With Its Future at Stake, the Academy Tries to Fix the Oscars (Again)

The stage design for the 95th Academy Awards on Sunday is more Doctor Strange modern and less Dowager Countess musty. That means plentiful video screens, including ones that cover the sides of the theater, with nary a Swarovski crystal curtain — the old standby — to be seen.

Unlike last year, when eight categories were awarded during a nontelevised portion, all of the Oscars will be handed out live on air. To make the telecast interactive and help viewers better understand crafts categories, such as sound mixing and art direction, QR codes will appear before commercial breaks to direct viewers to internet vignettes about the nominees and behind-the-scenes footage and photos.

To reinvigorate the red carpet preshow, Oscars organizers hired members of the Met Gala creative team. Expect much more star power, specialized lighting (to make a process that happens in daylight seem more like evening) and better integration with the theater’s entrance.

But some of the most important changes — part of an urgent effort to help make the Academy Awards more relevant to young people and draw a broader international audience — involve things that most viewers won’t notice. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will post video of acceptance speeches in the six biggest categories in near real-time on TikTok and Facebook, and all speeches will quickly be posted on Twitter. In a first, Disney+ will stream the Oscars show live in parts of Europe. The academy has also sought out new marketing partners like Letterboxd, a social media site for movie fans (8.4 million members, most of them are ages 18 to 34), in a sad-but-true admission that it must convince people that they should care about the Oscars.

“We didn’t have to before,” Janet Yang, the academy’s president, said in an interview at the organization’s Beverly Hills offices. “We could rest on our laurels and just let it carry itself.”

One might respond with exasperation: You’re only now figuring that out? Perhaps the time to pull out all the stops to keep the Oscars vibrant was five years ago, when the telecast, for the first time, attracted less than 30 million people, a 20 percent decline from the previous year. Since then, the number of viewers for the Academy Awards has dropped another 37 percent, according to Nielsen’s data. About 16.6 million people watched “CODA” win the Oscar for best picture at the most recent ceremony, with viewership swelling after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage late in the show.

The Run-Up to the 2023 Oscars

The 95th Academy Awards will be presented on March 12 in Los Angeles.

But Ms. Yang can’t be held responsible. She was elected president only in August. The academy also has a new chief executive for the first time in 11 years; Bill Kramer, the former director of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, was appointed to that role in June. Together, Ms. Yang and Mr. Kramer have brought a blast of fresh air to the stuffy organization, working to improve transparency, calm a membership revolt over last year’s removal of several categories from the live Oscars telecast and shore up the academy’s wobbly finances.

In the past, Ms. Yang said, “a lot of cultural institutions felt like they should be sitting on a hill, a little bit more protected, almost untouchable.” She added that the academy itself felt “ivory tower-ish,” but that it was now “a different time” and “a different culture.”

ABC has exclusive rights to broadcast the Oscars ceremony until 2028 and provides the academy with about 80 percent of its annual revenue. Last year, Oscar-related revenue was $137.1 million, according to financial disclosures. Awards-related expenses totaled $56.8 million.

The TV network generated an estimated $139 million across 70 commercials during last year’s show, according to Vivvix, which tracks ad spending. (To compare, ABC pulled in about $129 million across 56 ads in 2020.) A red-carpet preshow brought in an additional $16 million in advertising revenue.

To secure a distribution contract of similar value when its deal with ABC expires, the academy must reverse viewership declines. A less lucrative deal could imperil some of the organization’s year-round activities, including film restoration. “This is so important to the livelihood and future of the organization that we better confront it,” Ms. Yang said.

In many ways, however, the academy is hamstrung when it comes to reinventing the Oscars telecast.

ABC and other traditional television networks are shadows of their former selves, with younger audiences in particular decamping en masse to streaming services. Some other awards shows are following them, notably the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which will stream live on Netflix starting next year. After an ethics, finance and diversity scandal, the Golden Globe Awards, long broadcast on NBC, are also looking for a new distribution partner.

Many viewers have long complained that the Oscars ceremony is overlong, with groan-inducing banter between presenters adding to a feeling of bloat. Last year’s Academy Awards was three and a half hours, despite moving eight of the 23 awards off the live broadcast. (The offscreen acceptance speeches were recorded, edited and incorporated into the live show.) In the past, the Oscars telecast has run as long as four hours and 23 minutes. Jimmy Kimmel will return as the host on Sunday, having previously served as M.C. in 2017 and 2018, and he has been planning a traditional monologue.

“We are working very hard to deliver the show on time with all disciplines honored,” Mr. Kramer said.

Linda Ong, the chief executive of Cultique, a consulting firm in Los Angeles that advises companies on changing cultural norms, said that people were still interested in the award show’s winners and the things they had to say. The problem for the academy, she said, is that “people don’t feel the need to watch the show to be part of the conversation.”

“They just watch some clips on social,” she added.

Ms. Ong noted that, in a once-unthinkable move that speaks to the Oscars’ fading relevancy, the season finale of HBO’s hugely popular post-apocalyptic drama, “The Last of Us,” will broadcast head-to-head against the ceremony. “That’s a big cultural tell,” she said.

The academy is hopeful that Nielsen’s ratings meters for the Oscars will tick upward on Sunday. Big musical stars, including Rihanna, are scheduled to perform their nominated songs; Lenny Kravitz will perform during the “In Memoriam” segment. Lady Gaga will be absent, though, with Oscars producers saying on Wednesday that she was too busy filming a movie to perform her nominated song from “Top Gun: Maverick.”

The nominee pool for best picture has never before included more than one billion-dollar ticket seller, according to box office databases, and this year there are two. “Top Gun: Maverick” collected $1.5 billion, and “Avatar: The Way of Water” took in $2.3 billion. The front-runner for best picture, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” generated $104 million in ticket sales. (Viewership tends to increase when popular films are nominated.)

But the academy says it’s not just about TV anymore — that relying on Nielsen’s numbers alone to assess relevancy is outdated, and that online chatter and streaming-service viewing should also be taken into account. “We have to rethink our success metrics,” Mr. Kramer said, noting that the Oscars will be available for viewing on Hulu the next day.

Conversations on social media during and after award shows can be significant. Last month’s Grammy Awards, for instance, attracted about 12.6 million viewers. On the day of the ceremony and the next day, the Grammys generated about seven million mentions on Twitter, according to ListenFirst, an analytics company.

If nothing else, the academy is hoping for a smooth show on Sunday. In the past, the academy started to plan for the Oscars as late as November. This time, planning started in June.

“It should be about unity and celebrating this industry,” Mr. Kramer said. “People are still consuming movies. People love movies. Perhaps they’re doing it on streaming more than they did a few years ago. But our art form is as relevant as ever.”

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