Who Cares About the Oscars?

Wall Street Journal article lamenting the Oscars

On Wednesday I read an article in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal entitled “Put the Oscars Out of Their Misery.”  This one wasted ink on all the familiar criticisms—the three hour telecast is bloated and boring, no one has heard of the nominees, and no one wants to hear the political posturing of a bunch of rich celebrities preaching to a friendly crowd.  Articles like this have become as much a part of the Academy Awards as the red carpet and gold statues. 

The criticism falls into two categories:

Point One:  No one cares because no one is watching.

It’s a cheap shot to point out that less than 10 million people watched the Oscars in 2021, a year when no one went to the movies and the ceremony was stripped down due to pandemic restrictions.  The WSJ article condescendingly sniffs that in comparison nearly 100 million people watched the Super Bowl. 

But if you have to compete with the Super Bowl to matter, than literally nothing does.  Twenty-nine of the top 30 all-time rated broadcasts in America are Super Bowls. 

The other is the 1983 M*A*S*H finale.

Yes, it’s an undeniable fact that fewer people than ever watch the Oscars.  But fewer people watch everything these days.  In an age of endless choice no individual show can capture the audience of its heyday.

Chart of the decline of ratings for the Academy Awards ceremony

In 2020, the last year before the pandemic, the Oscars were still the 8th most-watched event on television, surpassing even the presidential debate. 

And yes, these number are incomplete because many of the streaming services don’t publish their numbers.  But regardless of its actual place on the list, a lot of people still watch the Oscars, even if just to complain about the show on Twitter, the world’s modern day work-from-home water cooler.

Point Two:  No one cares because they don’t matter

Today, there’s little doubt that the buzz is all around episodic televisions shows.  The talk is of Game of Thrones, Tiger King, and Squid Games.  People binge six old episodes of The Office rather than watching a film.

How can it possibly matter who wins an award for a movie no one’s seen?

In some ways, the Oscars matter more than ever.  They’re no longer a coronation for the year’s favorite films.  They’re a road map leading viewers through a noisy world filled with network television, cable television, a myriad of streaming options, and You Tube.

As Theodore Sturgeon once said, “ninety percent of everything is crap.”  We’ve never had a bigger pool of mediocrity to wade through to find film’s hidden gems.

Raunchy comedies and superhero movies don’t need Oscars for exposure.  Today’s Oscars help viewers find a certain kind of film, what are often called films for adults (not to be confused with adult films.)

The Oscars don’t always get it right—and pointing out when they get it wrong is one of my favorite hobbies—but over time they’ve created a catalogue showcasing the best of American cinema. 

The Oscars don’t matter?  The Oscars are the surest way for a film, director, or star to reach immortality.

Maybe you don’t care about that.

But I do.

And the Wall Street Journal cares too, despite its protests to the contrary.  It gave over a quarter of a page in the print edition—some of the most precious real estate left in journalism—to complaining about how the Oscars don’t matter.

When the Oscars really don’t matter, they won’t have to write articles explaining that they don’t.

When the Oscars don’t matter, no one will talk about them at all.

This year, the Best Actress Race has my full attention.  You’ve got five great choices, but my rooting interest is with Nicole Kidman for her role as Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos.

If she won, she’d become only the 15th woman to hold two Best Actress Oscars, vaulting her into the company of such legends as Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, and Meryl Streep.  I’d like to see Kidman among them—she’s survived thirty plus years in Hollywood, and reinvented herself as a television and now streaming movie star.

She’s got a touch of old Hollywood about her—everyone has heard of her, but she remains unknowable in the way of a true legend.  She doesn’t post her every inane thought on Twitter or a picture of every breakfast on Instagram.

Plus, I loved Being the Ricardos, and she’s sensational as Lucille Ball.

So who cares about the Oscars?  Who’ll be watching tonight?

I do.  And I will.

21 thoughts on “Who Cares About the Oscars?

  1. Oscars do matter; all awards are a useful way of publicising good work. But if you’re asking the orinary viewer to get excited over a contest between Drive My Car and Coda, you’re unlikely to draw a crowd. It’s not a massive leap to say that the best films of the year should draw and audience, and the awards system generally seems to have shifted away from the films that people are watching, in cinemas at least.

    • All true. Even though I agree with much of the criticism, I always chafe a bit at the flood of articles like this one insisting the Oscars are dead, movies are dead, cinema is dead. Maybe it’s because the truth hurts……

      • One of my favourite quotes is ‘Come, my friend, tis not to late to make a better world…’. It’s not too late to pull this back from the brink, and I genuinely believe that cinema can pull through…but we need long-term planning and out-of-the box thinking…the Oscars are only dead if we say they are! But recent awards feel like a slap in the face to the viewing public…

      • I haven’t kept up, but I think the Oscars need to loosen the rules on streamers. Is it still the rule that the film, even though it’s a streaming-only release, it must play in a certainly amount of theaters for certain time period to qualify?

        I don’t want a “Best Streaming Film” category. Just like I don’t want “Best Box Office” awards. A good film is a good film. Period. I don’t care how it’s delivered to the public, be it a big screen or small screen. The Oscars need to get with the (digital) times. They’re worse than the radio industry: always a day, late, a dollar short and ten years behind the times.

    • You’re so correct. I read a few articles regarding Whiplash. The raves!!! The awards!!! The Oscar nod did not translate. Sometimes, a film received a B.O bump from the Oscars. Yeah, a film like Rocky. But not some indie-emo sniveling. Oh, and that 3 Billboards movie with what’s her name from Fargo. Same result.

      • Vive la résistance! I too refuse to believe in-person cinema is dead.

        But I also agree that the Oscars need to make room for streaming films – I’ll be honest I don’t know the exact rules.

        Innovating without losing their essential essence…that is the mission of cinema and the Oscars.

      • “Vive la résistance! I too refuse to believe in-person cinema is dead.” Amen, sister! Tell it!

        I was just discussing 2001: A Space Odyssey a few days ago. It MUST be seen on the big screen. Must. It played in theaters a few years ago (a new print) and it’s breathtaking. TV/device screens do it no justice.

  2. Ross Douthat, who’s politics I don’t always agree with, had a long and thoughtful piece in the New York Times on Thursday. It is worth reading the whole thing. I think he is a few years younger than me, but he points out that the Oscar’s peaked in 1998 or thereabout. And I have to agree with his reasoning. I was living in Studio City back then, and remember with some fondness all of the Oscar parties that took place in the neighborhood. Back then I’d seen a lot of the films because they still had som originality to them, and didn’t require a bunch of backstory that today’s endless sequels involve. I could go to the movies, and see an entire story unfold in about 2 hours. That was entertaining.

    After that period, Douthat writes,

    What happened next was complicated in that many different forces were at work but simple in that they all had the same effect — which was to finally knock the movies off their pedestal, transform them into just another form of content.

    The happiest of these changes was a creative breakthrough on television, beginning in earnest with “Sopranos”-era HBO, which enabled small-screen entertainment to vie with the movies as a stage for high-level acting, writing and directing.

    He goes on to say, “But the effects-driven blockbuster, more than its 1980s antecedents, empowered a fandom culture that offered built-in audiences to studios, but at the price of subordinating traditional aspects of cinema to the demands of the Jedi religion or the Marvel cult.”

    I realized that my problem with today’s movies and television is rooted in the same problem I have with the marketplace for novels: storytelling is subordinated to franchise. I am always on the lookout for good standalone novels. They are hard to come by for the very reason that publishers are looking to build franchises. That is where the money is. It makes sense that movies follow in this regard. Douthat’s point about *Star Wars* and Marvel films is well-taken. (I should say here, in all honesty, that I enjoy most of the *Star Wars* films, even the new ones, even the ones that fans seem to hate. But I was five years old when my parents took me to see the original Star Wars at a drive-in in New Jersey in 1977 so it has been with me for a long time.)

    What I want in a film or a television show for that matter, is something original that will entertain me for a few hours (or 22 minutes) without having to invest more time. A film like Shakespeare In Love fit this bill when it came out. TV shows like M*A*S*H and Magnum, P.I. fit the bill because you could dip into them anywhere without having to know what happened in the previous 20, 50, or 200 episodes.

    But–and this is the point I think that Douthat and I really agree–the market place today, with so many possible outlets and such fierce competition, makes these types of films and TV shows increasingly rare. A movie that doesn’t offer the possibility of sequels can be franchised; a TV show in which any single episode can entertain does not create the kind of emotional investment that makes them viable. So instead, we get the big franchise films and the serialized, rather than episodic TV shows.

    Those are not necessarily the films that the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are likely to vote for, and so there is an increasing disconnect between what large audiences see and like, and what appears in the Oscar nominations.

    I think you stated the counter to this (my own) viewpoint well, when you said, “They’re no longer a coronation for the year’s favorite films.  They’re a road map leading viewers through a noisy world filled with network television, cable television, a myriad of streaming options, and You Tube.” This is an excellent point, and I don’t think this is being emphasized enough by the Academy. You have to ask yourself why.

    Okay, this is probably the longest single comment I’ve ever made in the 16+ years I’ve been writing and commenting on blog posts. So I’ll stop here. Great post, as always, Melanie.

    • Thank you for your insightful comment, Jamie. I read the Douthat article you recommended, and I do agree with a lot of what he says. The 90s were a wonderful time for movies, and even I enjoyed the Oscars much more back in those days.

      You and Douthat are also spot on about the proliferation of franchise films. I like them well enough, but as I often lament, can’t we have something else? I worry that the Oscars will eventually capitulate to the need for ratings and start giving their awards to these films. I enjoy (or used to before there just go to be too many) Marvel films but they aren’t great cinema. (I think I’m unintentionally quoting Martin Scorsese there). That will truly be the end of the Oscars.

      I wish we could somehow reintegrate commercial and critical darlings. The thought of cinema going the way of the record store is perhaps inevitable but the thought brings such pain!

      • Also….it makes me so happy you mentioned “Shakespeare In Love.” I have always loved that film and thought it was such a worthy Best Picture winner. It’s clever and entertaining, and truth be told, I liked it better than Saving Private Ryan (which was also nominated that year.)

        For years and years (and maybe still) it would always be on internet lists of times Oscar got it wrong (right up there with Marisa Tomei for winning in My Cousin Vinny). I would read those lists and fume!! 🙂

  3. — “People binge six old episodes of The Office rather than watching a film.” Yes, that would be me! because Jim and Pam are awesome. The best romantic actor-chemistry, ever, in the classic film sense.

    — As for the Oscars . . . well, if President Zelenskyy isn’t there tonight, invited, or whatever Sean’s hoping mad about, uh, er . . . Sean Penn said he’s melting down his two Oscars. So, THAT I care about (Haha)! I hope he live streams it and we see him drop them in the smelting vat! I’m sorry, I just can see the President of the Ukraine (even if he is an ex-actor himself) abandoning his citizens in a time of need to fly to L.A. to make a speech at a bloated spectacle of privilege to please the Penn’s and Susan Sarandons of the industry.

    — On the serious side: Without going back to Deadline to retrieve the Oscar-committee individual’s name: Her argument regarding the shortening of the televised portions of the ceremonies will “silence voices.” And that is what I believe leads to the (inaccurate) broad swipe that “No one cares/watches” the ceremonies. The Oscars — going back to Sean Penn’s rant — have stopped being about the craft of acting and filmmaking . . . and more about the international podium’s usage for sociopolitical issues.

    Jane Campion, a fine filmmaker, just won an award for Power of the Dog this past week or so. During her speech, it was all about the “power of black women” or whatnot and nothing about the film itself — and not thanking anyone involved with the film. Apparently, she was addressing the (Tennis) Williams sisters . . . and as the camera cut to them, it is said they were “visibly uncomfortable” with Campion’s speech. Then, the “Excuse me, privileged white woman” snipes, start. Ugh. A vicious circle! Hey, but Sam Elliot, I believe it was, gave her a good ripping, so all is equaled!!

    Behavior like Campion’s and Penn’s is what’s soured many on awards shows, in general. And the #Oscar So White scandal . . . and the argument that there needs to be a “Best Box Office Award” for the biggest money maker . . . because Black Panther broke office records, yet got Oscar snubbed. Again, any awards program should about “the craft” and not about politics or box office records.

  4. Wow. Is this plot thickening. . . . I should worry about other things, but I can’t stop the digital rubberneckin’.

      • Oh, she egged him on. I think she leaned over and said, “Are you going to let him disrespect me like that?” Will seemed to laugh it off and was fine: “Chris is being Chris.”

        Honestly, when the joke flopped and Jada’s eyes rolled, I thought, “Oh, no. Here we go,” and it wasn’t HER that snapped: it was Will? Remember how vocal she became when Will was passed over for Concussion? You are right: Imagine if she got up and did. You would not have the egg shell response Will’s receiving. And that’s just wrong: the media would destroy her.

        Sadly, Will’s box office is damaged. To act, he’ll have to go the direct-to-DVD (now direct-to-streaming) route taken Tom Sizemore, Eric Roberts, and Bruce Willis. You know, those name-on-the-box/two scene roles to make a buck.

        The Academy is a little bit too “kid gloves” in dealing with this. Imagine if a lesser actor (from the back rows) or one of those sketchy extras employed as a “seat filler” stormed the stage and took a swing. A totally different outcome would ensue.

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