As the roar of responses to Sunday’s Oscar ceremony dies down, it’s important to keep in mind that the award, while not nearly the only avenue to cultural immortality, is still important to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars and untold cache with movie-loving audiences. Film is the center, the core beneath all the bright lights and flash, but it would be foolish to think that the production itself doesn’t lend credence to the weight of the award and, thus, the weight of the propulsion that the statue can lend to the names inside the envelopes.
But the landscape is changing. There are other awards developing their own prestige, the way we watch movies is shifting, and audiences are diversifying far beyond where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can currently manage.
Since the future is unclear, we need an expert. Someone who knows what the future holds. Fortunately, I know someone. I’ve called upon a media expert named Molly (using Kurzweilian technology) who lives and works in the year 2023 to talk about the Oscar ceremony they just watched and what we past-dwellers might expect to see in the next ten years.
Thanks for doing this Molly. It’s an amazing opportunity.
My pleasure. Always excited to get nostalgic. I’m a big fan of the Looper franchise.
I’ll definitely have to ask about that later, but since we’re talking about the Oscars, what’s the biggest change the awards show saw between now and your time?
Technologically speaking or content-wise?
Let’s start with technologically.
Well, to understand that, you first have to know that TV as you know it — as I knew it growing up — and how it works now are slightly different. Television and the Internet were merged completely by 2018 when the last major broadcasting and cable companies signed deals that fell in line with how most people were consuming media already. Apple TV evolving to include a screen was a big aid to that transition. It came with an iPad 9 that you could use, of course as a mobile device, but also as a remote control that made watching shows on your flat screen easy regardless of whether it was coming through satellite or over the internet.
So you could watch the same Oscars broadcast from ABC.com that you’d see on ABC.
You could a few years ago, but now those are the same thing for most people. TVs, phones, the internet. They’re all housed in the same devices anyway. What you think of as a TV channel is now an internet address that you access through a Smart Screen to watch programming. Wi-Fi even got so strong that a lot of people use it exclusively for TV streaming instead of raw cable.
That makes sense. We have Smart TVs now, and companies are selling broadband internet through the same cables that television travels.
But you also can’t watch the Oscars on ABC.com because they don’t broadcast them anymore. Fox does.
Fox continued to dominate as a network, and when ABC’s contract with AMPAS was up in 2020, Fox outbid them. Although I should mention ABC was at least forward-thinking enough to simultaneously stream the show online for the first time in 2015.
Streaming the 2013 show on Hulu must have been a success then. But let’s talk about content now. How has the show itself changed? Do people still view the Oscar as the highest honor Hollywood can give?
Oh, definitely, but its cultural power has diminished quite a bit.
Because the show hasn’t been able to adapt?
No, the show has definitely adapted. In 2014, Kathleen Kennedy was elected President of AMPAS and made some big changes.
Like simulcasting it online.
Like simulcasting it online, and like working with the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC to better track public sentiment about what movies should be honored. It didn’t become the People’s Choice or anything, but Kennedy and the Board of Governor’s used the information coming from social media as a massive focus group that helped them understand what movies would bring in more viewers.
It’s no surprise that the year that Titanic won Best Picture was the most-watched Oscar broadcast until 2016. Even though it was the top movie awards show, ratings were slipping year after year. It was so bad that 2013’s show looked like a triumph with 40.3m domestic viewers. It was definitely due in part to the box office success of the movies being awarded, but compare it to the titanic 55.2m in 1998.
The biggest fish were still left off the dais until Kennedy used the Annenberg information to help guide Academy voters toward more populist fare.
Isn’t that cheating?
Some people felt so, but there were never any missives or commands from on high or anything. Still, a few members protested the move by resigning.
It’s not polite to name names, but let’s just say they were legacy members who had been complaining for years that the lofty goals of the Academy were being lost. Only a small group exited, and the ones who stayed most likely recognized the tough choice they had to make between diminishing power and the perceived dilution of prestige. As you can imagine, a lot of them took the Annenberg information and ran with it. Some pundits, including me, think it led directly to their highest ratings ever.
The show in 2016? What happened then?
The Avengers 2, Avatar 2 and Star Wars Episode VII: Jedis of the New Republic were all nominated for Best Picture, and Joss Whedon and James Cameron were nominated for Best Director. There were a lot of traditional prestige choices as well. Steve Zaillian’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and a Sundance darling that dealt with child hunger in America.
The other five nominees were about as safe as Oscar’s ever been, but the show that year was understandably massive.
And who won?
I’ll leave that as a surprise. I’m not really here to pad your office Oscar pool.
I can respect that. Did anything change with the categories?
The new Academy mindset that popular movies could also be culturally significant was a laudable shift, but it also caused some unfortunate casualties. The animated, live-action and documentary shorts were given their own awards ceremony in 2017, but it’s streamed on the internet and typically pulls in 5m-7m viewers on its own. Part of the appeal is that they include links to the movies that you can check out a few hours before the ceremony for free, and then they’re available through iTunes afterward.
The technical awards weren’t so lucky. Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing were shifted to the non-streamed Scientific Awards. The official word was that it would trim the show to two and a half hours, but most insiders will tell you off the record that it happened to make sure the show is populated almost exclusively by famous faces.
They didn’t ostracize Visual Effects though?
Not after the organized slowdown in Summer 2013 that almost crippled the industry. Execs caught on really quick, and they’ve been hesitant to do anything to piss off that community, especially with how VFX’s influence has continued to grow.
And the show’s really down to two and a half hours?
Most years, yes. Sometimes it sneaks toward three depending on the producer. Cutting out six categories helped even though they finally added a category for Best Stunt Coordination in 2017 because it added a really cool montage to the program, and brought back the Academy Juvenile Award for years when youngsters particularly shine.
Of course, the changes also made room for longer commercial breaks. Coca Cola is popular as ever, you know.
It sounds like they’ve definitely adapted, but you said earlier that the Oscars have still lost some of their power.
Is it because they still couldn’t entice younger viewers to watch and stick around from year to year?
Only partially. What you’re referring to, I think, is the demographic problem AMPAS saw from the early 1990s through 2015. The median age of an Oscar broadcast viewer was 40 in 1992, but it was 47 in 2002 and 53 in 2012. That wasn’t the direction they wanted to go, especially since the Academy members’ own demographics looked almost exactly like the Republican Party. No one wanted to wait around for their audience to die out. They had to turn the new crop of adults into fans of the program.
And that was the biggest issue. It wasn’t unfair to look at the Oscar winners or the films left off nomination lists and see that the 60+ voters were firmly in charge.
With nature — this sounds terrible — running its course, and the Geek Oscars of 2016, that stigma melted away. I mean, think about it. The 60+ members of my time were all born in the 1960s anyway. They discovered movies in the 70s, and they all seemed a bit more welcoming to big popcorn flicks being lauded for their achievements beyond special effects and sound.
But why the weakening influence?
Because it’s really hard now to get the kinds of broad audiences that shows saw a decade ago. From 2018 to now, the sheer amount of quality media we have online has continued the trend of niches breaking off and forming around specific types of styles, stories and artists. We’re a million miles away from Johnny Carson, if you know what I mean.
2016 turned out to be the high water mark for that kind of giant blockbuster movie, and by the turn of the decade, studios had backed away from the tentpole model altogether because it was hard to get half a billion in worldwide box office sales. It’s decreased every year since, and maybe it’ll spring back at some point, but even streaming shows on major networks are tempering their expectations. They’ve had more than just each other to contend with for over 15 years now. In fact, one of the biggest shows out there is on Freddie W’s RocketJump YouTube channel. He’s contending with what used to be NBC now.
That’s incredible. Did anything else historically significant happen?
Wow. Probably more than a few things, but the first that jumps to mind is Open Transmission.
It was the first crowdfunded film to win a major award. It pulled in a little over a million on KickStarter in 2021, got released to massive praise in 2022 and just won Best Screenplay last night. Pretty crazy. I imagine we’ll see more sneak into the ceremony.
Okay, this might seem a little bit fluffy to ask, but how did the world remember Seth MacFarlane’s hosting job?
When was that?
At this year’s ceremony! How could you not remember?
Can you remember who hosted the Oscars in 2003 without looking it up?
Ah, a fair point. But still, it made major waves on Sunday.
Now that you mention it, I remember that he hosted, but I suppose he did about like most hosts do in the long run. Few ever become noteworthy after the week of the show. Producers still turn to comedians and personalities. Nothing’s changed there.
And I know I said I wouldn’t help out your future Oscar predictions, but MacFarlane actually came back to the Oscars in 2018.
I had a feeling. He just said he’d never host again, but it’s hard to turn that kind of exposure down.
Oh, he wasn’t a host. He was awarded for scoring a Frank Sinatra biopic called Blue Eyes.
Did anyone make a big impression as host leading up to 2023?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a big hit. He’s hosted twice now.
You really are a Looper fan, eh?
The third one is still the best, but I like to watch the first from time to time.
I’m both desperate to know everything and to remain un-spoiled.
Well, you’ll have to stay un-spoiled because I’ve gotta run. Modern Family is on, and I haven’t missed an episode in 12 years.
Before you go, is there anything else you can tell us about the award’s future?
The statue is still heavier than people expect, the In Memoriam segment is still everyone’s bittersweet favorite part and Jack Nicholson jokes are still a mainstay of the opening monologues.
Some things never change. Thanks for taking the time out to tell us about the Oscars of 2023, Molly.
What do you hope the Oscars of the future bring?