The Oscars failed its one job: to make viewers interested in the movies

Yuh-Jung Youn was terrific in “Minari,” a film hardly anyone has seen.
Yuh-Jung Youn was terrific in “Minari,” a film hardly anyone has seen.
Image: Todd Wawrychuk/AMPAS/Reuters
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After a year in which hardly anyone went to the movies, the Oscars made a perplexing decision to not show off its nominated films and performers. It was the award show’s biggest blunder in recent memory (and there have been many.)

The 93rd Academy Awards aired on ABC in the US last night. Nomadland, a drama about itinerant workers traveling the American West, won best picture. Its director, Chloé Zhao, became the first Asian woman to win the top directing prize. Welsh legend Anthony Hopkins won his second Oscar for his performance of an elderly man with dementia in The Father. Daniel Kaluuya took home a supporting actor award for his electric portrayal of Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panther Party.

But none of these films or performances were highlighted during the broadcast. In fact, no aspect of the filmmaking process was given the light of day. Hardly any clips from the nominated movies were played. No music from the movies made it to the main broadcast. (Songs were performed during ABC’s marathon pre-show.) No costumes or hairstyles were shown, and there was no cinematography to bask in. The Oscars gave viewers no sense whatsoever of what movies looked or sounded like over the past year.

It was a deliberate choice. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and the Oscar producing team opted for a stripped-down, intimate broadcast, and eschewed many of the ceremony’s traditions, like montages, musical numbers, and comedic bits. Instead, presenters waxed poetic about each of the nominees as they were announced—without actually showing the work that got them nominated. Speeches were allowed to run long, but without some audiovisual context of what they were for, many fell flat.

A bad choice in an already bad year for movies

The decision was doubly baffling because audiences simply have not seen these movies. Most only had very short runs in theaters—in limited locations—before being moved with little fanfare to on-demand or streaming services. Promising Young Woman was the highest-grossing best picture nominee, with only $12 million in global ticket sales. (That would’ve ranked near the bottom of last year’s nine nominated films.)

A survey by the Hollywood research firm Guts + Data showed that the majority of US entertainment consumers—defined as people who, in a typical year, go to the movies or subscribe to streaming services—had not even heard of the films when prompted by their titles and shown their posters. Though many of the films might be more accessible than ever thanks streaming, that doesn’t necessarily translate to awareness of those movies.

The Oscars had a great opportunity to increase awareness of the movies, which needed all the help they could get. But the producers thought it was more important to experiment with the show’s format, in what will now likely prove to be a futile attempt to revive interest in the fading award show. The show also failed to make a strong pitch for going back to movie theaters, which have been devastated by the pandemic, and are counting on a revival this summer as studios finally unveil some of the big movies they postponed from 2020.

TV ratings for the broadcast were predictably a disaster: An all-time low 9.8 million viewers tuned in live, down 58% from 13.8 million last year. The expected ratings debacle was part of the reason why the producers felt empowered to venture from tradition in the first place. But failing to give viewers context about these relatively unknown films is not what’s going to save the Oscars. If anything, it has only hastened the show’s demise.