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The Oscars' Questionable Recipe For Bringing Back Viewers: A Twitter Fan Award And Slashing 8 Categories

Director James Cameron has his arms raised in triumph as he holds an Oscar statue in his left hand.
Director James Cameron raises his Oscar after winning Best Director Category during the 70th Academy Awards in 1998, the highest rated broadcast of the ceremony ever. More recently, ratings have been dismal.
(Timothy A. Clary
/
AFP via Getty Images)
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In what feels like a cruel rupture of the time-space continuum, the Academy Awards are still more than a month away. Yet interest isn’t waning just for this year’s pandemic-delayed Oscars: the relevancy of the ceremony itself has reached a tipping point.

Even before COVID transformed last year’s Oscars into a curious fragment of a traditional broadcast that generated the worst ratings in Academy Awards history, the television turnout was plummeting.

In the early 2010s, more than 40 million viewers typically watched the ceremony. By 2018, however, the numbers were below 30 million, and trending further south. The 2021 show, held in a makeshift stage at downtown’s Union Station, didn’t attract even 10 million viewers.

A Twitter Award?

Eager to reverse the trend, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has taken several unusual steps.

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First, it decided to add a fan favorite Twitter award presented during the ceremony, essentially a social media version of the academy’s catastrophic idea in 2018 to create a Best Popular Film category. (One report suggested the critically lambasted Cinderella was attracting lots of votes in the Twitter poll, as films need not be nominated for any other Oscar.)

Second, the academy dispatched the presentation of eight lesser Oscars to a pre-broadcast netherworld. The demoted categories are:

  • Documentary short
  • Editing
  • Makeup and hairstyling
  • Score
  • Production design
  • Animated short
  • Live action short
  • Sound.

The academy told its members that winners still will be recognized during the main ceremony, but that the cuts should create a more “exciting” and “streamlined” show.
The reception was a bit frosty.

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Will It Even Work?

Neither twist addresses fundamental issues for this year’s show.

  1. The ceremony is almost two months later than 2020’s pre-pandemic early February show.
  2. The top nominated films went largely unseen by moviegoers.

Two years ago, the best picture nominees included five box-office hits, including Joker, 1917 and Ford v. Ferrari. This year, only one modest theatrical success — Dune — is contending for the top Academy Award.

What’s more, several box office flops — chiefly Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story — collected multiple nominations. And several other best picture nominees flamed out at the multiplex, including Belfast, Nightmare Alley and Licorice Pizza.

Oscar viewership and box-office prowess have been closely correlated in the past. The highest-rated ceremony ever was in 1998, when more than 50 million viewers saw the global blockbuster Titanic win 11 statuettes, including best picture.

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This year’s show, which was initially scheduled for this coming Sunday, will be hosted by Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes. They will surely try to make the ceremony interesting, and there’s actual drama in several closely contested top categories, including best picture.

Yet even with unmasked nominees back in the Dolby Theatre, there’s little reason to expect great ratings. There was no shortage of artistry in the just-concluded Olympics, which nevertheless had the worst ratings of any Winter games.

People are fidgety and impatient: They’re far more interested in TikTok than “tick, tick … Boom!”

And that’s something the Academy Awards can’t change.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn covers the business of entertainment, examining what's next for Hollywood post pandemic.