The 94th Academy Awards take place this Sunday. But with last year’s viewing figures at an all-time low, organisers are under pressure to make the ceremony relevant again, particularly to younger audiences.
There used to be a hundred reasons to sit down and watch the Oscars.
In a pre-social media age, it provided a rare opportunity to glimpse the world’s biggest film stars gathered in the same place; to see what they were wearing and (for masochists) to hear their speeches.
Secondly, it was a place to catch clips of the year’s most acclaimed films, long before YouTube made trailers available on demand.
And thirdly, there quite frankly wasn’t much else to do. The highest-rating Oscars aired at a time when linear television was dominant, and there weren’t as many channels to watch.
But in an era of TikTok, YouTube and streaming, the biggest showbiz night of the year has been losing viewers and, with them, its power.
“The biggest challenge is getting people to watch,” ceremony producer Will Packer told Little Gold Men. “What that means is there’s got to be something different about the show this year that connects with people outside of Hollywood. You’ve got to connect with the casual movie fan.”
It is a delicate balance trying to keep the ratings high while simultaneously preserving everything that makes the Oscars sacred and prestigious. Here are five ways the Academy is hoping to capture audiences this year.
1. Solid-gold stars
Much to the Academy’s relief, there are some proper movie stars in the running for the big prizes this year.
Will Smith, who has never won an Oscar, is the firm favourite to win best actor for his performance in King Richard – where he plays the determined father of a young Venus and Serena Williams.
As early as September 2021, Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson said: “I don’t see anyone beating him. It feels like the timing is right, the movie is right, the subject matter is right, and the kind of performance is right. It’s playful but also serious, and we know the Academy likes actors playing a real-life person.”
Rewarding Smith, he noted, would also be making a statement – that after two years of cinemas being closed due to lockdowns, movies, and movie stars, are back.
Nicole Kidman, Olivia Colman, Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz and Kristen Stewart’s nominations make the best actress category similarly starry. However, there less of a consensus about who will triumph here.
The frontrunner has changed several times, but Chastain is the current favourite, following her recent recognition from the Screen Actors Guild and the Critics’ Choice awards.
The Academy has also lined up a plethora of big names to present the awards, including Lady Gaga, Shang-Chi star Simu Liu, The Batman’s Zoe Kravitz and Ukraine-born actress Mila Kunis.
2. Hosts who will ‘burn every bridge’
The Oscars have not had a presenter since 2018, arguably missing an opportunity for jokes, monologues and sketches to go viral and grab headlines – a strategy which has worked well for the Golden Globes.
Sadly, getting an A-lister proved challenging, partly due to scheduling conflicts, partly because many big names would presumably run a mile given the potential pitfalls involved (the memory of James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s disastrous stint in 2011 still looms large).
The Academy has instead settled on Amy Schumer, who was big in 2015, alongside actress Regina Hall and comedian Wanda Sykes – who are both well-respected but not exactly huge international names.
However, Schumer has recently indicated she might be taking a leaf out of the Globes’ playbook, and using the opportunity to poke fun at the stars in the room (an approach we warmly support).
“I’m going to get myself in some trouble,” she told Extra earlier this month. “Wanda, Regina are hilarious, and we’re having a blast preparing.
“I mean, I don’t know who made the decision to let me personally be a host, but it’s not a good one… because it’ll burn all bridges. I’ll burn every bridge.”
3. The ‘fan favourite’ award
Perhaps the most interesting new addition this year is the fan favourite prize – an attempt to recognise more mainstream films during the ceremony.
Without it, The Academy would have been acutely aware that they had not nominated 2021’s biggest box office successes, including Spider-Man: No Way Home and No Time To Die, in the major categories.
Meryl Johnson, the Academy’s vice president of digital marketing, said the introduction of fan favourite would “help build an engaged and excited digital audience leading up to this year’s ceremony”, and voting was opened to the public for two weeks.
However, people could vote up to 20 times a day, which meant the voting process was liable to manipulation by organised and mobilised fan bases. Which is exactly what happened.
Although Spider-Man still has a good shot, the Camila Cabello-starring Cinderella musical and the arthouse Johnny Depp film Minamata could bizarrely (and hilariously) end up being recognised at the Oscars instead.
We’ll have more on the new fan favourite category later this week.
4. Pre-recording prizes
Eight of the 23 awards this year will be pre-recorded in an effort to save time during the telecast. While the big awards will still be live, the so-called “below-the-line” categories like best editing, sound and production design will have been presented earlier.
That means the nominees in the technical categories will be seated a full hour before the main ceremony begins. Their awards will be presented off-air, and highlights will then be edited into the TV broadcast.
“We must prioritise the television audience to increase viewer engagement and keep the show vital, kinetic, and relevant,” Academy president David Rubin wrote in a letter to members last month.
But there has been resistance to the idea from big figures within the industry. “I feel very strongly that this is perhaps the most collaborative medium in the world,” West Side Story director Steven Spielberg told Deadline. “All of us make movies together, we become a family where one craft is just as indispensable as the next.
“I feel that at the Academy Awards there is no above-the-line, there is no below-the-line. All of us are on the same line bringing the best of us to tell the best stories we possibly can.”
In 2019, the Oscars reversed their decision to present awards during the commercials after significant industry backlash. This time they’re standing firm, but unlike the commercials idea, the tech winners will at least still feature in the main ceremony.
5. Bruno: Live
You couldn’t hold the Oscars without acknowledging that one of the biggest worldwide chart hits of the past year was from a movie soundtrack.
So the Academy is going all in, announcing that the cast of Encanto will perform the smash We Don’t Talk About Bruno live for the first time during the ceremony.
We’ll gloss over the fact that an entirely different track from Encanto is the one actually nominated for best original song because we can’t wait to see how complex, overlapping salsa melodies of Bruno might be performed live.
In the film, it’s performed by more than 10 characters, so it could be a complicated one to stage.
But does relevance even matter?
The conversation about how to arrest the decline in viewing figures rolls around like clockwork every year. The lower the ratings get, the louder the cries for changes become.
Last year’s Oscars attracted their worst-ever TV audience, with just 10.4 million viewers tuning in. However, the subdued 2021 ceremony was unusual – taking place during worldwide lockdowns after a year that saw few major film releases – so it’s an unreliable benchmark.
This year, Covid restrictions have eased and the ceremony is returning to normal, so the Academy is pulling out all the stops in an effort to make sure the viewing figures rebound to pre-pandemic levels – equalling or bettering 2020’s figure of 23.6 million.
But some have questioned whether staying relevant to a mass audience is even necessary.
“I don’t get why movie people care so much if other people care what awards we give ourselves,” actor Seth Rogen told Insider. “I don’t care who wins the automobile awards.
“No other industry expects everyone to care about what awards they shower upon themselves. Maybe people just don’t care. Maybe they did for a while and they stopped caring. And why should they?”
Some former Oscar winners aren’t even bothered about attending. “I won’t be going this year. To be honest, they’re actually really boring,” Don’t Look Up star Sir Mark Rylance told the Radio Times this month.
“I don’t think awards are a serious marker of what the greatest or most inspiring things are, but it’s nice to be celebrated.”
The Oscars take place on Sunday 27 March.