Any half-conscious observer knew that Hollywood’s film awards business was headed for a calculation as audiences for the Oscars and other ceremonies collapsed last year. Even I could see it coming from here in the cheap seats away from Union Station.
But now, eight months later, this inevitable settling of scores has come with a particular sense of surprise. After all, there was no sudden jolt, no open declaration of a new world order. No, the math came crawling on cat paws, one step at a time, as most of us went through the moves of what seemed like an almost normal season, but with Covid protocols and, of course, no more streaming.
Yet it is here. The contemporary finely tuned award system, which since the late 1990s has reliably introduced, honored, and promoted thought-provoking films that could never have survived an unrewarded blockbuster competition—American Beauty, No Country For Old Men, The Hurt Locker, 12 Years As A Slave– is collapsing.
Anything that replaces it, once the process is complete, will have new rituals, new rules, and a new economy. If the players, some of them, stay the same, it will only be because they, like everything else, have changed.
Think how easily the Golden Globes fell apart. What started as a media retribution from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – too white, too clubby, too selfish – has turned into an on-air reprimand by its own hosts. This triggered a boycott. Which led NBC to suspend broadcasting this year. If audiences had been worried about last year’s show – ratings were down 60% – all those outraged publicists and executives might have viewed the reform promised by the HFPA more sympathetically. . Instead, the group will award Niche Globes (metaphorically) on Sunday, celebrating the films between acts of contrition.
Another part of the system collapsed more quietly, as ABC, in what appears to be a first, negotiated a cut in the “guaranteed” fees it was supposed to pay for the Oscars last year. You haven’t heard much about it: that’s because the Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences, never particularly transparent, only disclosed the cut last month in an obscure note to bondholders on the municipal electronic market access website. “This one-time reduction amounted to around 1.2% of the overall guaranteed minimum income payable to the Academy under the current ABC contract for Academy Award shows from 2020 to 2028 inclusive,” the filing explained. Translated into English, this means that the price of the Oscar show’s domestic television rights has fallen by $ 12.7 million, or about 11% of the average guarantee of $ 117.2 million for each of the aforementioned contract years. .
This one-time reduction, according to the note, was granted due to the unusually late broadcast date of the Covid-afflicted ceremony on April 25. But the precedent has been set. Hollywood’s premium rewards show sells for a discount. You can bet parties will talk more cuts if the audience doesn’t come back.
On this point, the first indicators are not promising. In September, the Primetime Emmy Awards saw viewership increase 16%, from an all-time low to 7.4 million. But a parallel rise in the Oscars would bring audiences for the next show, March 27, to just 12 million, about half of its already reduced number in early February 2020, before the lockdowns. Of course, even that would look great next to the 2.15 million viewers who watched the ABC special, One night at the Académie museum, in October.
Then the count continues. At the Film Academy, executive director Dawn Hudson has already announced that she will step down (a move that was expected before the audience collapsed last year). Look for a formal job posting this month and a new direction soon after. In theaters, older audiences – once a melting pot for the awards buzz – are still shy of Covid. Don’t look for old people to support films like West Side Story Where Alley of nightmares soon. On the festival circuit, no amount of vaccine and testing can quickly revive the missing crowds in Toronto, or the missing all in Palm Springs. When the viral cloud finally clears, our habits will have changed; these will never be quite what they were.
For now, at least, the movie rewards business – what’s left of it after Covid’s latest round of shutdowns – has turned into an indoor game, played by studios, promoters, talent, etc. filmmakers and the media, with little or no connection to strangers, people. It cannot continue. When the scores are finally settled, a restarted system, with a new attitude and a completely revised schedule of events and expectations, will have to re-engage 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 lifelong support of its museum, with what were once suitors safely locked inside.