The Oscars are a week away, but will anyone be watching them?

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Written by Nicole Sperling and Brooks Barnes

Neither the intimate looks in celebrity salons nor the scantily clad pop stars performing provocative hits could stop the public from removing the awards this year. Grammys ratings have fallen 53%. The audience for the Golden Globes has fallen by more than 60%.

Now, as Hollywood gears up for an April 25 coronavirus-delayed Oscars broadcast on ABC, it faces the ultimate apocalypse scenario: Audiences are ready to throw their main showcase in the entertainment trash, at side of variety shows. Oscar, meet Lawrence Welk and his bubbles.

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At a time when the mainstream film industry is fighting for its primacy at the center of American culture – with home entertainment growing in popularity and the shutdown of pandemic-stricken theater chains – a collective shrug for the Oscars would plunge Hollywood deeper into an identity crisis. . And a shrug could definitely happen. Guts + Data, an entertainment research firm, said last month that only 18% of active viewers (at the theater or at home) had heard of Mank, the Netflix film leading the Oscar race with 10 nominations. .

“Even though I have a hard time taking care of myself, it’s a problem,” said Jeanine Basinger, founder of the Department of Film Studies at Wesleyan University and author of Hollywood stories like The Star Machine.

Some people in the entertainment industry, whether out of optimism or denial or both, believe the rewards are just going through a temporary slowdown due to the unique circumstances of the pandemic.

But Nielsen’s Oscar odds were already plummeting before the pandemic, plunging 44% between 2014 and last year, when 23.6 million people watched South Korean drama thriller Parasite win the top prize. A further drop on par with the Globes show in February would put Oscar audiences in the catastrophic single-digit millions.

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Much more than vanity is at stake. The Oscars have long been an economy in themselves, with companies like Netflix spending $ 30 million or more to campaign for a single movie and Disney, which owns ABC, has gone. pledged to pay over $ 900 million for worldwide broadcast rights through 2028.

The Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences does not concede defeat. The organization, which generates around $ 90 million a year in after-spend income from telecasting the Oscars, entrusted the show to one of Hollywood’s most famous directors, Steven Soderbergh. He and his fellow producers, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, were asked to shake up television broadcasting while keeping tradition (awarding statuettes in 24 categories, including ‘boring’ tech statuettes) and complying with safety restrictions in place. pandemic case.

If that wasn’t difficult enough, the three have the added challenge of trying to revive the theater when most countries around the world have been out of the habit for over a year.

“If we can go out at three and deliver a show that we’re seeing on paper right now, we feel like we’ve had a cultural moment where the nation, the world, is going, ‘Yeah, I love movies! ‘ said Collins, a seasoned live events producer who oversaw this year’s Super Bowl and the Grammys. “It’ll bring us back to the movies a bit more.”

The three are trying to reinvent the show, but are crippled by the security costs of COVID-19, which alone are consuming a third of the production budget. The group is also adamant that the show will not take place on Zoom. Soderbergh, who directed the 2011 virus thriller Contagion and led the Directors Guild’s return to work task force, had this provision in his contract when he signed the project.

“I made it clear that this has to be the worst-case scenario,” Soderbergh said of the ubiquitous pandemic technology. “These are the Oscars. We all want it to be special, and it doesn’t sound special. This is simply not the case. It reminds us of the pain of the last 14, 15 months. Not the joy of going to the movies or going to the movies. “

Steven soderbergh The Academy presented the show to one of Hollywood’s most famous directors, Steven Soderbergh. (Photo: AP)

In an effort to make the show an exclusive gathering, the producers are embarking on a logistical slump that will aim to get each contestant in front of a TV camera to a designated location, whether at two locations in Los Angeles – the train station. Union of downtown and the usual location of the Oscars, the Dolby Theater in Hollywood – or one of the 20 satellite spots in the world. (The biggest hub will be in London.)

For Soderbergh, the decision to take the job at such a difficult time stems from his long history of complaints about the show. Whether he was in the room as a candidate or at home watching it on TV, “the lack of privacy” always bothered him.

“I didn’t find it very pleasant to be in the audience,” he said of his two visits, one in 1990 as a writer for Sex, Lies and Videotape and again in 2001. , when he won the award for best director for Traffic.

Sher, who has attended the Oscars four times, remembers being impressed early on in 1995, when she was executive producer of Pulp Fiction and the film was nominated for seven Oscars.

“When I got out of the car and saw those giant Oscars, it was one of the most mind-blowing moments of my life,” she said. “And it’s all gone down from there.”

This year, the producers want to focus less on winning and instead ensure that the particularly diverse group of nominees have a better-than-average time by making the event more community-based and intimate. They also plan to create a no-mask TV show that reminds the audience at home why they love going to the movies.

The list of films they celebrate does not help the cause of the producers. Even though the majority of the best image contenders are available on streaming services, they remain relatively obscure. According to the Guts + Data survey, conducted the week of March 21, the best-known candidate was Judas and the Black Messiah, with 46% notoriety. The favorite, “Nomadland”, registered only 35%.

Soderbergh acknowledged that there is little that there is much that producers can do.

“The process of making people’s decisions about whether or not to watch doesn’t seem to have to do with whether the show is fantastic or not,” he said, noting the Grammys’ strong critical response to this. year, which included a performance by Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B.

Broadcasting of the Oscars, on the other hand, saw its ratings peak in 1998, when 57.2 million people tuned in to see box office giant Titanic claim the best picture victory. Since the turn of the century, the most beloved year has been 2004, when the academy graced yet another box office monster, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

Analysts point to a litany of challenges that propelled the decline. Old broadcast networks like ABC are not as relevant, especially for young people. The ceremonies, although limited to three relatively vivid hours, are too long for contemporary attention span. Last year’s Oscars lasted three hours and 36 minutes (the equivalent of 864 videos on TikTok).

Why browse the series when you can just watch clips on Twitter and Instagram?

Plus, the Oscars have gotten too polished and predictable. “The Oscars were the only time you could see movie stars in your living room, and a lot of times it was a hoot,” said Basinger, the Hollywood historian. “Some seemed a little drunk. Some were wearing weird clothes. A few had their hair caught in their faces.

Increasingly, ceremonies are less about entertainment honors than progressive politics, which inevitably annoys those in the audience who disagree. A recent Oscar producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential measures, said analysis of ratings after the show indicated minute-by-minute that “vast swathes” of people were turning off their televisions when celebrities were starting to speak out on politics.

And there are simply rewards that show fatigue. There are at least 18 televised ceremonies each year, including the MTV Video Music Awards, BET Awards, Teen Choice Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, CMT Music Awards, Tony Awards, People’s Choice Awards, Kids’ Choice Awards and Independent Spirit Awards.

While ratings are expected to drop for the next TV show, ABC has asked for $ 2 million for 30 seconds of advertising time, down about 13% from last year’s starting price. Some loyal advertisers (Verizon) are coming back, but others (Ferrero chocolates) are not.

“We’re really not getting a lot of interest from advertisers,” said Michelle Chong, director of planning at Atlanta-based Fitzco, “and it’s not something we insist.”

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