I haven’t watched a lot of movies this year. Actually, there are only three I can remember: “Miss Americana” (a documentary), “Godmothered” (a random Christmas movie) and “Up” (an animated movie from 2009). Should this make me unqualified to write a review of the Oscars, the biggest award show of the year for cinema? Well, yes. It doesn’t help that I didn’t even watch the award show myself, but that’s besides the point. Why? Because nobody watched the Oscars this year.
To be fair, that’s not entirely true. The Oscars did manage to pull in an average of 8.8 million viewers during their three-hour-long show, but that was a massive 58% decrease from the previous year. The Oscars aren’t alone in seeing record low viewership numbers – this past year, the Grammys and Golden Globes saw 53% and 63% declines, respectively. Never before have award shows held such little cultural relevance.
The Oscars in particular have struggled with connecting to the general public recently. Unlike the Grammys, which (barring their disdain for rap music) have been able to reward music representative of each year by striking a balance between celebrating commercial success and critical acclaim, the Oscars have leaned hard into the critically-acclaimed-but-commercially-invisible niche for their awards. The last time a movie with a box office gross of more than $100 million won Best Picture was in 2013, when “Argo” walked away with the prize. The result of this voting is, yes, “deserving” winners, but at the same time, a general public where each person has seen maybe one or two of the Best Picture nominees.
It has been an especially challenging year for cinema, with the COVID-19 pandemic putting the future of movie theaters in serious jeopardy. With box office numbers at record lows, there are even fewer movies for the Oscars to reward that many people saw. This year, Best Picture winner “Nomadland” pulled in a meager $2 million, $15 million less than the previous low set in 2010 by “The Hurt Locker.” The pandemic is forcing the Oscars to address its future right now – how can the awards show survive if it continues down this path?
The Oscars have already begun to show signs of improvement here and there. They made a great decision nominating “Black Panther” in 2019, showing that they weren’t completely detached from the mainstream. But maybe it would have been better to outright give the award to the movie – “Black Panther” was an undeniable cultural moment, critically and commercially successful and accurately reflected the spirit of the late 2010s. In other words, it’s the kind of nominee the Grammys eat up but the Oscars are reluctant to reward. Instead, they handed the Best Picture award to “Green Book,” a questionable commentary on race that approaches white saviorism.
If the Oscars aren’t going to give awards to box office hits, maybe they’ll finally decide to reward movies from streaming sites more frequently. The last time a Netflix movie had a credible shot at winning Best Picture, “Roma” was beaten, also by “Green Book” in 2019. With the pandemic putting most movie theaters out of service for the time, many releases have been dependent on streaming, and the Oscars somewhat reflected that this year. Netflix managed to pull in seven wins, almost equalling the eight it had collected up to that point. However, the big award the streaming site was hoping to win – Best Actor for the late Chadwick Boseman – did not come to fruition, despite him being the heavy favorite.
If the Oscars want to survive, they need to evolve alongside the music industry. It’s clear they’re trying, but will it be too little, too late? Probably. When the pandemic ends, whether or not people return to watching award shows is up in the air. Maybe they’ll follow movie theaters to the graveyard, and in 50 years when you try to explain movie theaters to your grandchildren, you might throw in an Oscars mention. Probably not. Well, at least I won’t do that – if I don’t care about the Oscars now, why would 50 years change that?