THB #81: Fixing The Oscars in 5 Steps
As I’ve thought about this piece, I considered whether to number the 5 steps. Do they all need to be done? Is there an order of priority?
I think the 5 ideas really break down into 2 categories with 2 different objectives... fixing the award and fixing the TV show. I don’t think any of the 5 ideas are directly in conflict with the others, so all 5 could work in tandem. But The Academy could prioritize either category as a goal over the others, in my view.
I am not a believer in people who say, “Let’s just slash and burn” in order to make a TV show they think a bigger audience would tune in for or prefer. I get the impulse, but it’s kind of like hoping drinking a Coca Cola will make the world a nicer place. It’s a lovely bumper sticker, but it’s not actionable.
I am looking for ideas that could actually change the course of things, but are not extreme in action.
Any change made is subject to unintended consequences. For example, the expansion to 10 (or as many as 10) Best Picture nominees, heading into its 13th year as the rule, has done wonders for smaller films with smaller grosses… and turned The Academy’s voting against big hits. (This was even true before efforts were made to dis-empower the evil older white man in The Academy.)
Rebuilding The Weight Of The Award And, In Turn, The Show
Qualifying Rules - I’ve brought this up before. The only distinction, aside from the marketing choices of the distributors, between Oscar and Emmy is theatrical release. It is not a slap at streaming, any more than it was a slap at television for the last 5 decades, to suggest that theatrical release should be a priority for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Rule still require, aside from COVID allowances, some kind of theatrical release to qualify for nominations in the non-specialty categories. If theatrical doesn’t matter, rescind that rule.
I believe it does matter. It is the one distinction left that is specific to Oscar. Every other televised award show has become a mix of TV and Theatrical. Bless them. But the reason for that is not some sort of forward thinking. It’s ratings. People watch - and have since the 70s - more TV than in-theater movies. So TV stars are seen by TV networks as good bait.
It’s not fashionable to see it this way, but there is something different about movies… which was defined by theatrical release until Netflix decided it was willing to spend a lot of money to chase Academy Awards. HBO could of done it years before. Didn’t (except for documentary).
Now, there are more deep-pocketed streamers. And the category of “films” that only do theatrical to qualify for Oscar expands with them. This season, we are looking at possible BP nominees from Netflix, Apple, and from Warners’ Project Popcorn day-n-date car wreck ($15 domestic theatrical for King Richard and a decent, but underperforming $108m for Dune), taking up as many as half the Best Picture slots. Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, and Paramount+ are not far behind.
COVID has bent everything. A given. But do we expect Oscar to thrive in an environment where the majority of nominees have barely been see in theaters?
Is it fair to the companies that have stayed true to the long history of The Oscars and done serious theatricals, for movies small and large, to have to compete with films that never dealt with any of the complications of releasing a film into theaters? The amount of control that a streaming release has over the narrative about their movie is almost complete.
So… my first suggestion.
No less than 3 weeks of theatrical release on at least 100 screens with industry-norm box office reporting.
It’s that simple. 2 of the 3 weeks can be in the new year in the first 2 weeks of January, allowing distributors to use the award season as a box office propellant.
This is not a serious financial hindrance for the streamers who want to participate in Oscar. It would subject them to some pressure to have a commercial success with the films. It could cost some marketing dollars aimed at the theatrical release. But they can handle it. The price of being in the Oscar race should not, in 2022, a week of qualifying and hiding it like the effort meant nothing, except as a marketing and publicity tool.
As one smart guy said to me, there is no way of making Netflix or any streamer invest theatrical-release marketing dollars into a theatrical release. Yes. Agreed. Nor should there be. But there should not be one group of releases living in one marketing universe where they have complete control and never have to engage the judgement of audience and another where that is unavoidable.
We have been down the road with all kinds of clever ways to try to allow qualifying to be incredibly simple so as not to keep any film with lesser resources from participating. But the world has changed… as everyone keeps saying, as though they have no power in adjusting to that change.
Keep the competition field even. That is the most basic of ideas.
And yes, keep the Academy Awards about theatrical movies. Or, in reality, there will be no movies in a decade… because there won’t be any theaters… in part, because AMPAS decided that it just didn’t matter.
Would Don’t Look Up have been a theatrical success? Power of The Dog? The Lost Daughter? Tick, Tick… Boom!?
We’ll never know.
And there is this… the 2019 Best Picture winner, Parasite, was the 2nd lowest grosser amongst the 8 nominees reporting box office. It did $25 million before it’s Oscar nominations. Jojo Rabbit did $22m. This obviously didn’t matter to the voters in a negative way.
But it was playing on the same field as most of the other nominees.
Keep the competition field even. You can’t control the voting. But you can make your award stand for something instead of standing for everything.
Best Specialty-Release Picture - The idea of a Popular Film Oscar got shot down quickly. Let’s not re-adjudicate that.
But if you look at the history of Oscar nominations, what have new award categories done? They have taken the genre focus of the new award out of the Best Picture competition.
So my suggestion is to create an award specifically for “smaller” films. The challenge, aside from a name, is defining that group. To start, like Docs, Animation, and International, the films that would be in this category would also be available for nomination for Best Picture.
The Best Specialty-Release Picture.
This season, films like C’Mon C’Mon, Red Rocket, Drive My Car, The Lost Daughter, Tick Tick…Boom, and CODA would be prime candidates for slotting in here, some of which might also get Best Picture nominations. Maybe a documentary or two could slip in. But imagine how many films might make a greater effort to get into the game with a greater opportunity.
My idea for the boundaries of the award:
Cost of completed film, including post, should be less than $30 million
Been shown in a commercial theater in the United States for at least two weeks (fourteen consecutive days) with reported grosses.
Maximum number of screens until after nominations, 1000.
There may be unintended consequences to this idea. There usually are to any rule change. But my guess is that voters would embrace certain films that would by passion picks with no real chance of winning Best Picture by voting for them in this slot, leaving a few “open” slots in Best Picture. Maybe “bigger” films would fill those slots. Maybe not. But worst comes to worst, Oscar is celebrating more quality cinema.
Quarterly Qualification Through The Year - I have brought this up a few times before. It’s simple in concept and a little complicated in action… but…
Four quarters to every movie year: January-March, April-June, July-September, October-December
Ten nominations. 2 films released in each quarter qualify for a nomination, as voted for within 2 weeks of each quarter ending. 2 open slots at the end for any film from the rest of the year.
Goals: 1. Create more of a year-long presence for Oscar with the public. A wake-up call every 3 months and not just a wild horse race at the end of the year.
2. Force distributors to strategize the release of their “awards films” throughout the year, not just from the September festivals through the end of the year.
3. Widen opportunity for different kinds of films to get into the Oscar game.
4. Narrow the disadvantage for films that don’t want to spend the money and face the frustration in competing for attention in the fall/winter corridor.
5. Allows films that qualify early in the year to use this to their advantage throughout the year.
6. The back-loading of the year becomes less of a burden on Academy voters. And it makes it much more likely that they will see all the films in the game, both more spread out through the year as well as for the end of the year, as 6 of the 10 will be locked in by October.
As with other suggestions, there is the Rule of Unintended Consequences. Is a Quarter 1 nomination an advantage (time for the film to sink in) or a disadvantage (time for the film to sink in)? Does spending into a film that was in release in February (for example) become a burden that some distributors don’t want? Or does the benefit of the film being well into the post-theatrical cycle balance that out?
I conceived of this idea before Netflix joined the Oscar game and other streamers soon after. But in many ways, I believe it answers issues we face with The New. We are overwhelmed with content. The build of a year to a conclusion and then the wait for an award show feels a bit dated in the era of binging content.
It’s hard to project what a season of this would look like based on recent years, as the award season has become so much about September - December. Films that aspire to Oscar nominations are just plain staying out of the first half of the year. In the last decade, only Get Out, Black Panther, and Midnight in Paris have gotten Oscar nods after being released in domestic theatrical before July.
My experience is that every month of the year, movie lovers are looking for new films and TV worth the time to watch it. So I don’t fear “mid-term election” syndrome.
All of the quirks of the 4 month award season will visit a year-long system, no doubt. But if distributors are pushing out, say 5 - 7 titles that emerge as “award movies” each quarter, I not only think they will be seen, but with the ease of electronic voting, I think the “mid-term” competition could be every bit as hot and heavy as the final quarter.
Rebuilding The Oscar Show
I have been hitting these notes for year after year after year. In many ways, I consider them the most important suggestions I have, as I see them both as absolutely foundational in rebuilding an Oscar audience.
Date - As people who care about all of this, we have to get out of the mindset that we are anything more than a small niche in society overall.
For most people who have watched the telecast on the regular over the last 40 years, Oscar was a habit developed at a time when there were 3 major television networks. The end of January brought the Super Bowl and a month or so later, the Oscars. The Golden Globes were not part of the diet. Nor The People’s Choice Awards. Or really, Emmys or Grammys.
This all changed. Not only with the proliferation of award shows, but with a real sense, for a period, that The Globes were going to match or surpass Oscar and that shows like the MTV Movie Awards carried more cultural impact - especially with the under-40s - than Oscar.
Time continued on, as it does, and the other shows feel back into their secondary and tertiary positions. As The Golden Globes got more mainstreamed, the industry got more interested in the drama of its absurdity… but the audience because solid and no more than 60% of Oscar’s, usually less.
But there are bigger fish to fry than The Golden Globes. The speed of the entire cultural discourse has sped up. Not many things stay fresh for more than a month… maybe two. But at the same time, once something is out there, it is out there forever, whether on a subscription service or a VOD purchase or for free on YouTube, etc.
While those of use who care about all this are being inundated with marketing for this movie or performance or remarkable work behind the scenes, the rest of the world has forgotten to go see West Side Story or Belfast or King Richard… they are watching Tommy Lee’s talking penis or the Succession finale or finally rolling over to see Don’t Look Up because they have run out of other stuff to watch on Netflix. But even there, the stories about how big an audience the film had on Netflix were all in early January. Old news. Why is The Mandalorian on The Boba Fett Show and OHMYGOD those NFL playoff games!?
And as I write this, we are still SEVEN weeks from Oscar!
The Oscar show should have been - this year - last night. Or on February 20, at the latest. But really, tonight, February 6, between the NFL conference championships and the Super Bowl.
I have heard all the excuses why this is “impossible.” But it’s not. Set an earlier date and the machinery will all adjust, distributors will adjust, voters will adjust, The Academy will adjust.
The simple fact that a late February or March Oscar show means that there is a break between the end of the year that marketing and publicity has to overcome. And that challenge gets greater every single year. It’s not going to get any better. This would have been more apparent sooner were it not for the genius of the anal wart known as Harvey Weinstein in maximizing the push off Oscar nominations for box office from 1992 - 2013. This too… history.
I have long said about Cannes that it is great and very important for the European cinema business, but if you launch a movie there for America and Oscar, you need to start again in America in the fall. It means almost nothing. Why? Not because no one cares… but because months of no momentum is not how you market anything. French films that play at Cannes tend to open in France within a couple months. Momentum.
We will never see The Good Ol’ Days when Oscar had a clear enough calendar to not lose momentum from the end of the year. This weekend, there are a grand total of ZERO likely Best Picture nominees in the Top 10 at the box office. Highest grosser? Licorice Pizza with $615k. Oscar wannabes dominated The Second 10 with 6 of the 10 slots… but it’s fewer than 2 million total people in America and Canada still going to awards movies.
Put Oscar in what has been the Golden Globes spot or soon after and the ratings double whatever they are in late February or March.
This doesn’t solve every problem. But it’s hard to make things much better without this step.
Build a Show for 3 straight years - This is a TV show issue.
Like a theatrical release, aside from opinions from writers, no one knows what any show or film is going to be like until they are watching the thing. The effort to build an audience for a new effort is very, very different than building on strength.
Let’s not overthink it. “Hey… the show was pretty good this year.” Good old fashioned word of mouth. That is how you get people who are borderline interested to watch… NEXT YEAR.
Most of the people I read on the issue of the Oscar show are hooked into the "High Concept Sell” idea of how to sell the show and get a bigger audience. But that is madness.
Yes, if you have more movies up for awards that are hugely popular, you will see some more people viewing. But the producers of the TV show are not in control of this. And really, The Academy is not in control of this. In my opinion, making up a Popcorn Award is an iffy idea as audience bait. How much more of the cast of The Avengers will people tune in live to see? And people forget… the Academy did that. “Marvel reunion on stage!!!!” Didn’t work for the ratings.
We live in an era where Captain America releases a picture of his penis on Instagram by mistake and his sidekick Bucky/The Winter Soldier is naked in one festival movie and has a talking prosthetic penis in a limited series on Hulu. “Hey… look… they are on TV in tuxedos… so exciting!”
When did the Squid Game audience really show up? In the U.S., it was after a week of sampling. Word of mouth spread. People saw videos of the girl “stop, go” robot. Explosive viewership.
Unless we are going to turn Oscar into The Colosseum in Rome, with indies fighting streamers and CG lions, no one is tuning in for blood sport in 2022. The Academy Awards are not going to draw an audience like a $200 million+ mega-movie with a foundation of hugely popular IP. Give up that ghost.
How do traditional TV shows build and keep audience? Starts with casting. As they used to say, you are inviting these people into your living room. And then, you deliver something mostly expected but slightly different week after week after week.
When I see my 12-year-old watching YouTube, it’s the same thing… except the stars are his age… they are as unsophisticated as 12-year-olds… and they make him laugh. I see the same idiots on his screens all the time. They speak to him. It’s not some new language. It’s not a revolution. It’s television… but niched out enough for him to prefer it (often) to legacy television.
Why don’t social media stars draw paying audiences to films or tv? Because they are niche and they give away so much for free. Nothing wrong with that. But we need to understand the value of scarcity and how to leverage that for audience numbers.
When was the last time we weren’t anxious about Oscar ratings every single year? From 1990 to 2004, Billy Crystal hosted 7 times out of 14 shows. He had an opening routine that repeated and people anticipated. In 2000, he had the 27th grossing domestic film of the year winning Oscar winners with American Beauty. In 2004, he had Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Which one had higher ratings? The American Beauty year.
And in those 7 non-Billy years? 4 with Whoopi Goldberg and 2 with Steve Martin. David Letterman was the outlier.
Consistency. Remember, Whoopi and Billy were closely associated via Comic Relief. And Steve Martin was playing similar middle-aged comic roles to Billy’s.
In the 16 Oscar shows since, there has been only one back-to-back repeat host, Jimmy Kimmel, unless you count the last 3 shows with no host at all.
I would actually embrace the idea of having 3 years of no host as a repeating idea… but the third year was Union Station and that was just a well-intended mess. But even more importantly, not having a host never became something structured enough for the next audience to have expectations about.
Now… over at the utterly meaningless and corrupt Golden Globes, what could audiences expect these last dozen years? Five years of Ricky Gervais. Four years of Poehler and Fey. What Oscar needs is not those hosts… it needs that consistency… a voice that allows a potential viewer to decide to tune in to see something they think of as fun.
Somehow, people know that The Golden Globes ain’t The Oscars. That shows up in the ratings for a show that is arguably more enjoyable in many ways. But you do know what you are going to get… or at least, what you hope you are going to get, from year to year.
And then, you have to win them with the show.
Forget chasing movie stars every year… unless you have one who is willing to commit to show up every year for at least 3 years. (Remember “Date.” A short production schedule would make a talent commitment much, much easier. One week for the host is a winner.)
It would ideally be Clooney. Not a comedian. Not an attention grabber. Charming, smart, and part of the family. It would be an enormous gift to the industry for him to be the 3-year permanent host.
Bryan Cranston isn’t a bad idea. Hanks. Always Steve Martin.
Tessa Thompson would be really interesting. Charlize Theron could do a great job.
Kumail Nanjiani. Samuel L. Jackson could do great, if he wanted. John Krasinski, with or without Emily Blunt (busier), could absolutely be the guy. Jeffrey Wright.
I’m sure I could make a longer list. One of my things - and may not be yours - is that the person should have a certain modesty and a lack of neediness. Love The Rock and Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish and Will Ferrell and Will Smith, etc… but there is a demand they make from the audience of giving them the attention. It’s what makes them stars. But that isn’t what this is. They need to really be on when that moment is happening and then really disappear when that is the moment.
On the flip side, I see the host as someone who needs to also like being present in those moments, which disqualifies some very charming actors and actresses. Nerves will be involved for everyone, but being a good host is an odd skill.
As Roger Ebert said (paraphrased), a good show is never too long and a bad show is never short enough.
The issue of cutting awards or what kind of packages are done, etc… ridiculous for be to dig into here. People seem to think that if a good producer comes along, they can just tear the whole thing up. No. The politics of The Academy are extreme. I do think a great argument for Plan X being what is best for the entire Academy could work. But kicking the “smaller” awards to the curb because someone yells about it a lot is just not how things are going to go.
The question, to me, that needs to be addressed is much like the first question for any screenplay, for film or tv. Why? What is this show meant to make the audience feel? What is the great experience we want them to remember when it is over?
I want to leave the show loving movies… movie people… the idea that Nicole Kidman is selling in the agonizing AMC spots. I would love to leave with one great insight into acting, into editing, into production design, into sound, etc. I want to end the evening feeling like people who are not as obsessed with movies as I am have a list of movies they are going to make an effort to see after the show, whether on screen or off. I want to be proud of this industry. I want it to be, like movies are for me, above the politics, above the social complexities of our times, above the petty… and for the experience to be all of those things as well, in the back of my head, not in my face.
I think I am smart. But I am a long, long way from having all the answers. I have offered some here today. But if they were to raise any eyebrows, inspire any real thought on the matter, I would hope it was the beginning of a serious and passionate conversation. (Especially about “Best Specialty-Release Picture,” a not great name for an idea I think is worthy… this piece spent 3 days sitting on my desk as I tried to find a better one. Someone could come up with a better one.)
Tomorrow, Oscar nominations drop.