Pity the next Oscar producer(s), if and when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets around to deciding who’s in charge of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony on February 24. He, she or they will inherit a show that is either at a turning point or at a tipping point — coming back from the brink, or going down the tubes. And the producer, who customarily has a very large part in the choice of a host, will be celebrated or condemned on February 25 for having saved the Oscars, or for having let them slip away.
For the record, Columbus Day, or Indigenous Peoples Day, as it is known in Los Angeles, is neither the earliest nor the latest date on which the Academy has chosen its Oscar production chiefs. In 2011, Brian Grazer’s emergency appointment — after Brett Ratner stepped aside amid controversy over his use of an anti-gay slur — didn’t come until November 9. In other years, the Academy has named its producers far in advance. That happened, for instance, in 2013, when Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were designated as producers of the March 2, 2014, show on April 16, 2013.
This year, in any case, the stakes are sufficiently high to cause some jitters as Academy president John Bailey and his associates on the board of governors and at ABC continue to deliberate. After two years of ratings decline with Jimmy Kimmel onstage and co-producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd in the driver’s seat, the Academy can’t afford another miss. A repeat of this year’s 19.7% drop in broadcast viewers, to 26.5 million, would bring the television audience to about 21.3 million, within easy reach of the Golden Globes. Even an 11% decline — matching the recent Emmy collapse — would probably bring a tipping point for what until now has been the leading entertainment awards show. Ad prices would suffer. Future deals with ABC would get tougher. The show’s promotional value for the Academy’s new film museum would come into question — and that could lead to fiscal disaster.
Little wonder that at least one or two past show producers have privately decided this is just not the year to step in. Why adopt a potentially fatal problem?
Yet others are pursuing the job — and there are actually reasons that a sane, seasoned, somewhat daring producer might want it.
For starters, a new producer will be working up from a very low base. The 2018 show had the smallest broadcast audience on record. So even a slight swing of the pendulum — to a point far short of the 43.7 million viewers who watched Ellen DeGeneres host as recently as 2014 — would made the producer look like a hero. And who wouldn’t love that?
Another plus is the presumed presence of Black Panther, an enormous hit, somewhere in the array of nominees. Historically, Oscar ratings have risen when black actors or filmmakers have been prominent on the show. In 2014, when 12 Years a Slave was Best Picture, for instance, African-American viewers bolstered a core white audience, and everybody won. With the misbegotten “pop Oscar” concept on hold, Black Panther is free to shine on its own, which can only help the ceremony.
This past weekend’s strong performance by A Star Is Born, starring Lady Gaga, and the unstoppable run of Crazy Rich Asians bring still more opportunity. Nominations for those films might give women or neglected Asian-American moviegoers a rooting interest in the show, while edging it away from the angrier side of sexual and identity politics. A modest uptick with either group could make the show a winner.
As for political moments, those will be unavoidable, especially with two Ruth Bader Ginsburg films — the documentary RBG and the biopic On the Basis of Sex — potentially in the mix. But a carefully chosen host, selected by a careful producer, could surely find a tone just a little softer than Kimmel’s. If fewer viewers tune out the partisan wise-cracks, the Academy wins again.
A wild card in all of this is viewing technology. The audience is cutting cords, communicating via social media, and dipping in and out of shows that used to have a three hour-plus lock on its attention. That is clearly a problem for the new producer, for ABC, and for the entertainment industry in general.
But someone who confronts the issues now, and makes a little progress, can be a savior. And someone who doesn’t may go down in history as the producer who lost the Oscars.
As for middle ground, there doesn’t seem to be much.