The Academy’s Biggest Problem
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: The Ringer – Source
The Academy Awards have long been thought of as a cultural staple, but recent years and controversial nominations have begun to indicate otherwise. There was once a time when the elegant dazzle of the Dolby Theatre’s rich red carpet was the place to be on television. In 1998, a whopping 55.25 million viewers tuned in to watch Titanic take home the award for Best Picture at the 70th Academy Awards, forming the largest audience the ceremony has ever had. The Oscars have consistently beaten their other award show equivalents in terms of ratings over the years, usually coming on top over the Grammys, Tonys, and the Primetime Emmys. To all the filmmakers in the Dolby Theatre’s audience, whether there in-person or through a TV screen, the star-dusted nature of its interior design called to mind one of cinema’s most central themes: through the magic of film, not even the stars in the sky are out of reach.
The Oscars’ present, however, looks a little less shiny than its past. 2021 saw the awards show draw its lowest audience of all time: only 9.23 million viewers, a damning 51% drop from the 2020 ratings. Annual criticism of the Academy for lack of diversity in its decisions have largely fallen on deaf ears, resulting in perplexing Best Picture wins like that of Green Book and the passing over of late actor Chadwick Boseman for Best Actor. The famous unexpected victory of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite in 2020 offered some hope for the future of the Oscars, but the question still remains: why have they fallen so far from fashion? And does this indicate anything about the fate of the film industry?
The main reason the Oscars have been struggling to retain their prominence is that while other awards shows have been able to develop with the changing times, the Academy has largely failed to similarly adapt. The Tony Awards stayed current by finding a foothold in the millennial optimism of the theatre scene. And as television as a medium started to mature and evolve, the Primetime Emmy Awards found a new kind of cultural relevance. The Academy, however, seems to stubbornly abide by the same rules year after year. It never really employs social media in its advertising, for one, subsequently alienating its potential younger viewers. In 2016, the Academy’s voting body was 92% white and 75% male, and in recent years the public has picked up on the fact that members aren’t even required to screen the films that they are voting on. The nominations at the Oscars usually reflect the identities of the Academy’s skewed demographics, consistently made up of majority white and male filmmakers despite the repeated trending of April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite every year.
The 2022 Oscar nominations list was released on February 8; while it might be more diverse than it was in, say, 2015, it still ultimately fails to represent the momentum of a changing film world. King Richard is the only Best Picture nominee to feature a predominantly Black cast. Denzel Washington and Ariana DeBose were among the few actors of color to see nominations, but the acting categories still remain dominated by white performers. These Oscar nominations have felt noticeably ‘off’ to audiences in the past decade, and this is one of the primary reasons why: the Academy has made claims of its commitments to diversity and inclusion standards, but the sketchy statistics of its selections have proven these claims to be hollow. In failing to acknowledge the excitement that new perspectives can and do bring to the art of cinema, the increasing artificial feel to its nominations and awards is turning its audiences off.
After the devastating drop of last year’s ratings, the Academy currently seems to be throwing every random idea in its arsenal into the upcoming ceremony. After a few years of no hosts, this year’s Oscars will, bizarrely, have three, pairing the potential dynamic of Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall with the odd clash of Amy Schumer. The idea of the Best Popular Film category contemplated by the Academy in 2018 was recycled this year in a clear attempt to expand out of their traditional inaccessibly prestigious territory. Once it was announced this award would be determined by ‘the people’ through tracking of the #OscarsFanFavorite hashtag on Twitter, hilarious backfire felt imminent; indeed, Camila Cabello’s critically lukewarm but gloriously memeified Cinderella is currently vastly ahead of blockbusters like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Army of the Dead. Most controversially, the presentations of eight different awards—including Best Production Design, Best Original Score, and Best Live Action Short—have been cut from the planned live broadcast and will be handed out before the ceremony, cutting down the program’s length. After this announcement, #Presentall23 immediately began trending on Twitter, people arguing that this decision diminishes a moment many filmmakers have dreamed about all their life.
The Academy is clearly trying to return to its former spotlight. But it’s doing it in all the wrong ways, and just further demonstrating its inability to recognize the real problem. The Oscars are meant to be an indication of film’s future, but as of now it barely reflects its present: the nominations have never fully represented the diverse and progressive realities of film, and these strange endeavors to ‘spice up’ the ceremony don’t change how it ultimately is still operating in the same wheelhouse as ever. The Dolby Theatre may have once served as a reminder of film’s potential to reach for the stars, but the demographics of its guests emphasize how the institution it stands for often grounds more attempts than not. There might be a day when the Academy realizes the actual issues causing this decline. But for now, the ceremony’s increased inauthentic feel is likely leading to yet another lowest-rated Oscars in history.