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In the days after the Oscars of 2015, Neil Patrick Harris was gloomy. As host of the televised ceremony, the puckish sitcom star had not enjoyed a good night. His opening monologue bumped into the kind of joke that sets a tone, awkwardly poking fun at the Academy’s favouring of “Hollywood’s best and whitest”. More hiccups followed; the smoothest-running skit found him in his underwear. Social media was harsh, the ratings low. Asked later if he would return to the job, Harris found the upbeat parlance of show business hard to muster. “I don’t know that my family nor my soul could take it,” he replied.
A year on, he may have lightly smiled at being nowhere near tomorrow’s Awards. Before a single winner is announced, the 2016 Oscars have been engulfed by crisis over its racial make-up. Long-term, the outlook is troubled, too: trends in finance and technology are no friends to the small gold man. The funny thing is, it’s been a great year for movies. The eight Best Picture nominees range from blockbusters with brains (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian) to the artfully low-budget (Brooklyn, Room). There is also, unusually, actual suspense. Alejandro González Iñárritu, raffish director of last year’s winner Birdman, looks poised to take the top prize again with The Revenant; but this may still be the year of Spotlight and its homage to investigative journalism; or even The Big Short, the knockabout romp through the 2008 banking crisis.
None of it will matter. This year’s Oscars will be remembered not for the films but as the year of the Academy’s racial tin-ear. For the second year running, all 20 acting nominees are white. No film starring a black lead is up for Best Picture. Implausibly, it gets worse. Academy voters liked the lauded boxing drama Creed, but not its African-American director Ryan Coogler or star Michael B Jordan; only its white co-star Sylvester Stallone was nominated. Straight Outta Compton told the story of rappers NWA with a black director, F Gary Gray, producers and cast. The sole nomination went to the white scriptwriters. It was as if a dinner party guest had chosen to distract from a tasteless remark by stabbing the host with a fork.
As outrage grew, actor Will Smith and director Spike Lee announced a boycott of the awards. For a brief, flammable moment, the event going ahead at all seemed to hinge on the maverick black comic Chris Rock agreeing to continue as Harris’ successor. Without public comment, he did. His response will arrive shortly after he steps onstage at Hollywood’s splendid Dolby Theatre.
Which is where Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs will be, taking the world’s deepest breath. Liked within the industry, the veteran publicist has faced widespread anger since the nominations, much of it gathered online under the hashtag OscarsSoWhite, created by activist April Reign. But anger might not be the worst of it. When the rapper and actor Ice Cube, a co-producer of Straight Outta Compton, was asked if he would join the boycott, his answer was casually ominous: “You can’t boycott something you never went to.” Indifference is a deadly weapon: Straight Outta Compton was a critically lauded multiplex movie with a young audience. One less reason for them to look up from their phones tomorrow, or remember what the Oscars even are.
Which brings us to the ratings. Last year, the live televised broadcast was watched by 37.2m Americans, a fall of 6.5m from 2014. Another problem.
What are the Oscars? They are a couture fashion parade, an illusion of Olympian standards made out of the tics and grudges of 6,000 current and former actors and technicians. But ask industry experts and one answer beats all others: the Oscars, they say, are a TV show. And the measure of its health comes from the Nielsen ratings and its tally of how many Americans watch on the night.
The story of the Oscars starts before television; the Academy was formed in 1927 by studio heads trying to forestall unionisation. Soon, it decided to hand out prizes; the first statuettes were awarded in 1929 over a dinner of lobster Eugenie and terrapin. But the Oscars as we know them began in 1953 when, its overheads rising, the Academy accepted $100,000 from NBC to televise the ceremony. In the click of 34m TV sets, a profound bond was forged between the Oscars and television. For TV, the awards allowed them to give viewers a glimpse of Hollywood royalty, arriving on the red carpet, ecstatic in their moment of triumph, or rictus-grinning at someone else’s.
For the film industry, it was a chance to sell tickets. By 1956, the underdog romance Marty was the first film to spend more on its Oscar campaign than it cost to make. More generally, at a time when the movies were threatened by this dreaded new medium, televising the Oscars let Hollywood use it. Winners became the pub-quiz trivia of tomorrow but the ceremony itself became something grander, a yearly fix of glamour that TV otherwise could never equal, beamed directly into homes.
But these days, fewer and fewer of them. Last year’s ratings were limp, yet they weren’t as bad as 2008’s, when the show was watched by just 32m Americans, the lowest-rated broadcast in Oscar history. Meanwhile the year-on-year slump couldn’t match 2003, which somehow lost 9m viewers. And between 1990 and 2002, the Oscars’ average ratings were 45.1m; in the same period since, the figure drops to 39m.
When looking at the proportion of viewers who are watching the Oscars, the decline is even starker. Between 1990 and 2002, the average audience share was 29.6 per cent. After 2003, it falls to 23 per cent. Overall, the graph moves only one way.
More losses tomorrow would be unfortunate. Steve Pond, author of the engaging Oscar history The Big Show, said: “If African-Americans switch off because they feel disenfranchised, it weakens ratings. And whatever weakens the ratings weakens the Oscars.”
Alongside Creed and Straight Outta Compton, the other film caught up in #OscarsSoWhite has been Beasts of No Nation, a wrenching story of African child soldiers. The film and its star Idris Elba have been widely celebrated: the Screen Actors Guild awards named Elba best supporting movie actor. The Academy blanked the film entirely. But to industry insiders, that had less to do with race than where the project came from: Netflix, who gave it a theatrical release to qualify for Oscars but also streamed it online as per the business model loathed by an Academy still wedded to cinemas.
For now, the industry sees Netflix and fellow disrupter Amazon as menaces, their plans vague but their hunger for Oscars clear. Some observers feel that desire will soon force them to release their films conventionally. Another view is that if they and Amazon buy enough movies, the mountain will have to come to them. At last month’s Sundance Film Festival, the pair behaved not unlike teenagers let loose with their parents’ credit cards. Amazon paid $10m for the buzzed-about drama Manchester by the Sea, Netflix $12m for indie hopefuls Tallulah and The Fundamentals of Caring. The challenge to the Academy would seem to be: how many good films can you afford to ignore because you don’t like us?
Netflix and Amazon may transform the movie business in ways we can’t yet fathom. Short-term, they’re already worrying the Oscars on the small screen — as content providers for a fractured home-entertainment audience that is ever less likely to watch anything in the collective multimillions. Variety magazine’s awards editor Tim Gray told me: “When the Oscars debuted on television, what else were you doing that night?” Now, even if you’re watching TV, your neighbours are watching something different. So too is the person next to you on the sofa with the iPad. In 1953, seeing Marlon Brando as himself was a thrill. The 2016 nominees will Instagram from the red carpet, hoping for as many Likes as a Kylie Jenner selfie.
Christine Langan, head of BBC Films, has a horse in this year’s race withBrooklyn, the cool-eyed tale of an Irish girl in 1950s New York. To her, an admirer, the Oscars is a “20th-century baby trying to adapt to the 21st century. And it will. But the process could be tough.”
Little about modern life feels like good news for the Oscars. Even other awards ceremonies start to catch up. This year, the SAG awards didn’t just seem more racially at ease (it gave Idris Elba a second award for television’s Luther), its mix of movies and TV was a truer reflection of how we now entertain ourselves. Of course the stars of films like Spotlight and Room will one day share a stage with those of Game of Thrones and Orange Is the New Black. What the movies still have that television doesn’t is the epic, effects-driven spectacular. But the Academy has always been thin-lipped about blockbusters. While 2016 finds Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian both up for Best Picture, neither will win. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was left off the list altogether. (Cue the only comment on this year’s Awards from Neil Patrick Harris, who tweeted that the decision was “horse shit”.)
When, in 2009, the Academy increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to a maximum of 10, it was to accommodate exactly these movies. But therein lies an identity crisis. As much as the dresses and the tearful speeches, the Oscars became the Oscars with a certain kind of film, one you might call the “prestige picture”, or “Oscar bait”: rousing and nutritious, the film Hollywood likes to tell its grandmother it makes.
Except it doesn’t much any more. After the financial collapse of 2008, the movie business became polarised. At one end, blockbusters bulked up still further into steroidal franchises (from which the Academy recoils); at the other are still plenty of small-time scrappers (no help with ratings). But the movies in the middle became, to risk-averse studios, an unappealing blend of hefty budgets and glaring downsides: nothing dies quicker at box office than Oscar bait without nominations. Their ranks have dwindled.
Even for a winner, the rewards can be modest. After claiming Best Picture, Birdman enjoyed an “Oscar bump” of just $4m. Note, too, a limited global appeal. While China will replace the US as the world’s biggest movie market in 2017, Oscars there are shrugged at. Of this year’s Best Picture nominees only The Martian even reached Chinese cinemas.
In her nightmares, Cheryl Boone Isaacs must see the Oscars as a TV show in a world that doesn’t watch TV, devoted to movies no one makes any more. And then came #OscarsSoWhite. African-American herself, Boone-Isaacs said she was “heartbroken”, unveiling steps to tackle the apparent crux of the problem: the mass of white, mostly male Academy members of advanced age, now to have their lifetime voting rights reviewed.
Something had to be done. Combing old issues of Variety recently, Tim Gray found similar complaints in 1982. “You think ‘Wait. How are we still having to talk about this?’ ”
Slowly and fitfully, there had been progress. In 2009, the social drama Precious saw a black screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher, win an Oscar for the first time. In 2014, British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave went up for nine awards, winning three, including Best Picture. Then came 2015. No black actor or actress were nominated; Selma, the acclaimed portrait of Martin Luther King, received just two nods. After that, more of the same this year. For African-Americans in the film industry, the anguish is real. In a business built on relationships, peer recognition is powerful; its absence just as much. And in workplaces, supermarkets and living rooms, #OscarsSoWhite’s coming at the end of the Obama presidency has heightened the sense of a country going backwards.
Stephen Galloway, executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter, told me “there is extraordinary embarrassment on the part of the Academy leaders. They have been trying to encourage diversity but the older members, by far its largest group, always drag their feet.”
When I asked if he thought this year might be a turning point for the Academy and race, he said he was “incredibly pessimistic”. Not only is the Academy membership reactionary, “the leadership made a huge mistake in not directing criticism to the source of its problems: the studios that greenlight films from offices in which you only find white people. Why have they not named the studio heads? This is not an Oscar crisis. It’s a film-industry crisis.”
Galloway sighs. When you talk about the wider industry, the signposts either spell doom or the unknown, much as they do with the Oscars. We assume both will be here in 10 years, mostly because it seems too weird to imagine life without them. And yet. Speak to Christine Langan and she will explain how vital the Best Picture nomination was in Brooklyn reaching its audience. “To get that spot, it creates a life for a film there’s just no other way to create. It’s the dream.”
Something similar stirs even the giants. “If you’re in the movies,” Steve Pond said, “it will always be the award you want to win. Nothing else even comes second.” The glittering history, the love of your colleagues: who could say no? Why else would Leonardo DiCaprio spend 10 months shooting The Revenant, a film that demanded he climb inside a (fake) dead horse for warmth, but for the lure of it?
In truth, the Oscars will outlive us all. Equally, the point at which it ceased to matter probably passed some time ago, without us even noticing. But, this year at least, the train keeps rolling.
Steve Pond even told me he thought the ratings would be good. “After all,” he pointed out, “people will be desperate to see what Chris Rock says”.
Danny Leigh is a film critic and co-presenter of BBC One’s ‘Film 2016’
Photographs: AFP; Splash News; Netflix; Getty
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