Oscars out of step with the times and in danger of becoming obsolete
Memorable ... Brokeback Mountain was a public favourite. Photo: AP
One billion people around the world will not be watching the Oscars on Monday. That figure, often thrown about on stage, has never been true. At most, a couple of hundred million will watch, which is still an impressive number, especially if you are Harry Winston. It is less impressive if you are a maker of movies.
Every which way you look at it, the Oscars are in trouble, beset on all sides by encroaching competition. The audience is falling, the voters are dying and their choices are making them look ridiculous (did anyone really prefer Crash over Brokeback Mountain?). The hosting has become a joke. Even Billy Crystal bombed last year, on his ninth turn; James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011 were a train wreck. When the red carpet has become the most interesting part of the night, the Academy Awards have a problem.
Fewer people are watching every year. In the US last year, 39.3 million Americans, or 13 per cent of the population, tuned in to see The Artist win best picture. That was up 3.7 per cent on the previous year but the numbers have been dropping since the high point in 1998, when more than 55 million Americans watched Titanic sweep the pool.
The Oscars have long come second to the Super Bowl as an American television event but they no longer manage even that. Last year's Super Bowl attracted 113 million US viewers, but some of the play-off games also beat the Oscars. So did the 2012 Grammy awards. Last year's Oscars, according to social media analytics company Trendrr, generated an estimated 4.2 million social media actions, twice as many as the year before. That's impressive, until you read that last year's Grammys and the Super Bowl generated more than 17 million each.
These numbers mean less revenue for the academy but there is a wider issue. The Oscars are less relevant to a younger audience, because movies in general are less relevant. Young people watch other screens: they play computer games, watch less television, download movies rather than go to them, and those they do watch are not those the Oscars celebrate. Most of the academy voters, numbering just under 6000, are over 50. They now vote mainly for films with high prestige, rather than great box office numbers. That is a good thing. It means a film such as The Artist, with very moderate box-office success, can find a bigger audience. The problem for the broadcast is that when they do that, audiences turn away. Most of the films have come and gone for American audiences by the time they watch (if they watch) and they prefer a competition between films they already know. That was the lesson of Titanic in 1998. If you sink it, they will come.
When the Oscars began in 1929, they had the field to themselves. As the 85th Academy Awards get under way, they will be the final event of an ''awards season''.
The BAFTAs, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Golden Globes, Directors Guild of America awards, and Writers Guild of America Awards have all ridden into the gap between the Oscar nominations in late January and the results on Monday. These awards influence Oscar voting. It is conceivable Argo will not win best picture because it has won everything else already.
As the Oscar voters age, they are less interested in the films that young people are watching and vice versa. How many Oscars did the Harry Potter series win, over the eight films and $8 billion in box office? Precisely none, and that is a high-quality series, full of imagination and technical invention. How many superhero films win Oscars, how many comedies? What was the last horror film that won a nomination, let alone a prize? I'm not saying they deserve Oscars but a lot of the people who make these movies never vote for them, even if they are more prestigious, such as The Dark Knight Rises.
Beyond the dresses, the cleavage, the horrible speeches and the embarrassing ''banter'', the Oscars are about checking the pulse. They give Hollywood a way of gauging whether what they are doing is still relevant, which is not the same as popular. Box office figures lie, Oscars can mislead but time eventually sorts things out. The Best Picture is only the best picture if the public finally agrees.
That is why Brokeback Mountain will be remembered long after Crash is forgotten. The Oscars provide a fabulous promotional tool for a small bunch of movies, for a short-term gain. The long-term value is qualitative and historical; they tell us how we thought then, or they used to. The problem is that the public has moved on. Joan Rivers has become the perfect metaphor for the event itself. ''Who are you wearing?'' has become ''who cares''?
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Poll closed 26 Feb, 2013
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