Sunday, February 22, 2009, will mark the 81st Annual Academy Awards, but does anyone really care? Last year's telecast was one of the lowest rated in history, pulling in only 31.76 million viewers despite it being the 80th celebration of Oscar. This year producers are trying to reverse the trend. Yet it seems the more they try to fix the ratings slump, the more critics worry that the Oscars are simply out of touch with modern audiences.
It's not just young viewers who have moved on to more enjoyable awards shows like MTV and People's Choice. Academy members over the age of 60, who make up the majority of the Academy, feel that "Slumdog Millionaire
" does not deserve to win Best Picture and perhaps should not have been nominated at all. In the current American economic climate some people are feeling more Nationalistic and cannot understand how a film about Indians, filmed in India by a British director could be nominated for Best Picture instead of Best Foreign Film.
For the first time in recent years the films nominated for Best Picture are not enjoying the usual "Oscar Bump" at the box office. Audiences don't seem interested in being told what to watch. Americans on some level expect the Academy to respect the box office receipts and at least nominate a popular film, one that has also established artistic merit. Yet "The Dark Knight
" was snubbed in all major categories except Best Supporting Actor even after it earned $997 million worldwide and garnered critical acclaim.
There Seems To Be No Guidelines Or Criteria For Nominations
The Academy Awards was created in 1929 by Louis B. Mayer, of MGM, as an award of merit. The voting members of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences determined honorable merit in each category. Even the Academy was created by Hollywood as an elite social club in order to reward each other for their successes and say thank you to those favored and held in high regard. It was used as a publicity tool to promote actors and films.
During the first decade of the Oscars the results were sent to the Los Angeles Times to be printed after 11 p.m., that is until they printed the results before the awards show even happened, thus ruining the surprise and creating a need for secret envelopes and an accounting firm to certify the results.
With the invention of television came the live telecast and the big reveal. Originally presenters would say, "And the winner is…" however, somewhere along the line people felt the more politically correct, "And the Oscar goes to…" would be more appropriate. It seems as if the Oscars may have lost their relevance around the same time.
No More Crazy Outfits, Hugely Popular Films
Back in the 1970's and 80's viewers tuned in to see the outrageous costumes stars would wear either because they had genuinely bad taste or they were trying to get attention. Think Cher
in her see through black lingerie-style dress, a dress that is still talked about today. Or the infamous Bjork
swan dress, a dress that is always included in worst dressed Oscar review shows and clip reels. Using the red carpet as a publicity stunt or media circus worked for both the star and the show. Now everyone has good taste, or pays a stylist to have good taste for them, and is more interested in getting a dress for free by promoting a designer on the red carpet than making a statement.
In the 90s Billy Crystal
gave audiences another reason to watch. He turned the show into a variety program complete with musical montage of all the Best Picture nominees and a film montage where he was inserted into the clips and interacted with the nominated actors. What began as a simple way to fill time became a centerpiece of the Oscar telecast which some viewers long for today.
Despite the stunts and spectacles over the years, nothing has driven ratings higher than a popular film. 1998, the year "Titanic
" was nominated for 14 Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture, drew the largest audience in two decades with 57.25 million viewers. The thrill of potential awards drove people to watch as it won all but three of its nominated categories. Fans still quote the film and it's director James Cameron
as he infamously screamed out, "I'm the king of the world!" while holding his Oscars.
This Year, Only Selected Celebrities Will Walk The Red Carpet
This year the Academy hired the producers of "Dreamgirls
" to re-invent the show and hopefully bring viewers back. The exact reasons why a team who was snubbed by the Academy when "Dreamgirls" was up for nominations would be the ideal choice to save the Oscars is unclear. So are some of their ideas for increasing ratings. The producers are limiting the number of celebrities who will be allowed to walk the red carpet. Instead certain stars will be snuck in through a side entrance and revealed later during the telecast in order to surprise viewers. The surprise guests will enter the stage under a waterfall-like Swarovski Crystal curtain. Needless to say, designers are furious about their potential for plugs on the red carpet being thwarted. And what could be more out of step with today's lean economic times than an extravagant and pointless crystal curtain?
A recent poll revealed that Heath Ledger
's anticipated win in the Best Supporting Actor category is the moment people are most looking forward to seeing. Once the producers caught wind of this they decided to re-order the awards and move the Best Supporting Actor category to later in the show in the hopes of keeping a larger audience for a longer period of time.
Some viewers have said the reason they cared to tune in was to enjoy Bruce Springsteen
, except that he and his song weren't nominated. Another reason they might enjoy the Oscars would be to see Peter Gabriel
perform his nominated song from "Wall-E
" which clocks in at just shy of 6 minutes. However, the producers decided a musical medley, including the two songs nominated from "Slumdog Millionaire" during which Peter Gabriel was given only 65 seconds to sing his nominated song, would be a better presentation. Gabriel respectfully declined to sing his song under those conditions.
In their desperate attempts to "fix" what may be wrong with the Oscars they could be creating a reason not to watch. Perhaps people are making too big a deal out of the ratings dip. Last year's lowest rated Oscar show may have been because of the films that were nominated or because it was an election year and people were focused on political issues or they simply did not feel connected to the show and its nominees. Viewers today enjoy voting for their favorite actor, movie or fight sequence. MTV has responded and trained millions of young viewers to get involved and created a sense of ownership and purpose to their annual Movie Awards show.
Critically Acclaimed But Unpopular Films Reign
Instead of looking at how people vote for American Idol
or The People's Choice Awards it seems as if the Academy wants to educate the public about boutique films, push its own agenda and attempt to manufacture popularity for critically acclaimed but highly unpopular films. In this newly connected Internet society we live in audiences want to feel heard and respected. People would tune in to have their taste confirmed rather than listen to speeches made by celebrities thanking people who have no relevance in their daily lives. Young people in America have the free time and desire to watch awards shows but feel no real connection to the Oscars. The producer's answer to this dilemma is to ask the male star of "Twilight
," Robert Pattinson
, to be a presenter. As if a 30 second appearance made by a cute, new, popular actor will somehow convince young viewers to stick around for the entire four-hour telecast.
Flawed Nomination Process
And how can audiences trust the Oscars after learning how the nomination process is flawed and easily manipulated? "The Reader
" and Kate Winslet
's nominations are being questioned after it was discovered that nominating votes are only counted up until all the available slots are filled - even if more nominations are waiting to be counted. The nominees are not the result of the largest number of votes but rather the first to be counted and pass an imaginary finish line. "American Idol" is somehow able to count millions of votes on a weekly basis and base their winners on the singer with the most votes. Yet the Academy finds it difficult to determine the winners of nominations out of a membership of less than 6,000 people.
After all the worry and planning, advertising, and promotion will the Oscars pull in higher ratings simply because people are talking about them? The Academy Awards telecast has never gone above 43.40 percent of household ratings. And although 18.66 percent was the lowest ever, the average has hovered in the mid 20s for years. If only 25 percent of the American population has ever really cared about the awards show in any given year why is the Academy suddenly worried about its status and popularity? Could it be that all the controversy is exactly what the awards show needs?
Perhaps the true power of the Oscars is its inherit prestige. After 81 years of rewarding the best in filmmaking the name Oscar carries its weight in gold, literally. The after-the-show talk, water cooler buzz and Internet chatter will inevitably boost ticket and DVD sales of certain films, especially the winner of the Best Picture award. Audiences may not remember Crash
as a film, but they certainly know its name and that it won for Best Picture. Viewers may not tune in to see the Crystal curtain, but they'll talk about who walked underneath it the day after the telecast.
Regardless of the almost unilateral snubbing of "The Dark Knight" in all major categories, the scandalous details of the nominating process and the apparent lack of connection to the average viewer in America, this years Oscars will have a place in American and film history whether people watch or not. ABC's contract to air the Academy Awards expires in 2014. Even if ratings continue to plummet its unlikely we'll see a future in which the Oscars are broadcast live solely on the World Wide Web instead of the one of the major American broadcasting networks.
Story by Erin MacMillan-Ramirez
Starpulse contributing writer