Talk about drama: The suspense around this year’s precarious Academy Awards show won’t peak until roughly 12 hours after PricewaterhouseCoopers hands over the Best Picture envelope. That’s when Nielsen will render its verdict on the ratings.
If those are judged adequate, the film awards business can write off its losses to the pandemic, and hope for a better year ahead.
If not, an industry-wide Reckoning almost surely will begin.
Granted, the hard part is deciding what’s “adequate” in a season that saw the television audience for rival shows evaporate.
If the Oscars are down by a mere 40 percent, to something under 15 million viewers, ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences conceivably might declare victory, and march on. It was a terrible year for everyone! Unprecedented!! But that’s show business. (Besides, social media engagement is the new standard, never mind the ratings.)
Let the number of millions fall into single digits, however — as would happen if the Academy Awards drop matched this year’s 62 percent decline in Golden Globes viewers — and there wouldn’t be much room for denial. (Especially given the Collins-Sher-Soderbergh push for a top-drawer presentation; you can’t blame the producers.) A lot would have to change.
The core question, of course, is whether Hollywood’s awards game is going through temporary pain or a paradigm shift.
To date, those involved have chosen to treat the problem as transitory. Shows have been delayed. Red carpet displays curtailed. Distribution requirements waived, and so on. But the assumption has been that things will eventually return to “normal” (or normal with more streaming and an increased emphasis on diversity and inclusion, which is, after all, the new normal).
That works until Monday, April 26 — the morning after the next Oscar ceremony. But if the previous night’s show has drawn as few as 9 million domestic viewers, having drifted from a recent high of 43.7 million in 2014, producers, distributors, publicists, filmmakers, stars, Academy governors, advertisers, broadcast executives and even the press will start making permanent adjustments.
At this point, we can only guess what those might be, and your guess is probably better than mine.
Certainly, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear whispered one of the uglier words in the Hollywood lexicon, “renegotiation.” In all, various business partners, led by Disney and its ABC network, have made more than $900 million in future, Oscar-related contractual commitments to the Academy. ABC’s domestic television contract, for instance, runs through 2028, and typically yields payments in excess of $100 million a year. It is undoubtedly an iron-clad agreement, and both parties surely operate in good faith. But a complete collapse of the Oscar audience, with an inevitable decline in future advertiser interest, could tempt sharp-eyed lawyers look hard at the footnotes and fine print. The contract was negotiated in 2016, when the Oscar audience was 34.4 million. If it gets stuck at a third of that number, pressure for new terms will be enormous.
Pressure of another kind would come to bear on ancillary film awards shows and events, including some of the seasonal festivals. Under the current system, in place since at least the late 1990s, those have functioned as markers on a long, expensive, exhausting climb to the top of a mountain, on which sit the Academy Awards.
But if the Oscars are devalued — fewer viewers would seem to mean less power to influence ticket sales or streams — why spend time and money on all of those pre-Oscar moments? That a hundred publicity firms were willing to declare a boycott of the Golden Globes carries a message beyond their stated admonitions about racism and corruption. Those in the mix are not averse to a less demanding, more compressed season (and more compressed ceremonies, with the hourlong SAG awards as a possible model). If the Globes were to go, they seem to be saying, so be it.
Another feature of the Reckoning might well be a reduction in the number of contenders. The issue is confusing, and arguments cut both ways. As the pandemic closed theaters, the film Academy loosened its distribution requirements, which helped to raise the number of films eligible for Best Picture consideration to 366 from 344 last year, even though no one was going to the movies. Plus, the Academy is re-expanding its field of Best Picture nominees to 10, from what has been a variable number.
In theory, more contenders means more interest in the movies. In practice, however, the broader field seems to dilute attention. Films become a commodity. It’s harder for any one picture to achieve critical mass. So it’s not difficult to see those who control the purse strings — the distributors — deciding to narrow their bets in a smaller awards game. Fewer contenders, more excitement? Maybe.
Another maybe has to do with the tonality of awards. This is touchy, because no one can tell anyone what to do or say in their limelight moment. But it’s clear — at least to millions of mainstream viewers who have tuned out — that Hollywood award shows have become the crucible for a very weird mix of stern social messaging and boundless glamour. How Nomadland or Judas and the Black Messiah square with sponsorship by Rolex is a question for sharper minds than my own. But it might be time for a change in the formula. Less judgment? Cheaper gowns? Something has to give.
Unless, of course, the audience holds steady. Or goes up.
Come the morning after, we’ll know.
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