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Watch Out, Academy and ABC: Here Comes the Riskiest Oscars Ever

Nobody’s inclined to give this year’s ceremony the benefit of the doubt, which means the stakes are huge

AWARDS BEAT

Last year’s Oscars had a free pass. This year’s Oscars is under a fierce and unforgiving spotlight.

And that’s a big problem, part of it external and part of it self-inflicted, for the Academy, and ABC and the Oscar show producers.

In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic had stopped theatrical exhibition, sent most awards shows to virtual formats and caused TV ratings for those shows to drop by 50% or more from previous years. Everybody knew that the Oscar viewership would be significantly less than the 24 million that had made 2020 the least-watched Oscars ever. And that gave producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Snider and Jesse Collins license to mess with the show, to move it into a train station, mix things up and make it look different, with no expectation that the ratings would be anything but terrible.

But 2022 is different. This is supposed to be the year that the Academy starts recovering from last year’s awful viewership of 10.4 million, less than half the previous low. 10 million viewers were an explainable anomaly last year; anything close to that will be a catastrophe this year.

And the creative changes to the telecast are being eyed critically as well. Nobody much liked the show that Soderbergh and crew put on, with its impressively perverse determination to pay tribute to movies by talking endlessly about them rather than showing them. But the producers got some credit for at least trying something different at a time when they couldn’t have done the usual.

But this year’s show is already riding a wave of ill will, and every move by producers Will Packer and Shayla Cowan is under extreme scrutiny – both by ABC, which is demanding better ratings, and by the movie industry, which doesn’t much like what they’ve heard so far.

The chief culprit, of course, is the decision to hand out eight awards in the hour before the broadcast begins, and then to edit those presentations into the live show. Reportedly adopted because ABC insisted on a three-hour show, it has drawn near-universal condemnation from filmmakers, guilds and movie fans.

And so anything that happens on the stage of the Dolby Theatre on Sunday night will be weighed against a standard that no previous show has had: Is this a better use of the Oscars’ time than a live presentation of, say, the Academy Award for Best Film Editing or Best Original Score?

The Academy and the producers’ response has been the same as it was three years ago, when a similar (but smaller) plan was announced and then withdrawn in the face of industry-wide pressure. Don’t judge us, they say, until you see how seamlessly and respectfully we do this.

Essentially, the Academy is arguing that there’s a respectful way to create a lower class of Academy Award. But there isn’t; disrespect is inescapably at the very core of what they’re doing. And showing disrespect to its own artisans threatens to dilute the power of the Oscar brand, which is supposed to stand for cinematic excellence rather than commercial expedience.  

Is that disrespect a reasonable price to pay for what you gain by trimming the show to exactly three hours? Will adding a couple of Twitter polls help the viewing experience more than it hurts the idea that the Oscars exist to honor the best in moviemaking? Will handing presenter gigs to, say, Tony Hawk, Shaun White and DJ Khaled help make the Oscars more appealing for an audience that wasn’t watching when the presenters were Brad Pitt, Halle Berry and Harrison Ford?

Maybe all that stuff will work. Maybe this is the year that the Academy successfully reinvents the Academy Awards rather than flails to attract an audience that just isn’t interested. Maybe it won’t feel insulting to have a performance of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which wasn’t nominated, instead of “Down to Joy,” which was.

The show is taking place during a pandemic and during a war, and it’s honoring a slate of good and varied films that most people haven’t seen. It also comes at a time when the ubiquity of streaming has all but taken away the idea that moviegoing is an event, which is one the reasons why the biggest show to honor movies always felt like an event, too.

Those are daunting obstacles, to be sure, and they’ve been compounded by others brought on by recent decisions. At this point, after the messiness that led up to this show, nobody is inclined to give the 94th Academy Awards the benefit of the doubt. The stakes have never been higher and the potential downside has never been so low – and that puts the Academy, the producers and the network in what might well be the riskiest position any Oscar show has ever faced.

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