Any half-conscious observer knew Hollywood’s film awards business was pointed toward a reckoning as the audience for the Oscars and other ceremonies collapsed last year. Even I could see it coming, from way out here in the cheap seats, nowhere near Union Station.
But now, eight months later, that inevitable settling of accounts has arrived with a peculiar sense of surprise. After all, there was no sudden jolt, no open declaration of a new world order. No, the reckoning came creeping on cat’s paws, one step at a time, while most of us went through the motions of what seemed to be an almost normal season, but with Covid protocols and, of course, more streaming.
Yet here it is. The finely tuned contemporary prize system, which since the late 1990s has reliably introduced, honored, and promoted challenging movies that could never have survived blockbuster competition without awards—American Beauty, No Country For Old Men, The Hurt Locker, 12 Years A Slave—is crumbling.
Whatever replaces it, when the process is complete, will have new rituals, new rules, and new economics. If the players, some of them, remain the same, that will only be because they, like everything else, have changed.
Think how easily the Golden Globes disintegrated. What began as a media chastisement of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—too white, too clubby, too self-serving—turned into an on-air reprimand by its own show hosts. That begot a boycott. Which led NBC to suspend this year’s broadcast. If the audience had bothered with last year’s show—the ratings were down 60 percent—all those indignant publicists and executives might have looked more kindly on the HFPA’s promised reform. Instead, the group will be awarding Globes from the (metaphorical) dog house on Sunday, celebrating movies between Acts of Contrition.
Another part of the system crumbled more quietly, as ABC, in what appears to be a first, negotiated a reduction in the ‘guaranteed’ fee it was supposed to pay for the Oscars last year. You didn’t hear much about this: That’s because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, never especially transparent, disclosed the cut only last month in an obscure note to bondholders on the Electronic Municipal Market Access website. “Such one-time reduction amounted to approximately 1.2% of the overall minimum guaranteed revenues payable to the Academy under the current ABC Contract for Academy Awards shows from and including 2020 through and including 2028,” explained the filing. Translated into English, that means the price for domestic television rights to the Oscar show dropped by $12.7 million, or around 11 percent of the average guarantee of $117.2 million for each of the aforementioned contract years.
That one-time reduction, said the note, was granted because of the Covid-afflicted ceremony’s unusually late broadcast date, April 25. But the precedent has been set. Hollywood’s premium awards show is selling at a discount. You can bet the parties will be talking more cuts if the audience doesn’t come back.
On that score, the early indicators aren’t promising. In September, the Primetime Emmy Awards saw viewers rise 16 percent, from an all-time low, to 7.4 million. But a parallel rise for the Academy Awards would boost the audience for the next show, on March 27, to just 12 million, about half of its already shrunken count in early February of 2020, before the lockdowns. Of course, even that would look good next to the mere 2.15 million viewers who watched ABC’s star-struck special, A Night In The Academy Museum, in October.
So the reckoning continues. At the film Academy, chief executive Dawn Hudson has already said she will be stepping down (a move that was anticipated before last year’s audience collapse). Look for a formal job posting this month, and new leadership soon after. In theaters, the older audience—once a crucible for awards buzz—is still Covid-shy. Don’t look for seniors to support films like West Side Story or Nightmare Alley any time soon. On the festival circuit, no amount of vaccine and testing can quickly revive the missing crowds in Toronto, or the missing everything in Palm Springs. When finally the viral cloud lifts, our habits will have changed; those will never be quite what they were.
For now, at least, the film awards business – what’s left of it after the latest round of Covid shutdowns – has devolved into an inside game, played by the studios, promoters, talent, filmmakers and media, with little or no connection to outsiders, the people. That can’t continue. When accounts are finally settled, a rebooted system, with a fresh attitude and an entirely revised calendar of events and expectations, will have to re-engage the viewers.
Or the prize game will end. And the Academy, whose Oscars crown the current, deteriorating system, will become a trust fund dedicated to the perpetual support of its museum, with what used to be contenders locked safely inside.