When the Academy Awards were first handed out 89 years ago, Variety reported at the time that the planning for the dinner and ceremony at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood took about a week of organizing to pull together and the awards ceremony took all of 15 minutes.
Those were the days.
Another sign of the changing times was Academy founder Louis B. Mayer’s original scheme to use the Academy to delay or block unionization of Hollywood. As David Thomson colorfully describes the birth of the Academy in Vanity Fair: “So Mr. Mayer and his pals decided they needed an organization to handle labor problems at the studio without having to get into the union thing, and it would be a public relations operation that pumped out the message that Hollywood was a wonderful place where delightful and thrilling stories were made to give the folks a good time.”
If time has totally transmogrified the planning, execution and union-busting purpose of the Oscars, what remains steadfast, true and virtually unaltered after all these years is the industry’s dream of using the Oscars to put butts in seats and to puff up the industry’s oft-tattered image.
As these 90th edition statues prepared to meet their new owners, it would appear the first goal of boosting box office is increasingly vanishing into the Hollywood ether.
In box-office terms, the Oscars ironically now seem almost exclusively focused on promoting the kinds of films that play only a marginal — and shrinking — role in the economics of the American film industry.
A quick sprint through the history of the business of the Oscar best picture race reveals: With $11 billion in domestic box office revenues in 2017, the nine best picture nominees’ cumulative gross of approximately $530 million represents less than 5% of the annual theatrical tally.
In 2010, the first year the best picture race doubled its entries in an effort to include blockbusters such as the previous year’s most prominent “snub,” “The Dark Knight,” the 10 best picture nominees repped closer to 11% of the year’s box-office receipts. So in less than a decade, the gap between the Oscar contenders and the publicly embraced hits has more than doubled.
But the real disconnection between the Oscars as arbiter of the film arts’ creative excellence and as celebration of the medium’s most fan-friendly offerings is revealed when you compare the best picture race today to the days when moviegoing had far fewer rivals. The 10 films competing for best picture back in 1940 repped more than 40% of the year’s theatrical revenues. And that’s when the Hollywood studios produced nearly 200 films, not the current few dozen pictures that are almost exclusively “content franchises.”
So if the Oscars are no longer ready, willing or able to drive movie theater attendance, how are they doing on the last of the moguls’ dreams for Oscar, i.e. creating an uplifting image of the industry, its brightest stars, hottest filmmakers and most powerful executives?
Cue the flop-sweat.
In 2018, upgrading Hollywood’s image is a job worthy of Cecil B. DeMille and all the ILM special effects magicians combined.
Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite has been joined by this year’s #MeToo, now accompanied by #TimesUp, to create a perfect storm of negative perceptions of The Business. The Oscar show producers were no doubt watching their precursor events for clues as to how to communicate a sober seriousness of purpose and commitment to change without alienating viewers who crave glamour, not a three-hour civics lesson.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. received solid ratings and acclaim for the balance of inspirational speeches and star power, but the Grammys, suffering the worst ratings in the awards’ telecast history, got savaged not only for the show, but the sense of disconnection from the aspirations of its female artists.
So Oscar producers have several needles to thread, and they face March 4 with mounting trepidation over their increasing disconnection from the theatrical experience, which, it should be noted, is also facing declining numbers and dire pronouncements in the media over its almost complete reliance on mega-franchises such as “Star Wars,” the animation blockbusters and comic-book favorites that are still selling tickets.
Ironically, Oscar’s divorce from box-office relevance has opened the door to its current role as social justice platform for the stars. The biggest fear, then, is that all the focus on doing the right thing might lead to serious social commentary fatigue and a ratings crash to match the recent Grammygeddon.
The Golden Globes proved it can be done, but Oscar has never liked playing second to fiddle to the Hollywood Foreign Press, and this year the insult to injury would be finding itself unable to follow the act that for decades the Academy dismissed as the déclassé pretender to the Oscars’ golden throne.