The Oscars are a week away, but will anyone watch?

A collective shrug for the Academy Awards would send Hollywood deeper into an identity crisis

Published Mon, Apr 19, 2021 · 05:50 AM

Los Angeles

NEITHER intimate looks into celebrities' living rooms nor scantily clad pop stars performing provocative hits have been able to stop global audiences from tuning out award shows this year.

The ratings for this year's Grammys were down by 53 per cent. Viewership for the Golden Globes plummeted more than 60 per cent.

Now, as Hollywood prepares for a coronavirus-delayed Academy Awards telecast this Sunday (April 26 morning, Singapore time), 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 scores of variety shows.

At a time when the traditional film industry is fighting for its primacy at the centre of American culture - with at-home entertainment soaring in popularity and pandemic-battered theatre chains closing - a collective shrug for the Oscars would send Hollywood deeper into an identity crisis.

A shrug certainly could happen. Guts + Data, a research firm that focuses on entertainment, said last month that only 18 per cent of active film watchers (in theatres or at home) had heard of Mank, the Netflix film currently leading the Oscar race with 10 nominations.

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"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.

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 freefall well before the pandemic struck, plunging 44 per cent 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 US$30 million or more to campaign for a single film and Disney, which owns ABC, committed to paying more than US$900 million for the worldwide broadcast rights through 2028.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not conceding defeat just yet. The organisation, which generates about US$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 was not difficult enough, the three have the additional challenge of attempting to jump-start movie-going 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!' That will get us another step back to theatres," said Mr Collins, a veteran live-events producer who oversaw both this year's Super Bowl and the Grammys.

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. Mr 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," Mr 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 or 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.

These will be 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 Mr 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 TV, "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 per cent awareness. The front-runner, Nomadland, registered only 35 per cent.

Mr Soderbergh acknowledged that there is only so much the producers can do.

"People's decision-making process on whether to watch or not does not 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, broadcaster ABC has been asking for US$2 million for 30 seconds of advertising time for the Oscars, down about 13 per cent from last year's starting price. Some loyal advertisers such as Verizon are returning, but others - Ferrero chocolates, among them - are not.

"We are really not getting much advertiser interest," said Michelle Chong, planning director at Atlanta-based agency Fitzco. "It's not something we've been pushing." NYTIMES

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