THB #95: Oscar Shrinkage
I have one word for you. Plastics.
I have a second word for you. Ouroboros.
A lot of time has been spent, particularly this season, trying to find answers to the question, “Why is Oscar dying?”
But what really struck me yesterday, as the Academy luncheon, which used to be a big deal, was instagrammed by our current wave of media, that the bigger picture of what is happening to Oscar never really gets discussed. And I don’t mean that the kids today just want to look at their phones.
The Oscar Industrial Complex didn’t really exist when I started covering all this in earnest, 26 years ago. Screeners were frowned on. And back then, they were on VHS.
The fact that Harvey Weinstein had shoved his fat fingers into the pie - assisted by a bevy of mostly women, who were very, very smart - was seen as a constant outrage. My first season swimming in the deep end of all this was the year of The English Patient.
Of the five Best Picture nominees, only one was from a major studio… and that was back when major studios were major. Jerry Maguire. Fargo was released by Gramercy, which was co-parented by Universal, then sold to be a stand alone (which is when Fargo was nominated), then brought back into the Universal fold when MCA bought Polygram. It became one of the pieces of Focus Features. Shine was release by the arty division of the then still independent New Line, called Fine Line, now a part of Warner Media. Secrets and Lies was released domestically by October Films, an indie started by the late, great Bingham Ray and the bald & beautiful Jeff Lipsky (not the photographer). They too would end up folded into what is now Focus Features.\
And then there was Harvey, the great vulgarian (not a known rapist at the time), who had a film as effete as he was crass. Ironically, Harvey was Miramax at the time, a division of a studio, Disney… a Dependent, not actually an independent. Harvey and his team were the most aggressive, by a long shot. They worked the talent hardest and they spent the most money. Mighella, Saul Zaentz, and that cast of Fiennes, Binoche, Dafoe, Kristen Scott Thomas… even early Colin Firth sweetened the smell of the film beyond the stench of Harvey and it rode to a win.
The Oscars ran 3 hours, 35 minutes and 40 million domestic households watched.
Titanic won the next year with 2 major studios - since Fox turned chicken late and sold off half-ish of the movie to Paramount.
All time high in viewers, 57 million. 3 hours, 47 minutes for the Oscar show.
But the Oscar Industrial Complex really started at the end of the show in the next season, when Shakespeare in Love upset Saving Private Ryan. (4 hours, 2 minutes… 46 million households)
That was the night that Steven Spielberg had enough of Harvey’s shenanigans and decided to go to war, creating a matching level of competition to the machine that Miramax had so cleverly and crassly built.
American Beauty was launched at Toronto, which really hadn’t been done with an eye to Oscar before. But make no mistake. The season started that year, for the first time, at TIFF. (Telluride was still just programming movies they loved back then. I remember falling so hard at the first screenings of The Girl on The Bridge and Sweet and Lowdown. I went to see both again at TIFF the next week.)
It would be one of the oddest Oscar seasons, in that Disney (non-Harvey) had two movies… a drama from Michael Mann, The Insider, and the pop smash in The Sixth Sense. Warner Bros had a melodrama from Frank Darabont, The Green Mile. Dreamworks, which was then a full-service almost-major had American Beauty. And Harvey has The Cider House Rules, which he worked hard to get in place.
Amongst films that didn’t make The 5, Disney had The Straight Story, a great David Lynch film about two old brothers and a trip on a tractor. Columbia had The End of the Affair, a Sirkian war romantic drama from Neil Jordan with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore. Paramount has the glorious comedy. Election. Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (Paramount, but with Harvey whipping that horse from the other end, with international rights) and PTA’s Magnolia (New Line) got attention, but not as much love as their ongoing status would suggest.
But the war between Steven and Harvey was the centerpiece of that season. That season likely saw a new spending record and Terry Press was not going to let what had happened to Mr. Spielberg ever happen again. (4 hrs 9 minutes of Oscar, 47 million households)
A year later, DreamWorks SKG would win again, with Gladiator, the big commercial hit, besting Sony Classics’ game-changing Chinese-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Miramax’s “how the hell did they get that nominated?” Chocolat, and the 2 Soderbergh movies, Erin Brockovich (Universal, released in March) and Traffic (USA Films… about to be become part of Universal/Focus). (3 hrs 29 min, 43m hh)
With that (and the acquisition of all those indie companies), Universal took its place as the third serious combatant.
On March 23, 2003, Chicago won Best Picture and the domestic audience dropped under 40 million for the first time in 16 years. (3 hrs 33 min, 33m hh)
Harvey had the whip hand for Chicago and Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s first $100m+ movie. Scott Rudin was pushing Paramount to spend more on The Hours than they were used to spending. Lord of the Rings 2 was doing what action sequels never did or do… except for this one. And The Pianist ran into all kinds of trouble, including a broken projector at its Los Angeles premiere… but Focus Features pushed it through anyway and it ended up, it seems, contending with only Chicago for Best Picture.
Of the next 6 years - the end of which would be marked with the expansion to more than 5 nominees - 3 years were in the 40 millions hh range (LOTR: Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, The Departed) and 3 years were in the 30m range (Crash, No Country For Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire).
In the 12 years since The Expansion, we have had a domestic audience over 40 million 3 times, in the 30s 5 times, and under the 30 million mark 4 times… the last 4 shows in a row.
The 3 times over 40 million… all over 3 hours 30 minutes. Of these last 4 shows under 30 million viewers, 2 were under 3:30 and 2 were over. Doesn’t seem to be a defining factor.
The one thing that is consistent over the 4 years of under-30 million viewers of Oscar… streamers.
I can’t say with absolute confidence that there is an inherent softening of interest that comes from having “movies” on television as their primary mean of distribution. But I can say that there is something communal about leaving the house to experience movies that one gets to avoid in streaming… not to mention The Academy’s streaming platform, a tech decision that makes a great deal of sense, but may also have a lot of do with the emotional flatness of recent seasons, as voters are not encouraged to see movies in cinemas.
The first Best Picture nomination for a film not released to theaters in a traditional way was Roma, 3 Oscars ago. The film got 10 Oscar nominations and won 3 (Director, Cinematography, International) (3hr 21 min, 29.6m hh)
The year before that, Netflix had run its first film up the flagpole, Mudbound, and got 4 nominations (Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography and Original Song). (3 hrs 53 min, 27m hh)
Two years ago, Netflix got 2 Best Picture nominees, Marriage Story and The Irishman. (3 hr 36m, 23.6m hh)
Last season, Netflix got 2 films nominated for Best Picture, Mank (made 100% in-house) and The Trial of the Chicago 7, which they picked up from Paramount late in the game. Also, Amazon got in Sound of Metal. And Warners was running their nutty day-n-date sham, so Judas & The Black Messiah was half-released online.
I won’t even run last year’s numbers… they are too sad.
This season, it’s Netflix with 2 nominations (The Power of the Dog and Don’t Look Up). AppleTV+ (you know it’s a movie when the distributor has the word “TV” in its name!) has CODA. And Warner’s day-n-date disaster Project Popcorn got Dune and King Richard in regardless of how they were mangl… uh, released.
So that’s 4 players with deep pockets they are working hard to empty in the next 3 weeks. Plus, Disney’s 2 acquired titles (West Side Story, Nightmare Alley), one of which has the Spielberg fervor & spending to match. Focus, which has become Universal’s most likely annual player for Oscar with budget to go with it (Belfast). And MGM/UA - who you might have noticed is kindly a sponsor of this newsletter - has Licorice Pizza, which is their one nomination when it seemed they might end up with as many as 3… so not quite wild spenders, but spenders.
Only Drive My Car remains a vestal virgin in this house of spending repute.
So you have an awards ecosystem that is getting more and more competitive in terms of spending at the same time and an audience that is getting less and less interested. Nature abhors a vacuum and that money needs to be spent.
One of the visionaries of this reality is Jay Penske, who has never shown an ounce of interest in real journalism, but who understands star power and has spent the money for a massive consolidation of the industry’s media power. Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, Indiewire, Gold Derby, Contenders, Rolling Stone, W, The Golden Globes, SXSW, etc… all under one hat. (Does anyone still wear… a hat?)
If the Oscar ad-buying market is about $250 million a year, figure Penske is getting 70% of it… or about $175 million a season. (Then there is Emmy season.)
Overall, that’s almost $28,000 in advertising per Academy voter each season.
Of course, there are other voting organizations along the Road to Oscar. No one actually cares about any of them unless they are up for awards or a serious fan. But they are part of the publicity effort and an expense.
So if you want to understand why the industry dropping about $50m a year on HFPA (The Globes People), between the payment from NBC for the show and monies spent caring for the 80something 80somethings (NOW… 110something Mostly60&Oversomethings!!!! Everything’s been solved!), you can easily see that the publicity value comes what may seem a reasonable price.
Less again for Critics Choice… or National Board of Review… or NYFCC/LAFCA/NSFC… etc, etc, etc. But all those groups are part of the machinery too, no matter how well intended the membership. They would love to get Globes-level revenue going… but so far, not happening.
(Note to Critics Groups… it’s not an insult, however painful… I salute your integrity and offer this small perspective… more money is spent of getting talent to your untelevised award events and grooming and rooming them than any 2 of your members likely make in a year.)
Part of the genius of Penske has been adding a new piece of his endlessly growing puzzle to reflect any new idea that anyone has about how to reach or potentially reach the small audience of industry voters, for Oscar or Emmy. So where there was once a long-standing hum amongst publicists and consultants about the below-the-line award voter audience not getting enough attention - and the potential award winners with it - Penske went ahead and built out the opportunity. They hired very talented, likeable people to fill the jobs of putting it all together, so it does a service. But it exists as a way to generate more ads/more money and to make sure that money doesn’t go elsewhere.
Smart. Destructive, ultimately, but smart.
The system works in two directions. The Penske machine services what publicists and consultants want. You want a party that The Academy rules don’t allow? Media outlets don’t really live by any rules… so they will do it. And the studios will pay for it through the back door, essentially.
But the other direction is that by offering this wide array of services to the ecosystem, Penske also controls access. Tit-for-tat is not new. But it is newly consolidated. One stop shopping… like it or not.
And in the irony of the COVID moment, why would a studio ever leave its “house?” Why would they not like it? You can get everything you want/need/want to pay for from the one place. Even better… no hard questions, ever. Okay, so maybe there is no risk at all and risk is how humans, including voters, increase excitement. But who wants the hassle?
For the people who oversee and do the daily heavy lifting of award season, things that simplify your daily work are better. Things that complicate your work are worse. Human nature.
But from the outside view, ease of operation is not an issue, much less a benefit. And more and more, award season has become the same (free) sandwich being served over and over and over again. As a result, the level of excitement inside the circle of show biz has become lower. How can that not lead to less excitement in the real world… you know, people who you want to tune into your big TV show?
And then there is The Academy itself, which gets $120 million a year from ABC to production and rights to The Oscars. They net about $80 million of that. Last year, they gave ABC back around $15 million.
Hysteria about declining awards has been an issue inside The Academy for at least 15 years already. And the answers have always been pretty much the same. Fewer awards. Better hosts. Try to include stuff that you see connect with a lot of eyeballs on social media… where The Kids are.
But there is this part that none of the adults over at The Academy seem to pay any attention to, since they are adults and don’t bother paying attention to the other awards shows that are struggling even more than Oscar. None of this stuff works.
Rememeber when they gathered The Avengers and no one watched… and it barely even became a meme?
The one exception to change improving numbers was The Grammys. They had significant growth starting in 2010, as they dove deep into the idea of the show as a crossover concert. The show peaked in 2012, when Whitney Houston died a few days before and the world wanted to see how the industry spoke to the loss. They had a couple strong years after that and then they, like pretty much everyone, started to see erosion.
In that 2012 year, most counters had The Grammys drawing slightly more viewers than Oscar. Which created more panic on Wilshire (where the Academy offices are). But Oscar pulled back ahead, roughly by 30% every year since, including last year’s horrors (only 18% ahead… but it was last year).
Even when it seemed that The Grammys would be competitive year after year, the problem for The Academy was that film doesn’t have a directly-related live element. You can’t make it a concert. Performing live scenes from movies - like The Tonys - makes no sense (especially with Don Adams dead). No one has tried Oscar on Ice yet… but I would love to see it.
Almost every award show that isn’t specific to a format (Oscar, Emmy, Grammy) has been forced in recent years to switch to giving awards for both film and television, including the Indie Spirit Awards, which started giving TV awards last year with no apparent ceiling on cost or any definition of what makes a TV show “independent.”
And ratings have improved for none of them.
As Steve Pond pointed out yesterday, none of the other awards shows announce all their ads on live TV anymore.
And ratings have improved for none of them.
So the leadership of The Academy has really not come up with an answer. Certainly not the bold answer they have been selling. To call it incremental would be to understimate incrementalism.
Nor have they come up with a position on what would be best for the show or best for gathering an audience. That, regardless of whether people really liked the position, would allow The Academy to make big changes and have a membership that understands getting production done against all odds, bite the bullet and embrace the effort to try.
But The Show is not the only place for concern, in terms of what Oscar means to the industry, much less the world. Under Dawn Hudson, The Academy has given up on seriously managing access to the voters. If you were around before Dawn was hired, you will know what a massive change this is.
It started many years ago with the Deadline Contenders event… which was presented in its first year as being a not-for-profit public service. It’s now a major annual revenue producer and has expanded into many variations, including international events.
If you don’t know what the event is, it’s a series of day-long Q&As with talent and some presentations of content. No movies are shown. 100% a marketing event. This was definitively against Academy rules when it was invented… but The Academy shrugged and let it through.
Nowadays, it’s become like the HFPA or NBR… if you don’t participate, it’s a mark against you. You won’t win nothin’.
Every year, the Academy makes slight adjustments to the rules for the studios and their publicist/consultants. But ironically, by enforcing almost no rules on media - and as such, encouraging more and more direct solicitation of Academy voters - the whole thing has run amuck.
This off-season, The Academy junked a long-held rule about Academy members promoting other Academy members for Oscars, allowing a whole range of “opinion pieces” that would have gotten members threatened, kicked out of any position of authority in the organization, or even suspended or kicked out of The Academy.
It could be argued - not facetiously - that Academy limitations of direct access to voters have become irrelevant and actually act as a penalty to the Academy membership. If you’re going to allow outside forces to give a big bear hug to Academy voters, why stop distributors from having the same kind of access that media now has?
Meanwhile, the near-doubling of the Academy voter base has become a way of encouraging a lack of responsibility to those new members by The Academy leadership. 4500 was a lot to try to manage. 9000+ is virtually impossible.
Moreover, it has led to an expansion of the machinery to reach those thousands of new members who are not in Los Angeles or New York or the United States for that matter.
Plus, as The Academy hit the jackpot on Wall St, purely by luck, in the last few years, putting almost a billion dollars in the bank, the organization continues to increase the annual dues.
So… $250 million in ads. $50 million to The Golden Globes. $110 million to The Academy for the Oscar show.
And what is the current value of Oscar?
Very few, if any Oscar winners are going to see any direct financial benefit from winning Oscar. None of the streamers, clearly. But even the theatrical movies… maybe $20 million or $30 million. But only if you win Best Picture… competing with 9 other movies.
Netflix got into the Oscar game, in great part, to convince high-end talent that the company was safe to work for. And they have. When Maggie Gyllenhaal profusely thanked Netflix at the Indie Spirit Awards this last weekend, everything she said was absolutely true. They did support her and her film in a manner to which many would love to become accustomed. And she is not alone.
At this point, winning is just something they haven’t done. The company’s spending habits and somewhat hands-off approach to production is no secret in town or a poiint of debate. So what will they do once they win? Who knows?
Winning Oscar is still the ultimate film industry award. And I value that, even if there have been very few films that have won Best Picture in my adult lifetime that I thought was the best film of the year. But my interest today is the narrowing of the importance of the award. Congrats to anyone who wins one. It is an epic win. For you.
But as I didn’t watch the Nominees Luncheon… after not watching, literally, hundreds and hundreds of live and taped Q&As… with half of The Academy living and working outside of America while The Academy has done absolutely nothing to make Oscar more reflective of worldwide status… with the expansion of The Academy not significantly improving the membership percentages of black American film industry workers or Latino or Asian… with a daily pile of new glossy (and rough… this year’s twist) advertising magazines that fill pages with content only so they are not just the world’s most expensive version of the Pennysaver… with a 3 month wait from the end of the year to the end of Oscar season when nothing significant will have happened for months to inspire new perspective on the films of this season… with Netflix putting some of their movies on as many as 800 screens and virtually no one knowing about it and with no box office reporting at all…
It all looks so small. So unimportant.
And so expensive. (And yes, I do get some of those dollars… which keeps this newsletter free and my rent paid.)
I watched all the movies, at least twice. Getting people to watch the movies used to be the whole game. But it changed.
I instinctively feel like the room is getting smaller and smaller. The efforts to expand it are too much change for people who have too much invested in the status quo (though they are smart enough to be braver). And almost half a billion a year is being invested in a statue that means less and less to fewer fewer.
This is an industry in which bold choices lead to greatness and to destruction. But we may be at the point of erosion forcing the issue.