Earlier this week the nominees were announced for the 95th Annual Academy Awards, and the world greeted them with…well, with a collective yawn. Oh sure, people are talking a little. Everybody is happy about Brendan Fraser’s nomination for The Whale, and a lot of people are glad about the hearty showing for Everything Everywhere All At Once, but for the most part, the chatter has died down pretty quickly. This isn’t really that surprising, as Oscar viewership has plummeted in recent years. At its peak in 1998 (55.3 million viewers), the Oscars were the second-highest rated telecast in America, following only the Super Bowl. But that was a long time ago, and since 2010 viewership has taken a nose-dive, with last year’s ceremony gathering a relatively meager 16.6 million viewers. That number was touted as a win by some after 2021’s disastrous 9.85 million, although that number was no doubt influenced by the pandemic crippling viewership for movies in general the year before.
In a way, I suppose I could call myself part of the problem. I used to be a devoted viewer of the Oscars, eagerly awaiting the nominees, making every attempt I could to watch as many of the nominated films as possible before the ceremony, and vociferously arguing with the winners when I felt the Academy made the wrong call. (Lookin’ at you, Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan.) But not only do I not really care about the Oscars anymore, I don’t even really care that I don’t care. It would be easy to go on a tirade about how the Oscars have changed and left me behind, but that’s not really true. The Oscars haven’t changed that much. I’ve changed. The way we view movies has changed. The world has changed. The Oscars haven’t kept up.
Out of this year’s 54 nominated movies, I have seen five. I’ve only seen one of the Best Picture nominees, and I haven’t even heard of some of the others. This is nothing new, by the way. Right now, without looking it up, how many of you remember that King Richard took home the Best Picture award at last year’s ceremony? Go ahead, raise your hand, let everyone see you. Now everybody who just raised their hand can put it down in shame: I know you’re lying because I made that part up. The winner was Coda. But you didn’t remember that either, did you?
It’s okay, neither did I. I had to Google it.
I don’t object to the concept of an awards program. I’m fine with peers (in this case, people involved in the movie industry) declaring what they consider the superior examples of their craft. And I’m not even saying they should change what movies they give the awards to in order to make them more commercial – that would be intellectually dishonest, not to mention pandering. However, if the films that get the accolades are movies the mass audience has never heard of, they don’t get to complain when the mass audience isn’t interested anymore.
But it’s not just the movies that get nominated that are causing a problem. The way people watch movies has changed dramatically in the last few years. In-theater attendance has collapsed, while streaming numbers have picked up the slack. Personally, I’m not crazy about this. I always prefer to see a movie in theaters if the option is there, but I also have a five-year-old child and I know that seeing movies in theaters is frequently difficult, if not impossible, for many people. Once upon a time I would go to the movies nearly every weekend, sometimes seeing two or three films in a single day. In 2022, I made it to the movies a grand total of once. Similarly, watching long movies isn’t easy for me either. I’m not someone who whines if a film goes beyond 87 minutes, mind you. I like long movies. I can spend an entire weekend watching the extended cuts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and still hunger for more. But when my kid is demanding things like YouTube videos or, y’know, food, it can be difficult to set aside the three hours necessary to watch All Quiet on the Western Front. Some people are happy to break up a movie in chunks and watch it over a few days. To me, the very thought of doing such a thing makes me want to cry.
So I’ve got a few suggestions to help the Oscars win back a little of the relevance – or at least the interest – that has eroded from what was once the biggest night in Hollywood.
First of all, let’s address the availability issue. This is a bigger issue for categories like shorts, documentaries, and foreign films, but a lot of the lesser-known films in other categories suffer from it as well. It’s hard to make a potential awards viewer excited about nominees that they haven’t seen, but in this streaming world, why is it still a problem? Sure, if a movie is owned by Disney or Warner Bros., you know it’s going to be on a streaming service soon enough, but what about the deserving films that aren’t? One of the nominees for Best Animated Short this year is an Australian film called An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It. Now I’m ready to hand filmmaker Lachlan Pendragon the trophy based on the title alone, and I would love to watch this movie…but alas, it’s not available anywhere that I’ve checked.
Here’s a chance for the Academy to use some of that muscle they have for good. Cut some sort of a deal with a popular streaming service – Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, take your dang pick – that would give nominees the option for a limited streaming window in the frame stretching from the nominations through the awards ceremony, or perhaps a few weeks or so after. Give people a chance to watch the movies, and they may start to care again. Hell, why not start their own service that exclusively carries Oscar-nominated films from the past 95 years? I know a lot of them already have their rights tied up with different companies and streaming services, but there must be plenty of orphans deserving of a chance to find an audience.
Next, let’s talk about the categories of the awards. I don’t have an issue with any of the current categories, but the films that are most popular aren’t usually the kind of things that will line up for Best Picture or the acting categories, unless they’re directed by James Cameron or have Black Panther in the title. Genre films have always been largely ignored by the Academy unless they become so immensely popular that they simply cannot pretend they don’t exist. We all remember the 2003 Oscar bloodbath when they gave Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King every award they could out of fear of the fans angry over the snubs for the first two installments marching on Hollywood and lighting New Line Cinema on fire.
A few years ago the Oscars announced the addition of a “Best Popular Film” category in an attempt to address this problem. They quickly dropped the idea, however, when millions of angry fans on the internet pointed out that, for an organization worried about being perceived as snobbish and elitist, inventing an award specifically to placate “the little people” was probably not the best way to change that attitude.
But there are two categories that could be added that would not only be gratefully accepted by genre fans, but also fill in two gaping voids in the production of motion pictures that are not currently addressed by the Oscars: stunt performance and performance in animation.
Stuntwork has existed since the earliest days of motion pictures, and despite the utter brilliance of people from Buster Keaton to Chad Stahelski, the Oscars have never seen fit to recognize that aspect of filmmaking. A stunt category would create more interest from fans of genre films (which would likely dominate the category for obvious reasons), as well as finally giving credit to people who literally risk their lives in the creation of our favorite motion pictures. And it should remain distinct from the “best visual effects” category. There should be a limit on how much of the film is CGI in order to qualify, so a movie where the action is 95 percent generated by a computer wouldn’t muscle out a film where there was an actual living human being strapped to a crane and they only used a computer to erase the wires.
Animated performance has also been ignored historically. I don’t know if voice performers are technically eligible in the standard acting categories, but I know that no one has ever been nominated for such a performance. And voice acting is performance. Whether it’s someone standing at a microphone, as in most animated films, or someone doing full motion capture and acting out the part, there is a unique performance element that is as impressive an art as any other. It still burns me that Andy Serkis was completely snubbed for his role as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, a performance that almost certainly would have gotten recognition if he had been wearing makeup, but was totally ignored because he was rendered digitally.
I don’t know if I would further subdivide this and make motion capture performances their own separate category from “traditional” voice acting, but having at least one category dedicated to this type of performance would be a big step. What’s more, this is not a solo award. It should be shared by the person who performs the voice and/or motion capture, as well the animator or animation team that completes the process of bringing the character to life. Guillermo Del Toro credited the people who made his Pinocchio film this way, and the Academy should do the same.
The only downside to this, of course, is that adding categories to the awards would make the show even longer, and this brings us to the final reason that people have lost interest in watching the Oscars: bloat. The show is long, tedious, and full of fluff that the average viewer couldn’t care less about, and that’s before we even get to the acceptance speeches. What’s even worse, they make room for this bloat by taking certain categories (usually the technical awards) and giving them out at an untelevised separate ceremony, essentially declaring which awards are less significant than some actor’s impassioned speech on behalf of the life cycle of the Bolivian Dung Beetle.
So the first thing that needs to be done is blow out the fluff. Get rid of the stupid sketches and weepy speeches that don’t relate directly to the awards being given out. There should be three components to the ceremony: musical performances of the nominated songs, the “In Memoriam” reel, and the awards themselves. In and of itself, this change would reduce the length of the ceremony by approximately 17 years.
Then come the acceptance speeches, and this is the tough part. I believe 100 percent in freedom of speech, and I will never advocate curtailing a person’s right to exercise it. That said, if given a choice between seeing the award for best achievement in sound design given live or hearing an actor lecture me on politics – even when they happen to be politics I personally agree with – I will choose the award every single time, and I do not think I’m alone in this. The best solution I can think of is to impose a strict limit on the on-stage speech – 30 seconds, a minute, whatever, but enforce it, even if it means turning off the microphone. Then, allow the winner extended time backstage to make their full speeches, say whatever they want, and upload the unabridged and unedited video to the Oscar website, where people who want to will have the freedom to watch them in full. Some people would object to this policy, of course. “But people won’t get to see my speech!” they will cry. I would answer, “The ones who want to hear it can easily find it.” And they’ll say, “But what if they don’t WANT to?” And I will simply smile and shrug.
I advocate similar changes when it comes to political campaigning.
It’s not a perfect system, I admit, but unlike several of the people who have accepted Academy Awards over the years, I’ve never tried to convince anyone I am perfect. But I do think these changes will make general audiences more receptive and more interested in watching the Oscars again.
Or at the very least, it’ll be better than the Golden Globes.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He’s heard an awful lot of nice things about that Brendan Fraser fella, and he hopes he’s having a good time right now.