The Oscars take another dive: Can anyone save this sinking ship?
The Academy Awards are in trouble. Trouble with a capital T, as they say in “The Music Man.”
This year's show was roundly panned by critics, and viewership was down 10%, with an even bigger drop in the key 18-49 age category. It's not that people don't want to watch award shows: In January, the Grammys had their highest audience in 11 years. The Emmys, the Golden Globes and even MTV's Video Music Awards were all up over the previous year. But this year's Oscars, which were supposed to be new, young and fizzy, fell flat like New Coke. At 83, the Oscars definitely need some Viagra.
On the Web, most of the negative buzz focused on Anne Hathaway and James Franco, the Oscars' youngest-ever host combo. (One of the raging post-show debates revolved around the question: Was Franco stoned or just pretending?) But hosts are the least of the Oscars' troubles.
The issue wasn't the crop of movies, either. The five best picture favorites — those movies whose filmmakers were up for best director — were sizable hits. “Inception” and “Toy Story 3,” also among the best picture nominees, were box-office behemoths. People do tune in to watch the Oscars when they've seen the nominated movies. But even the 2006 telecast, which had the five lowest-grossing best picture nominees in recent history, had higher numbers than this year's show.
The real problem is that the Oscars are like a thriller where everyone knows who the killer is before the movie has even begun.
The Academy Awards have spawned a six-month-long orgy of air-headed punditry and marketing hype. In September, with the arrival of the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, the lineup of Oscar contenders was already being sliced and diced. By early December, you could go to virtually any Oscar pundit website and find an accurate forecast of the 10 best picture nominees. By the time the guild awards were finished in early February, the suspense was long gone — even a casual fan could've easily picked the vast majority of winners of the major awards. And when Franco and Hathaway took the stage, not only did everyone know who was going to win, they had already heard their acceptance speeches at any number of lesser shows.
Today's Oscars are the news you already know. These days, no one waits for news, which is why no one watches network news broadcasts or reads newsmagazines anymore.
The motion picture academy's board isn't totally clueless — they know they've got big problems. But like oh-so-many boards of directors, they're a serious-minded but clubby group of insiders who've only made cosmetic nips and tucks when major surgery is needed.
The academy has resisted the one fix that could change the downward ratings trajectory: moving the show to the first half of January, which would give it a chance of regaining control of its own destiny. All the other award shows — starting with the Golden Globes — owe their clout to the fact that they are viewed as bellwethers for the Oscar race. If the Oscars leapfrogged the Globes, the show would have an immediacy it hasn't had in years.
One proposal that makes sense is organizing a World Series-style awards week in early-to-mid-January. The four major guild awards could unfold on consecutive nights from Wednesday through Saturday, and the week could culminate with the Oscars on Sunday. Instead of the slow drip-drip of award show results, the predictive guild prizes would come at such a dizzying pace that the Oscars might regain some element of surprise, since no one would have time to do much pondering over all the other shows before the big night.
The academy is worried about technology issues, because an earlier Oscar date would require members to vote online. That would provide instant results but open up the possibility of WikiLeaks-style mayhem. Of course, it seems hard to believe that the industry that developed such sophisticated 3-D technology and video on demand couldn't find a way to keep the academy's sainted Oscar ballots secret.
The academy has another bullet to bite: It has to acknowledge that it's putting on a TV show. As one studio executive told me this week: “We're supposed to be in the entertainment business, yet we can't even put on an entertaining show.” If the academy was willing to bump its Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to a separate ceremony, reducing the peerless Francis Ford Coppola to an embarrassingly wordless cameo while other winners got to thank their agents and managers, then it should be pragmatic enough to move its technical awards like makeup and sound mixing to another ceremony, with taped highlights on the Oscar telecast.
That would leave room for something the show has been missing in spades — an emotional bond with its audience. Just as NBC tapes featurettes introducing obscure athletes to Olympic viewers, the academy needs to give casual fans a rooting interest in the back stories of the gifted artists who are up for major awards but aren't household names.
Whether it's a supporting actress, screenwriter or documentary filmmaker, if we got a window into their world earlier in the show, maybe we'd stick around to see how they did when their category came along. If the nominees are willing to endure months of mindless cocktail chatter with showbiz journalists to boost their Oscar chances, then surely they'd spend a day with an Oscar TV crew taping a background story.
This isn't exactly rocket science. Any half-smart marketing expert could offer the academy a dozen more bright ideas. But it's time for the academy to stop dithering and start reinventing a show that bears an unfortunate resemblance to a dinosaur — very big and on its way to extinction.
Photo: Colin Firth after winning the Oscar for actor in a leading role at the 83rd Academy Awards. Credit: Chris Carlson/Associated Press