Tuesday, February 02, 2010

How the Oscars got boring

Just about every year, weary journalists and pop-culture pundits trot out opinions on how to save The Academy Awards because the Oscars no longer draw big viewership figures. In 1970, the televised ceremony had a 43.4% share in the ratings. Today, it's less of an event. Last year's show -- which was up 6% on 2008 -- boasted an "American Idol"-scale audience. Which is pretty good, but hardly phenomenal in this era of long-tail media fragmentation.

Typically, suggestions on boosting numbers tend to go like this:
  • If you can't get Billy Crystal as emcee, how about Jay & Conan as co-hosts?
  • If you can't bring back Björk and her egg-laying swan dress, how about inviting Lady Gaga (with Cher as her stylist).
  • If you can't get star power like Brangelina on the red carpet, how about Snooki and The Situation?
  • How about inviting Steve Jobs to the podium to unveil a new Apple product?
  • Or how about just awarding Best Picture to "Twilight" for that all-important 13-18 demographic? (Bonus idea: Have Justin Bieber hand over the statuette.)
Such cosmetic changes will move the needle some. But our culture has fundamentally changed since Oscar's heyday. For starters, Hollywood movie stars aren't as important anymore. In part, it's because there's less mystery and less golden-era glamor.

There was a time, long ago, when stars weren't over-exposed. Apart from the occasional appearance on Johnny Carson or a Jerry Lewis telethon, your only opportunity of seeing actors outside of the movies was tuning into the Oscars. Nowadays, you can watch Clooney picking his nose on TMZ. In the old days celebrities were largely presented in publicist-controlled puff pieces in "Life" magazine. Now, you can read about Brangelina's sex life in US Weekly right after you've flipped past pictures of J.Lo pumping gas in the "Stars: They're Just Like Us!" feature.

More fundamentally, stars no longer have the currency they once did. Studios now rely on well-branded properties and high-concept stories, rather than big-name actors, to pack theaters. That's true of nearly all 2009's top-grossing films: "Avatar," "Star Trek," "Transformers," "Harry Potter," "Twilight," "Alvin & The Chipmunks," "The Hangover," "X-Men: Origins," "2012."

There are one or two exceptions to that hardening rule: Robert Downey Jr. helped sell the "Sherlock Holmes" brand name with the capital he gained from starring in "Iron Man 2." Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep can reliably draw a crowd in the right project. And Will Smith could probably star in a sequel to "Howard the Duck" and still notch a big opening weekend. But can they turn the awards telecast into a "must see"? Nah.

So, if celebrity is no longer a significant draw for the Academy Awards, how about the movies? The gambit of expanding the Best Picture nominees to 10 films will likely improve audience numbers as the category isn't just limited to middlebrow fare. The 9 nominations for "Avatar" will be a cause for celebration for the Academy and ABC because the last time America gave a damn about the Oscars was the year of "Titanic." The studios will cheer, too, since the awards are primarily about selling movies (and flattering egos).

Problem is, the Academy awards are all over before they've even begun. The awards season is oversaturated with award shows, many of them televized, ranging from The Golden Globes to the Spirit Awards. Moreover, each of Hollywood's major guilds -- Actors, Producers, Directors -- hold their own ceremonies and the big winners in each category tend to be a safe prediction of who will win in the corresponding Oscar category. We now know that Jeff Bridges will win for Best Actor, Sandra Bullock for Best Actress, Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director, and The Hurt Locker for Best Picture.

All of this happens before the Academy Award nominations have even been announced. In fact, the only surprises today in the widely predicted nominees was the inclusion of "The Blind Side" for Best Picture and "In the Loop" for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Simply, there's no element of suspense anymore.

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