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Oscars Look for a Big Boost to Save the Academy’s Cash Cow in a Time of Crisis

This year’s Oscars have blockbuster nominees and lots of intrigue, but can they reclaim event status at a time when theatrical moviegoing is in trouble?


It’s been a year of both crisis and triumph in movie theaters, where a handful of big hits can’t hide the seemingly inexorable drain on the business that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And now it’s time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to find a way to turn its own crisis point into a triumph at the 95th Oscars.

It won’t be easy.

On paper, this year’s Academy Awards seem to have things working in their favor. For the first time since 1982, the two top-grossing films of the year are both nominated for Best Picture. (Then: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Tootsie.” Now: “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Top Gun: Maverick.”) And for the first time in Oscar history, those top two nominees have each grossed more than $1 billion.

In other news that might boost viewership, Angela Bassett could become the first actor to win an Oscar for a Marvel movie. And even if the big winner of the night is an indie, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” it’ll likely be the top-grossing film in the history of indie distributor A24, with a $100 million-plus worldwide gross that beats five of the last eight Best Picture winners. (In the U.S., its $73 million gross is higher than six of the last eight winners.)

In addition, Rihanna will be the first person to ever headline the Super Bowl Halftime Show and perform a nominated song at the Oscars in the same year. (Phil Collins did both in 2000, but he was one of four halftime performers). And Rihanna will be up against Lady Gaga (who initially opted not to perform, then reportedly changed her mind at the last minute), the unstoppable (and least in the nomination round) Diane Warren, David Byrne and the delirious “Naatu Naatu” from the Indian film “RRR,” which has the potential to draw a big international audience and provide one of the wildest Oscar dance numbers ever.

Plus there’s the lingering drama of “the slap,” the moment toward the end of last year’s show when Will Smith walked onto the stage and slapped presenter Chris Rock because of what he perceived as a rude joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. That bit of startling violence hit the news again last week when Rock finally mentioned it on his Netflix standup special. The slap and the Academy’s admittedly inadequate response to it will be addressed in some way on the show, which ought to add to the curiosity factor going into the ceremony.

Oscars pillar
This Space Available, Inquire Within: The pillar outside the Dolby Theatre where the title of the Best Picture winner will be placed on Sunday night (Steve Pond)

So between “Avatar” and “Top Gun” and Rihanna and Gaga and the slap and the sheer craziness of a youthful and hyperkinetic comedy-action flick being the Best Picture frontrunner, this ought to be a year to boost the ratings of the show to something respectable after a rock-bottom 10.4 million viewers in the COVID year of 2021 and a better-but-still-pretty-bad 16.6 million last year.

And when you consider that the Grammys’ viewership increased by almost 30% this year, from 2022’s 9.6 million to 2023’s 12.4 million, you have to think that the Oscars could do the same, and perhaps even get over the 20-million mark that would be the bottom line of what’s acceptable.

But in a year in which the embattled Golden Globes drew 6.3 million viewers, fewer than their last show, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Film Independent Spirit Awards lost their TV contracts and streamed on YouTube, increasing the Oscar ratings that much might be a tall order.

(And a sad order, when you consider that 20 million is half of what the Oscars routinely drew as recently as eight or nine years ago.)

This is a time when it seems to take a “Top Gun” or “Avatar” to get people interested in going back to movie theaters, and a time when the theatrical experience has been devalued as studios and streamers can’t wait to get their films to subscriber-driven small screens. Awards shows that honor theatrical movies just don’t feel like events the way they used to — and the Academy and ABC, whose contract runs through the 2028 broadcast, know it.

But how do you fix things before the ABC deal expires and the Academy has to settle for a lot less money for the show that gives them the vast majority of their annual operating income? Oscar show producers Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner have promised to mix things up and entertain the audience – which is, of course, the kind of thing that Oscar producers always promise.

We know that the red carpet won’t be red – it’s the “champagne carpet” this year – and that people from the Met Gala are working on the carpet and the preshow. We know the approach to the theater will feel more dramatic, a tunnel draped in red rather than the usual open-air look. (The Academy had better hope that the rain stays away on Sunday, because earlier in the week that dramatic tunnel had a lot of leaks.)

Wet Oscar statue
A wrapped Oscar statue and a couple of buckets to catch leaks on the “champagne carpet” on Friday (Steve Pond)

Once the action moves inside the Dolby, we know that the Academy will have a crisis team backstage in case any nominees misbehave and need to be thrown out. We know there will be QR codes on screen so viewers can use commercial breaks to watch videos that’ll teach them more about upcoming nominees and categories.

Beyond that, we don’t know much, except that the Academy really, really needs this show to be well-received and get better ratings (definitely not in that order).

And if you don’t think they’re worried, consider that on Friday morning, the official Academy Twitter account sent out a tweet that consisted of the hashtag #Oscars95 and the picture from the “Cocaine Bear” poster.

Does that mean Jimmy Kimmel is going to ride onto the stage on the taxidermied body of the real-life cocaine bear, which has recently resided in a Tennessee souvenir mall? Or will we have the first real bear on an Oscar stage since Bart handed the envelope to Mike Myers 25 years ago? Or maybe that tweet is not so much a tease as a moment of slight panic and wishful-thinking math: “You like ‘Cocaine Bear.’ ‘Cocaine Bear’ is a movie. The Oscars honor movies. You’ll like the Oscars!”

Hey, if it works, why not?

Welcome to Oscar Sunday.