The question isn't, Should they cancel the Academy Awards? The question is: What the hell can they possibly be thinking not canceling it?
Before we get to that question, first, just to make it clear, the reason why they should cancel it: BECAUSE THERE ARE NO MOVIES MORE THAN A HANDFUL OF PEOPLE HAVE SEEN! How do you have a celebration of movies, when there are no movies?
You may have noted over the past few years that Oscar's transformation into a celebration of quirky and independent films only seen by a handful of people hasn't exactly done wonders for the viewership. This drift has succeeded in chasing away a giant swath of Oscar's audience, which is roughly half of its peak 20 years ago.
Given that, how do you suppose the viewership will react when they put on a show not only celebrating films seen by a small number of people, but films seen by no one?
Don’t believe me, just have a look at the current experts predictions and get excited!
And even some of these are going to end up getting pushed.
Certainly, some worthy films have been released in 2020, among them Leigh Whannell’s horrifying, emotionally intelligent “The Invisible Man” and Spike Lee’s agonized “Da 5 Bloods.” Netflix still plans to release David Fincher’s Hollywood biopic “Mank,” Aaron Sorkin’s historical drama “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” and Chadwick Boseman’s last film performance in the movie version of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom." And more contenders are likely to come, thanks to changes to the Oscar rules that extend the eligibility period through February and allow movies that were initially supposed to play in theaters to compete even if they end up only available online.
Still, the list of Oscar-eligible movies is bound to be attenuated compared with what academy voters and Oscar watchers consider in a normal year. And there are other reasons not to forge ahead with the Academy Awards.
It may be harder to convene a cultural conversation around a pool of nominated works when logistical challenges might reduce access to the works. A patchwork of state regulations governs where theaters can reopen and under what circumstances—if individual owners and chains are able to open at all. Shifting to streaming isn’t a comparable alternative: Netflix has gained millions of U.S. subscribers this year, but it’s not in every household. The reach of Hulu, AppleTV+, and other nascent services is even more limited. Whereas Oscar voters get screener DVDs or links, ordinary Americans do not.
The damage that could be done having a show like this will not necessarily reverse itself once the COVID all clear sounds. Just to refresh our memory, the Oscar telecast is not a vital, healthy, beloved celebration moving from strength to strength. It's become an annual trainwreck of self-involvement that seems willfully determined to chase away its audience. It wasn't still an untouchable ratings juggernaut, but a stumbling giant in viewership free fall, a breath away from formally enrolling in The Death Spiral.
Under the normal course of things, it might have held off that final plunge towards terra firma for a few more years. The audience may have been heading for the exits, but it takes time for 23 million people to file through the lobby, wait their turn at the coat check, and stumble out into the street.
Here’s an idea ready for its green light! Why not give the mogul or the mogul to be in your life the gift that will keep them plugged into the secret rumor mill of Hollywood. Give the gift that will keep on bailing them out – the gift of The Ankler.
But give them a four-hour dirge celebrating a bunch of films they've never heard of, or a bunch of TV MOW's . . . and the Emmys audience of five million might look good.
Given that they're in the doom vortex already, what makes anyone think that the audiences, driven fleeing from this experiment, will return a year from now?
This is the living embodiment of the tail wagging the dog; of an industry in decrepitude—when the needs of the institution become all-important, above and beyond the needs of the customers, the public, and the world at large.
It gets us back to the question of, what is a movie? This pandemic is giving us an answer that Hollywood couldn't itself provide. Over the past few years, it's been asked: Isn't a movie just any old thing that's over an hour-long that has characters with names?
During this year, we've had plenty of things that are over an hour-long released to the world, some of the very good. Big titles, big directors. Many of them were even made to be theatrical films. A few of them ignited brief flurries of chattering class hubbub for a moment. There have been action movies, comedies, cerebral meditations.
Yet not one of them has left the sort of cultural footprint that every mid-sized, 2,000-screen film release made every damn weekend in the pre-pandemic era. Every single post-COVID release, including Hamilton, all but vanished beneath the waves a week later, if they kept their heads up that long.
That footprint of yore is why the Oscars were something bigger, something more special than the Emmys and the Globes could ever approach: The Oscars served as the official temple of this larger than our lives, communal, out of the house, dream-making experience, honored in the most regal, to the point of stuffiness, fashion.
Now they'll be about something smaller. Let's see how that works out for them.
So, with it established that this is a bonkers path for AMPAS to go down, that it could well be their last—of many—wrong turns, why the hell are they doing it?
Clearly they need the money. With the push for the museum opening consuming the budget, it's dire to think about what sort of cuts would have to come if they took a year off from their Oscar check. But bad as that is, there's something even worse to look in the face of: taking forever off from the Oscar check, or most of it, which could be the result if they go ahead with this.
That's one way of looking at it. But there's also another consideration to factor into the equation. Maybe the way this is shaping up isn't terrible for everyone, particularly for one very well placed someone.
The past few years of the Oscar race have been this contest of The Service at its drunken sailoriest coming into the race with money that would make a Weinstein blush and attempting to swallow the entire thing in a massive orgy of spending. If you look at the Roma and Irishman projects as massive Oscar campaigns from green light to the Governor's Ball, if you had to estimate what they spent on those two projects all in, everything included, you've got to be at the better part of a billion, and possibly not too far from that either (it would be nice if a public company like Netflix had to provide some real accounting of that. Alas no, but we can dream).
I'm sure there's some definition of "obsession" that doesn't include spending a billion dollars and building an entire industrial complex to win a trophy, but that fits pretty well in my obsessional rubric.
For The Service to have gone to those lengths and come up short, two years in a row has got to be galling. It’s the sort of experience that would make one say when all your trophy-race competitors are hobbled and off the field, not, let's call this off in the name of good sportsmanship or protecting something bigger than this year's prize. But instead, it might make them say—after spending a billion dollars, we've got the field to ourselves! What's the problem?
Which are words that have a little more impact coming from the newly installed chair of AMPAS' museum committee, and the person who has propped up every corner of the Awards Industrial Complex with his tsunami of checks washing over Hollywood. Certainly don't expect the trades to make many objections in the months ahead.
And of course, there is all this plays perfectly into what I’ve been saying for years now is the ultimate end game of all of this. If the ratings do in fact plummet into NBC sitcom in reruns territory, and ABC slashes their check, there’s the perfect escape hatch – move the whole thing to Netflix! The celebrated service, then with a gleaming sword-wielding statuette in its lobby, would be all but too happy to take sad, down-on-its-luck little Oscar off the streets and give them a home on the app, never to have to worry about those nasty ol’ ratings again.
And the only thing that will have been lost in all this is the idea of the Oscars as a great, public, unifying event, celebrating the world’s great, public unifying art form. But the movie business is doing so well, they don’t really need one of those, do they?
In another world, you can imagine another way of looking at this; another way for the whole industry to look at this. Imagine if instead of trying to picture how we can still squeeze a little bit of advantage out of this, and salvage a bit of Oscar race from the ash heap – because God knows how would the world go on without an Oscar race – imagine the mandarins of Hollywood, plugged into and feeling for the vast public they serve across the planet Earth.
Imagine if they were to notice, streaming wars and Oscar race aside, humanity’s not doing so great at this moment. Maybe, given that there are no movies to salute anyway, we could use this slot to support and comfort those who have truly been snubbed and surprised by life in this past year. Maybe - I dunno – the biggest international telethon ever conceived. How’s that for an idea, if Hollywood can look outside itself for five seconds.
While we’re on the topic, speaking of institutions that didn’t show up for the world this past year: Hollywood players have done no shortage of complaining about the failures of the government and this administration during this pandemic. Rightfully. But now that you mention it, where the hell has Hollywood been during all this? Not as if there weren’t public service messages that needed to get out.
Imagine if back months ago, when the science was clear about this but the debate was unsettled, Hollywood had decided to devote itself to a non-partisan, Mask Up campaign, urging the world to do the right thing here, something a little more vigorous and inclusive than snide Tweets about anti-mask rallies. With a broad range of talent and production ingenuity behind it, it might have actually done some good, saved some lives, and restored a bit of luster to Tinsletown while we’re at it.
But in the end, its so much easier to point fingers and worry about how can we scrape together some dregs of an Oscar race.
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