The Oscars are back tonight. The question is: Does anyone care?
It seems not that long ago when Oscars Night was second only to Super Bowl Sunday for automatic TV party-gathering. You got together with friends to nosh, fill out a ballot, judge the fashion, groan at the winners and drink every time someone breathlessly says: “I didn’t write a speech because I thought I had no chance of winning.”
Hey, there were only five nominees: You had a 20 percent chance of winning. Do the math and write a da*n speech!
It wasn’t a question of whether you were going to watch the Oscars. It was where. There were years when I would try to hit three different Oscars parties in the same (long) night.
But, like video rentals, mail-in movie discs and, apparently, our once impermeable love for Lady Gaga … things have changed. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a serious problem. (Starting with every word in that stuffy name.)
The 2021 Oscars ceremony was watched by the smallest audience in its televised history. That can be explained in part by the pandemic, and the necessary shutdown of the industry that followed. Films were delayed or shelved. The eventual nominees couldn’t gather in the same place and there was no live audience – so the doomed telecast was no fun to watch. Certainly some had no interest in tuning in for divisive political speeches (my favorite part of the evening, frankly). Mostly, though: Not many of us had actually seen the movies being honored. (Drink if you saw “Nomadland,” “The Father,” “Minari” or “Sound of Metal.”)
Only 10.4 million viewers were tuned in when “Nomadland” upset “Mank” for Best Picture. Consider that an average of 9.2 million watch every episode of “Jeopardy.” That’s a 56 percent drop from the 23.6 million viewers who tuned in for the 2020 Oscars.
But this is not a pandemic thing. Oscars ratings have been falling through the floor on a near annual basis since 1998, when 55.2 million tuned in to see “Titanic” win.
So how is it that Oscars Night, the ultimate exercise in popcorn-munching envy and self-congratulation, has fallen so out of favor with the everyday moviegoers who dropped $11.4 billion at the U.S. box office in the last full year before the pandemic?
Two words: “Titanic” … and “Nomadland.”
Nothing against “Nomadland.” It’s a profound movie that has reportedly compelled thousands of people to hit the road in exploration of a more meaningful life. Conversely, I recall derisively cackling out loud back in 1998 watching Billy Zane sloshing about on a sinking ship intent on killing Leonardo DiCaprio in the moments before the ocean inevitably killed them both.
“Nomadland” is the better film. That’s a given. But one look at the latest list of Best Picture nominees shows how out of touch the Academy has become from its moviegoing audience.
Experts expect Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s examination of toxic masculinity in a cruel Montana rancher, to become the first movie made by a streaming service to win Best Picture. It’ll probably win for most of its 12 nominations, many of which it deserves. But it’s sure going to make for a boring Oscars telecast.
Think about this: "Mank" was the overwhelming favorite going into last year's Oscars. And yet, it was not among the top 500 most streamed films of the preceding year entering Oscars Night 2021.
Streaming has changed movies forever, with “The Power of the Dog” and “Don’t Look Up” available exclusively on Netflix and “CODA” on Apple TV. But this is also the first year when any movie-loving COVID recluse could stream all 10 Best Picture nominees without having to leave the basement. And that is perhaps the biggest change in how we watch movies: When we watch them in our basements, that means we watch them like we watch TV shows: With a remote in hand.
Back in December, an estimated 1.2 million cued up “The Power of the Dog” in its first week on Netflix. My question is: How many of them finished it? Because any way you slice it, That’s a tough movie to sit all the way through in your basement both undistracted and uninterrupted. You don’t turn off your cell phone to watch a film at home. So the second you get bored or your phone pings, you might just press pause – or exit altogether. Maybe you come back and finish the movie later, maybe you don’t. But that’s not how movies were made to be watched.
We were all told in advance that there’s a big secret toward the end of “The Power of the Dog,” so don’t spoil it for people by talking about it. So when two friends recently brought it up, I asked what they thought of the thing that finally tells us what the movie is actually, eventually about – and they didn’t know what I was talking about. Because they didn’t finish it. I’ve heard several people tell me they turned off “Don’t Look Up” in the first half hour because it starts so slowly.
When you go to see a movie in a theater, people generally don't walk out when they get bored or uncomfortable. They power through. At home, you just change the channel.
This is the problem I see with many of this year’s Oscars movies: There is an inordinate number of very fine Best Picture nominees that you more have to suffer through than sit back and enjoy. They’re too long, too slow, too serious, too much for most mainstream filmgoers.
“Drive My Car,” for example, is an excellent Japanese film about a mysteriously widowed theater actor who goes to Hiroshima to direct an experimental production of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." It incorporates Chekhov’s dialogue with Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog and Korean Sign Language. It requires subtitles, and it runs three painstaking hours. In other words: My kind of film. I loved it. But how much buzz is a film like that going to generate among the masses on Oscars night?
“Don’t Look Up,” arguably the funnest (and funniest) movie on the list, is at heart an unpleasantly urgent call to action regarding the coming climate apocalypse. “Belfast” warmly recalls one of the most difficult chapters in that city’s history. Even “West Side Story,” which is arguably Steven Spielberg’s greatest movie, is a heavy load for the sheer weight of its tragic subject. (Which is another way of saying I pretty openly ugly-cried for the final half of the movie.)
Arguably, the most mainstream film of the bunch is also the most miraculous: “CODA,” with its groundbreaking exploration of an ordinary family, only one of whom can hear. The performances are revelatory. The story itself, though, is pretty run of the mill.
All of the nominees are worthy, compelling films. But with the field of possible Best Picture nominees expanded to 10, what the 2022 Oscars needed more than anything was an acknowledgement and inclusion of at least one film that actually fluttered moviegoers’ pulses over the past year. The top five films at the domestic box office in 2021, it might surprise the cinema elite to discover, were “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” “Black Widow” and “F9: The Fast Saga.” The division between what is most popular and what is considered great art is pronounced right now.
Granted, three of the 10 Best Picture nominees are streamers, and “Don’t Look Up” has rewritten the record book for Netflix viewing, but the only Best Picture nominee to crack $100 million at the actual box office is “Dune” (second is “West Side Story” at $38 million). In the week leading up to Hollywood’s biggest night, the only Best Picture nominee in the current top 20 at the box office is “Licorice Pizza,” at No. 16.
Bottom line: Next Sunday, the Academy is going to deservedly celebrate the triumphant return of film and its unparalleled potential to educate us, challenge our beliefs, infuse our spirits and change our lives. And they will do it to a collective national yawn.
Just maybe, instead of indulging Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” – a truly creepy coming-of-age story about a 25-year-old woman who ultimately comes to understand that her soulmate is, in fact, a 16-year-old boy (imagine the outrage had those genders been reversed) – the Academy might have found its way to acknowledge that “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was, in fact, one of the 10 best films of last year. One that just happens to have generated $1.9 billion (with a b) at the box office ... so far.
Ironically enough, tossing those “Spider-Man” fans a bone with a deserved Best Picture nomination might have saved what is looking right now to be an unsavable – and sparsely watched – Oscars telecast.