Do the Oscars Even Matter Anymore?

Senior entertainment editor Marlow Stern and senior entertainment writer Kevin Fallon debate the big issues ahead of the Academy Awards, airing March 4 on ABC.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Marlow: Well, we’ve gabbed about the folks who should have been nominated for Oscars this year and discussed the many controversies that have arisen, from accused sexual-harasser Ryan Seacrest commanding the red carpet to alleged abusers Gary Oldman and Kobe Bryant in line for statuettes. But all this prompts the question: Do the Academy Awards even matter anymore? This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the highest-rated Oscars telecast in history: 1998, when the pop-cultural behemoth Titanic was nominated for a record 14 Academy Awards. That ceremony attracted 57 million people—though is perhaps most famous for director James Cameron’s cringeworthy “I’m the king of the world!” acceptance-howl.

Kevin: Last year, meanwhile, ratings hit a nine-year low with just 33 million—raking in barely half the viewers of that big number. Of course, the number of eyeballs on Oscar is hardly the only measure of the golden guy’s worth. And in the current TV climate, in which no one watches anything, ever, that’s still a monster achievement when it comes to viewership and influence. As we both certainly experienced with the dramatic La La Land-Moonlight moment, the telecast is nearly unrivaled among entertainment events in its ability to jump-start a news cycle and global conversation.

Marlow: Crisis actors, all of them. Deep State 100 percent staged that.

Kevin: So… I’m more fascinated by what that disparity in ratings is presumed to suggest, that more people tune in to the Oscars when they’ve seen and care about the nominated films. A recent stat I saw reported that more than 50 percent of Americans haven’t seen a single nominee. (I’d venture that number is higher). Does that actually do more to suggest that the Oscars don’t matter?

I don’t think huge box-office hits have to be Best Picture nominees in order for the Oscars to matter to the mainstream moviegoing population.

Marlow: There’s a great deal of Oscars fatigue, I think. The campaign season is so long now—effectively kicking off in September with the Venice/Telluride/Toronto Film Festivals and barreling forward till March (it’s even a week later this year). Interest in the ceremony has waned over the years due to its numerous poor hosting stints and lack of innovation as well. I’m not sure why the Academy keeps hiring ancient producers to stage it—get Judd Apatow or someone fun!—and refuses to play with the format.

Kevin: Apatow is a solid idea, though he wouldn’t solve the problem of the ceremony being so damn long. When was the last time a Judd Apatow-produced movie wasn’t at least 30 unnecessary minutes too long?

Marlow: Ha, good point. So Judd and Seth Rogen, perhaps. This thing really drags though, nobody cares about the musical performances unless it’s a marquee name like Eminem or Celine or Adele, there aren’t enough fun interstitial comedy skits, etc. (One of my favorite Oscars moments of recent memory was that Apatow-produced Pineapple Express parody, with James Franco and Seth Rogen’s stoner characters ridiculing silly, self-serious Oscar fare like The Reader.) And I think the avant-garde film selections contribute to this overall inaccessibility. The Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees to 10 in the wake of the infamous Dark Knight/Wall-E snubs of ’09 in order to get more Titanic-esque stuff in, yet nothing’s changed. 

Kevin: One obvious goal of that post-Dark Knight expansion of nominees was to make it so more movies that the general public saw and loved, like Titanic and The Dark Knight, were nominated, and while that hasn’t exactly been the result I’m still all for that goal.

Marlow: The Oscars definitely needs to loosen up and start recognizing more mainstream fare, although I think we may get that next year with Black Panther. Getting ahead of myself!

Kevin: Even then I don’t think huge box-office hits have to be Best Picture nominees in order for the Oscars to matter to the mainstream moviegoing population. To revisit that stat about how few people have seen any of this year’s nominees: I keep wondering why at this point, with so many ways to watch movies on-demand or stream them, the Academy hasn’t just made the movies available for everyone to see on some platform ahead of the Oscars for some sort of fee. People are genuinely curious about, say, Lady Bird or Call Me by Your Name by the time the Oscars roll around, but don’t necessarily have access to seeing them. Sure, the devil’s advocate could argue they might have had their chance to see them when they were in wide release. But there’s also something to be said for the way our habits have changed to be conditioned to streaming from home, and that interest often isn’t piqued until, basically, right now, when the Oscars are about to happen.

Marlow: I would’ve seen Call Me by Your Name a third time if I could. But in all seriousness, am in total and complete agreement with you here. Love the idea of the Academy allowing streaming access to all the Best Picture nominees for a one-time fee. A big issue, since the movie marketplace is so oversaturated with content, is these indiewood films are expanding at a snail’s pace. I’ve already complained about this, but I’ll do it again: the breathtaking Call Me by Your Name opened in limited release on Nov. 24 (so basically, in New York and Los Angeles) and didn’t expand beyond the major markets until late January, capping at around 600 theaters total. It’s a masterpiece that should have been a cultural touchstone.

Kevin: They did so much promotion and marketing for that movie in November and all my friends were desperate to see it, but couldn’t until two months later, at which point they nearly forgot about it entirely. It was insane!

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Marlow: I wish I had a peach to throw at something. So many people throughout the country haven’t had the opportunity to see it—or other nominated entries like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards, neither of which expanded beyond 800 theaters nationwide. It’s sad, but these days people are less inclined to schlep to the nearest arthouse theater four towns over to see the latest awards-buzz film. They can just stay at home and binge Netflix or order something on iTunes.

Kevin: There’s a lot of conversations to be had about whether Netflix is the enemy here because of the effect it might be having on arthouse film, but the counterargument is that, in this example of making available the Best Picture nominees, streaming services could also be a friend—if a begrudging one. But with this hand-wringing over whether anyone has seen the movies, do you think that also affects what it means to be an Oscar winner? There’s the obvious benefit of winning, that the trophy raises a film’s profile and attracts more viewers that way. We’d venture that way more people went out of their way to see Moonlight after that dramatic win last year than would have if La La Land danced off with the big prize. But there’s also cultural value in what it means to be an Oscar winner. The film industry plays a pivotal role in reflecting back, challenging, and progressing society, and an Oscar win says a lot about the kinds of stories that matter to a particular moment in time, and can set the agenda for the kinds of stories the industry will tell in the future.

Marlow: Winning an Oscar still matters, for the reasons you stated—the prestige, the cultural benchmark-ness, how it propels certain talent forward in the industry—but monetarily, ever since the Best Picture nominees were expanded to 8-10, I think merely being nominated has led to less of a box-office bump. Harvey Weinstein, the repulsive accused serial rapist, managed to generate quite a bit of interest in the Academy Awards by bullying those in the industry and media into submission, and manufacturing controversy. Weinstein is, thankfully, done.

Kevin: Though, ironically, this year’s telecast will probably be the most Harvey Weinstein-centric yet.

Marlow: True. And the Academy still hasn’t really acknowledged their complicity in the Harvey Weinstein machine. And now the Academy will have to figure out how to generate interest in the awards without its most vocal mouthpiece. I like the idea of allowing the Best Picture nominees to be streamed, but what other steps do you think they should take to feather-dust this musty ol’ thing? 

Kevin: I think there’s a way to strike a balance between holding onto tradition and keeping the Oscars first and foremost an awards show rewarding the art of filmmaking, and also moving away from the more masturbatory and self-aggrandizing elements of its pageantry. People often assume it’s the technical awards “no one cares about” that cause the Oscars telecast to drag, but we’d argue that it’s the countless montages and tributes to itself, to its industry, that make the show insufferable.

Marlow: The less “We Saw Your Boobs” song-and-dance numbers, the better.

Kevin: The highlight of any Oscars is the monologue and the speeches. Those are the elements that have endured through time. What was the last tribute to cinema’s history that you remember? Similarly, does there need to be so much concern over how many very famous people are paraded on stage as presenters? No. Those bits are 90 percent terrible. Stop putting the energy into the montage packages and these grand presentations, refocus on a zippy monologue and worthy winners, and make the thing breezy and to the point. Could it really be that simple?