grammar. But the Academy never posts original content on there even though older Oscar winners like Martin Scorcese, Anthony Hopkins, and Judy Dench are on TikTok. Film hashtags on TikTok have over 3 billion views! That’s where the public is celebrating and commenting on movies. The internet is two-way. The Academy would light up the Oscars and light up the internet with part of the show made like TikToks and TikToks made by the audience. That’s entertainment 2022!
Michael Shamberg has been an Academy Member for 41 years. Four of his movies have been nominated for Best Picture. He hopes to win an Oscar someday and also hopes his criticism of the Academy doesn’t bar him from being in the In Memoriam reel.
Also on The Ankler:
Neal Gabler: The Academy Museum, Whoopi, and the Tortured Identity of Hollywood Jews The author of 'An Empire of Their Own' also talks Zuckerberg, Trump and how entertainment wants to "put some distance between itself and its Jewish founders."
The Myth of the Netflix Blockbuster The Entertainment Strategy Guy examines some claims by a certain service and consider how their films really stack up to olde time theater movies.
The Ankler Hot Seat Lila Shapiro, the journalist who sat down with Jess Whedon for that extraordinary interview, tells the back story on how it happened and why.
Zuckenfreude! The kneecapping of Jeff Zucker is the perfect crime — three cities full of possible suspects. The downfall of a Hollywood fixture and all its rich implications.
A new edition of The Optionist is out.
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