This year’s Oscars weren’t just a disappointment in terms of viewership — down 16%, with tepid reviews for host Neil Patrick Harris — it also speaks to a much larger problem for Hollywood. The Oscars are supposed to be a celebration of all facets of the movie-making business, but in recent years, the ceremony has started to feel more and more insular, like an employee-of-the-year celebration that happens to be televised for the entire world. The gap between the movies that win the Oscars (“Birdman” with its relatively small box office of $37 million) and movies that general audiences love to watch (“The Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Captain America 2,” etc.) continues to grow wider, which is why the ceremony is facing an identity crisis. Popular actors such as Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans attend only as presenters, while a mega-hit franchise like “The Hunger Games” has yet to receive a single Oscar nomination.
Here are five major suggestions for how the Academy can fix the telecast.
(1) Solve the Hosting Crisis
The Academy has struggled for the last decade to find an appropriate ambassador for its most important event. The problem is that the job now carries a stigma, with more scarred victims than success stories: just ask Anne Hathaway, James Franco, Seth MacFarlane or Jon Stewart. Ellen DeGeneres, who delivered a winning performance last year — between ordering pizza and her famous celebrity selfie — was reportedly invited back, but she declined. On paper, Harris may have seemed like a smart choice (after hosting the Emmys and Tonys numerous times), but in reality, he turned out to be too safe. He’s not a traditional comedian, he’s not a movie star, and he seemed uncomfortable with the string of terrible puns that his writing team had cobbled together.
The Academy should follow the Golden Globes’ example, and sign a multiyear deal with a superstar. That way, it won’t need to renegotiate with a successful host to come back, and it would give the show consistency. Since Johnny Carson carried the Oscars in the early ’80s, his modern-day equivalent would be equally great in the job. Jimmy Fallon turned down the gig in 2013, but provided a possibility that he could change his mind later, telling Matt Lauer: “It’s not my year.” Since then, Fallon has revitalized “The Tonight Show” by essentially doing what a great Oscars host does: improvising with celebrities, playing games with them and belting out songs. If NBC would allow him to do it, the Academy should immediately lock up Fallon as the face of the Oscars for the next three years, and pay him whatever it takes.
(2) Fix the Voting
The Emmys recently overhauled some of their voting guidelines (although who knows if those changes will make the show better), and the Oscars desperately need to do the same. In recent years, the Academy has tried to invite younger members to its 6,000-or-so group, but that hasn’t necessarily made the nominations mainstream. As the New York Times reported on Tuesday, the addition of a casting director branch in 2013 has meant more voters who prefer smaller performances, and there’s something very wrong with an animation branch that wouldn’t include “The Lego Movie” among its contenders. In other words, everything new the Academy has done to shake up the voting hasn’t been working when it comes to making the show more watchable. There’s not an overnight solution to changing the tastes of un-hip Oscar voters, but the Academy might need to bite the bullet and add a few thousand — not just a few hundred — more members. A good place to start is by expanding the size of branches like visual effects, publicity and editing, or in other areas where the tastes of members would be more in line with that of the general public.
(3) Tighten the Show
At 3.5 hours, the Oscars are too damn long. The Academy has resisted a frequently offered suggestion of awarding some of its prizes off-camera, but with the advent of a new phenomenon known as the Internet, it wouldn’t be so bad. They could easily chip away 30 minutes from the telecast by live-streaming the winners for live action short, animated short, documentary short and sound mixing/editing just before the ceremony starts (and during ABC’s live-red carpet coverage). And it’s time to change best picture back to five nominees. The experiment of adding extra nominees in the category in 2009, following the embarrassing snub for “The Dark Knight,” has not been a success. Instead of including films like “Interstellar,” “The Guardians of the Galaxy” or “The Hunger Games,” the Academy often uses the extra spots for more indies like “Whiplash,” “The Tree of Life” or “Amour.” There’s a chance that “American Sniper” might not have made it into the best picture race with only five nominees, but what’s the point of including it at all if the ceremony treats the film like an afterthought?
(4) Engage the Viewers
Perhaps just as concerning as the drop in the Oscars audience, tweets were down 47% during this year’s show. That might be because the Oscars trudge along just as they always have, as if the Internet doesn’t exist. There’s no informative polling, no audience participation, no direct engagement with the viewers at home. It’s not that the Oscars should turn into “American Idol” (although the show features just as much singing as the Fox reality series), but it couldn’t hurt to incorporate a few hashtags throughout the night. And all the attendees should be encouraged to live-tweet between the commercial breaks.
(5) Keep the Celebrities Engaged
The Oscars are boring unless the people attending the show are having a good time. Perhaps foreshadowing the flatness of this year’s ceremony, Harris somberly reminded the audience that there would be no snacks. Really? He should have one-upped Ellen’s pizza by serving the celebrities White Castle Burgers (a nod to his popular cameos in “Harold and Kumar”) instead of awkwardly asking Octavia Spencer to watch his prediction box, a skit that never paid off. Finally, the best solution to spicing up the Oscars is a relatively easy fix: Serve everybody alcohol in their seats. The bar outside the auditorium was busy, and the seatfillers were working overtime, because fewer attendees stayed to watch the show.