I can already imagine the meeting that will take place around May or June of this year with a cast featuring senior executive members of the Motion Picture Academy and ABC. Following a dull PowerPoint presentation on Academy reputation perception, a network exec stands up and spins how the dismal ratings for the 2023 Oscars — the third lowest since Nielsen started tracking — were actually up two million viewers from the previous year (the year of “the slap”) to a total 18.8 million viewers. They brag about the 13% uptick before launching into how (and I’m guessing here), somewhere in Idaho, six 17-year-olds watched the show for an average of two minutes, which resulted in the audience being 0.25% younger. Champagne is served.
It all reminds me of my late friend, the iconic producer David Brown (“The Sting,” “Jaws”), who said to me, “My boy, Hollywood is the only place in the world where you can die of encouragement.”
Although the audience appears to be inching back to pre-pandemic numbers, it is inconceivable that the Oscars will ever regain the 20 million or so viewers lost over the past decade — unless the Academy figures out how to combine the Super Bowl with their annual awards extravaganza. What I find staggering is how the Academy and its esteemed board of governors made up of industry legends continue to produce a show that runs longer than the Best Picture contenders. This year’s broadcast ran nearly two hours longer than “The Banshees of Inisherin,” an hour longer than “The Fabelmans” and about 30 minutes longer than the epic “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
The good news is that this year’s telecast had approximately 48 minutes of enjoyable entertainment within its nearly four-hour duration.
Full credit for the best show production and hosting since the Billy Crystal years goes to producers Glenn Weiss (who also directed) and Ricky Kirshner and to host Jimmy Kimmel. But there is still much work to do to save the Oscars from becoming an insiders party watched exclusively by the industry, cinephiles and relatives of the nominees.
The following suggestions are my road map to building a better Oscars show. Fair warning: There are several sacrificial sacred cows. Before you dismiss the opinion of a Canadian outsider, let me just say that I have produced a plethora of high-profile award shows in a country where, if you run long and fail to cue the end credits before the late-night news is scheduled to start, you are sentenced to prison time.
- Sign host Jimmy Kimmel to a multi-year contract. He has the class of Johnny Carson and the measured irreverence of his idol David Letterman (without the funny but awkward Uma/Oprah gag). On Kimmel’s own show this week, Letterman came on as a guest and told Kimmel, “Congratulations, because you resurrected this carcass, and the network and the Academy ought to be very grateful. Nice going.”
- Sign Weiss and Kirshner to a multi-year contract. They are the first producers in a decade who understand how to deliver a tightly paced, mostly watchable show.
- The run time must be reduced to two hours max. No mere mortal can endure this indulgent marathon any longer without reliving that nightmare scene from “A Clockwork Orange” with Malcolm MacDowell and the toothpicks.
- Cut the opening montage and get on with the show. We will end up seeing the same clips from all the nominated films throughout the evening anyway.
- Give us more Jimmy. He is basically on the air for 12 quick minutes. Yes, a great ringmaster should keep the show moving and not distract from the main event. But he shouldn’t be invisible for most of the show.
- Stop chasing a younger demographic. They are not going to show up. Ever. They don’t watch television and what they do watch, on TikTok and YouTube, are minute-long bursts of content. There are plenty of advertisers that have products for an older demographic that still watches television.
- Consider securing one or two advertisers to buy out the show and eliminate the commercials. So what if Jimmy drives onstage in a Buick and Salma wears $2 million in Harry Winston jewels? (Oh wait, she did anyway.) Anything to not watch 45 minutes or more of commercial interruptions. Yes, this is rather revolutionary and would upend decades of advertising tradition on network TV. But let’s try it. There is a way to make it all perfectly tasteful, with billboards flashed throughout the show. Advertisers will pay a premium to have category exclusivity and block out their competitors. I have produced successful, elegant awards shows where financial institutions sponsored the whole thing, which made for a seamless flow without commercial blocks, only spots at the top and tail of the broadcast and several in-show mentions that the event was being presented commercial-free.
- Reconsider reducing the number of categories by at least four or five. I know that is pure sacrilege and that last year this strategy was met with outrage and near mutiny. But there is a way to package a tighter show of even more select categories that runs as a shoulder program presented in the same venue but live streamed by Netflix or Disney + or Apple TV + or whoever. (Amy Poehler and Tina Fey can host. Or Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig.) You can then highlight the clips during the main broadcast. Yes, this is controversial. But nominees and winners would be seen twice — on a live stream and global broadcast — with a much larger reach. Even the most diehard Hollywood lover can’t argue with having two shows. If the Academy engages the core audience in the planning, they won’t alienate them.
- Eliminate the fawning studio and Academy Museum infomercials. Yes, we get it, AMPAS, you are almost 100 years old — mazel tov! And you also built a stunning museum. Mazel tov again! But people tuned in for Kimmel’s monologue (how would he address “the slap”?), to catch a few great speeches and to see who wore what. Why are you celebrating the now by repeatedly patting yourselves on the back for the past?
- Eliminate the droning Academy executive speeches. There was not one but two this year. You are 95 years old, Academy. We know what your mission statement is.
- While emotionally impactful, the in-memoriam segment has become controversial for its omissions, editing and bizarre camera angles that work for the in-theater audience but are often difficult to appreciate at home. I would hire a talented editor like Doug Blush (“20 Feet from Stardom”) or Barry Alexander Brown (“BlackkKlansman”) to create a sensational package that lives online. There will always be mistakes and omissions, so instead of offering up a lightening rod on the main stage, change the context so the package can be fixed quickly.
- Lastly, the best song category. I am extraordinarily torn on whether this should be part of the main broadcast or part of our new Oscars live preshow stream. I am divided for two reasons: The Oscars are not the Grammys, and even if a great song makes a film even more special, it is the score that’s more relevant to the filmmaking. The other reason I am divided is the spectrum of breathtaking live performances we witnessed this year, from Lady Gaga and Rihanna and the thrilling “Naatu Naatu” dance number to the wildly eccentric, David Byrne/Son Lux song that, while loved by many, induced me into a Sunny Von Bülow trance. The bottom line is: The songs represent nearly 30 minutes of precious airtime.
If the entire Oscars experience is only about ego, politics and advertising dollars (never in Hollywood!), then these suggestions have already been dismissed. But I do hope the Academy takes risks to keep shaping the show for our times. I love the Oscars. And Glenn, Ricky and Jimmy have proven to have the alchemy that delivers gold.
Barry Avrich is an award-winning documentary filmmaker (“The Last Mogul,” “Made You Look,” “The Reckoning,” “Prosecuting Evil”) who has also produced many stage-to-screen productions and live award shows, including the Canadian Screen Awards, the Sports Hall of Fame Awards and The Giller Prize. He runs the Melbar Entertainment Group, one of the largest producers of non-scripted content in North America. His memoir, “Moguls, Monsters and Madmen” was released in 2017.