After Oscars Ratings Tank, Do the Academy Awards Need Another Makeover?

The producers of the 93rd Academy Awards promised to make the Oscars more like a movie. But the abysmal ratings and atrocious reviews that greeted their efforts to shake things up wasn’t the kind of Hollywood ending they envisioned. Instead, critics are wondering if the Oscars can remain relevant at a time when viewers are abandoning awards shows en masse and the types of films that the Academy tends to recognize are failing to capture the public’s imagination.

Five Variety critics and editors sift through good, the bad and the ugly of the 2021 Oscars to debate the ways that the movie industry’s biggest night can be improved.

Ramin Setoodeh: The Oscars were a dud this year. Yes, the ceremony had a lot of hurdles to overcome — the pandemic crippled the movie theater business and the release of most big blockbusters (from “West Side Story” to “No Time to Die”) were postponed. But as the saying goes, the show must go on. And one common gripe about the Oscars is that a town that prides itself on entertaining the masses has lost its sense of fun when it comes to producing a telecast. That seemed particularly true this year.

The 93rd Academy Awards, produced by a team of veterans that included Steven Soderbergh, felt like it had given up on putting on a show for the country at large, and instead opted for a self-important event programmed solely for those in the industry. The long speeches, the elimination of any musical numbers, the lack of a host — all these touches made the Oscars smaller; an intimate work dinner, not a big celebration of the movies. Even the setting, at Los Angeles’ Union Station, gave viewers the impression they were eavesdropping on a gala that might have been hosted, for example, by the New York Film Critics Circle. Did any of this need to be on television?

The Grammys also sank in the ratings this year, but at least they had Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Dua Lipa, Harry Styles and Megan Thee Stallion. The Grammys were, at least, thrilling to watch. Of all the decisions that were made on Sunday, I’m most disappointed that Soderbergh didn’t tap his rolodex — which includes everyone from Julia Roberts to George Clooney, Matt Damon, Channing Tatum, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lopez — and given us an A-list extravaganza with major stars, and a valentine to movie-making. After a painful and tragic year, the Oscars should have reminded millions of vaccinated Americans why they should be excited to be able to return to the communal experience of going to the movies. Instead, we got Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt.”

Jenelle Riley: I have to disagree on one thing — Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt” was one of the highlights of the year for me. And while I miss the extravaganza, I’m not sure it would feel appropriate while we’re still deep in a pandemic to pack the Dolby Theater. But I do agree that many of the ceremonies this season lacked the fun and celebration of shows past. It’s ironic to me that the awards show that got it best was also the first to go virtual – the Emmys really set the bar. So it was surprising those that followed couldn’t rise to the same level.

My biggest complaint about this awards season was all the pre-recorded acceptance speeches we had to suffer through. While I understand wanting to avoid a disaster like having Daniel Kaluuya muted for the first part of his Globes speech, having all the nominees pre-record their thank you’s in case they won doesn’t work. You can tell they’re hedging their bets in case they didn’t win, and you’re not getting that complete shock/elation/joy when their names are called. The SAG Awards recorded the winners live in a pre-record, and who can forget Viola Davis nearly falling out of her chair when she won? The difference was never more obvious than at the Independent Spirit Awards, where they opened with carefully, pre-recorded speeches but ended with ones that were announced live. There was no comparison.

That’s why I was happy the Oscars went with a live show and took some risks. I was thrilled so many wonderful films and artists were honored. And many will disagree, but I loved that this year’s Oscars didn’t cut off the speeches. Yes, we got a few that ran long. But that length also gave way to some of the best moments — I doubt Daniel Kaluuya would have rambled about his parents having sex if he’d only had 60 seconds. It would have been wrong to condense Thomas Vinterberg’s heartfelt tribute to his late daughter. We are here to celebrate these people, and they should at least get as much time as it takes to introduce their categories.

Brent Lang: Even if this had been an entertaining, glittering, wildly innovative Oscars (and, rest assured, it was not), the ratings still would have stunk. Nobody cared about these movies. That’s a shame because films like “Minari” or “Promising Young Woman” would have been strong contenders in non-pandemic times, and “Nomadland,” the best picture winner, deserved its prize. But these arthouse films failed to tap into the zeitgeist, partly because they did not enjoy a traditional theatrical rollout and didn’t benefit from the level of press coverage and attention that kind of distribution can generate. Streaming services like Netflix or Hulu may be upending the film business, but they offer up such an endless ocean of content that much of it can seem ephemeral, which I think is part of the problem. It’s hard to turn streaming movies into events. This year’s telecast really suffered from the lack of any blockbuster nominees like a “Joker” or “Gravity” — the type of movie that most viewers see, enjoy and have a rooting interest in seeing triumph.

That said, the show’s producers didn’t give viewers much reason to watch until the final award was announced or to encourage them to tune in next year. I suspect a lot of people got tired of the self-congratulation and quickly changed the channel.

For me, the Oscars’ big sin was the failure to acknowledge the impact that COVID had on the entertainment landscape, halting production for months, shuttering cinemas and leaving tens of thousands of people without work. There was no sense of shared sacrifice and few acknowledgments of the lives and careers that have been altered by this virus.

But things are finally getting better. Movie theaters, at least the ones that didn’t go bankrupt, are reopening and the box office is shaking off its torpor. But you wouldn’t know that from watching Sunday’s telecast. Except for Frances McDormand’s impassioned plea for viewers to return to theaters as soon as it’s safe, cinema’s annus horribilis didn’t even merit a mention. That was tone-deaf and betrayed the chasm that exists between the affluent stars who present and accept Oscars and the blue-collar workers who light movie sets, man catering trucks, apply makeup, fix hair, clean cinemas, sell tickets and popcorn and do the myriad tasks that make the entertainment ecosystem possible. Sunday night was a chance to tell their stories. It was an opportunity to get the public excited about returning to theaters and invested in the movie business’ comeback. But that wasn’t the show that the Academy decided to air. Maybe next year Joaquin Phoenix, whose awkward awarding of best actor to an absent Anthony Hopkins, ended this bizarre telecast on the perfect WTF note, should host. At least that would be interesting to watch.

Owen Gleiberman: You’re right, Brent — the excitement was missing. The thrill was gone. But here’s the crowning irony: Each year, the Oscar telecast gets raked over the coals for committing variations on the same sins, with the media more or less rising up as one to declare: “Here’s how the opening monologue fell short! There were too many montages! Why do they have to cut people off in mid-speech? That WTF comedy sketch was a total bust! The musical numbers were terrible! How could they leave so-and-so out of the In Memoriam segment? Oh, and the whole thing was way too long!” In a strange way, Steven Soderbergh and his team of producers did an obsessive job of paying heed to those age-old criticisms. And guess what? They worked so hard to “fix” the Oscars that they wound up tweaking the ceremony into oblivion.

Here’s the real way to solve the Oscar problem. It’s not actually about the show. It’s about the movies. Hollywood has to rediscover a way to do two things at once: 1) make crowd-pleasing films that are artful acts of storytelling not aimed at 14-year-olds; and 2) nominate those movies for Oscars. That’s how the Oscars will be saved. The Oscar crisis — the specter of the disappearing audience — can only be solved by winning the audience back to movie theaters, with movies that are too good to resist. That sounds like a high bar. But it’s the only possible bar. It’s the one our movies have to clear. And look, the talent is out there. The doors that are now opening to greater diversity and representation also promise bold ways to refresh Hollywood storytelling. But movies can’t survive as an art form if it’s just “Godzilla” and “Star Wars” playing on 18 out of 18 screens, and if the good movies — and let’s be clear: most of the nominated films this year were good movies — are non-events streaming in a living room near you.

Peter Debruge: The past year has been a bust for audience engagement (and who can blame folks, given the real-world distractions and deep-freeze on studio releases?), but I love what the Oscars were able to do with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The nominations themselves — as diverse a mix as we’ve ever seen — are a reminder that when you take the big-budget releases with expensive marketing campaigns out of the awards derby, there’s no shortage of exceptional, personal movies being made. I want to think that some of these would’ve registered with the Academy in a “normal” (non-pandemic) year, but I suspect most would have been relegated to the Independent Spirit Awards, while “West Side Story” and “In the Heights” racked up nine or 10 nominations apiece.

Do I miss those big movies? Of course, and seeing teasers for those two musicals got my heart racing for a return to theaters! But the Academy’s been too concerned about chasing ratings in recent years (remember the fiasco that was the “outstanding achievement in popular film”?), and I appreciate that in such an exceptional year as this, they chose to honor the nominees, rather than cooking up “fun” distractions (like Glenn Close’s scene-stealing twerk) to pander to a wider audience. Steven Soderbergh delivered a classy show, and by breaking from the louche Vegas cabaret show format of years past, he brought a measure of suspense to the event itself. Typically, it’s just the opening of the envelopes that has the capacity to surprise, but this year, I never knew what would come next. With any luck, the Academy will incorporate some of the changes into future ceremonies.

Any movie that came out last year took a big risk, and it’s fitting that the Academy should celebrate those films that were bold enough to be released under the most difficult of circumstances. The least they could do was not play the winners off the stage mid-speech (although inviting Questlove to play ’80s songs and air-horn sounds was a weird substitute for an orchestra). Even without gimmicks, the evening went over well among the friends I was watching with. Mind you, I make it a point to see every nominee before the telecast, whereas the vast majority of Americans sought entertainment elsewhere in 2020. My fellow viewers had seen a total of perhaps three of the noms between them: “Nomadland,” “Soul” and “Mank.” That tells me the show had a tough mountain to climb going in, and as Owen points out, the challenge now shifts to the industry itself: If people broke the habit of going out to see movies during the pandemic, what will bring them back? The Oscars were never going to solve that problem.

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