The Oscars are alienating their audience in their bid to appeal to a ‘wider audience’

Graphic by Morassutti Sarah

Every year when the Oscar nominations roll out, public discourse around the ceremony fills up with a barrage of some people asking, “Who cares?” while other people express outrage about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ supposed snubbing of “popular” films. 

Even former Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel expressed his disappointment that Spider-Man: No Way Home was not nominated for Best Picture, saying, “The biggest snub today, in my opinion — and I’m actually even angry about this, I’m kind of embarrassed to say — is the unforgivable omission of Spider-Man: No Way Home.” 

Widespread apathy and criticism toward the awards, along with declining ratings, has not gone unnoticed by the Academy, who have made attempts at reaching out to a wider audience. For the 2019 ceremony, they considered adding a ‘Popular Film’ category. The Academy also tried to shorten the ceremony by announcing that four categories — cinematography, live-action short film, film editing and makeup and hairstyling — would be awarded during commercial breaks. However, after facing backlash for both these decisions, they decided not to go ahead with either one.

Three years later, we are back to square one. This year, the Academy introduced two fan-voted ‘categories’, the ‘Oscars Fan Favorite’ and the ‘Oscars Cheer Moment,’ where audience members could use Twitter or the Oscars Fan Favorite website to vote (up to 20 times a day) for their favourite film of last year and for their favourite movie ‘cheer moment’ of all time. The most popular films in both categories were announced during the live telecast.

The biggest problem with this is that the Oscars are meant to honour the best in cinema. While some of the more artistic films, like Power of the Dog, Belfast or Licorice Pizza may not always appeal to a mainstream audience, these movies tend to be the ones that actually push the boundaries of the art form. The Oscars are not the People’s Choice Awards, and while their viewership may overlap, they should not be offering the same content. The Oscars should continue honouring the films that appeal to Academy members, as experienced masters of their trades. 

Moreover, the opinion of the average fan may not be based on the quality of a film itself, but may instead be influenced by the star power of the cast, the fan’s love for certain characters or in some cases, the fan’s adoration of the franchise. Anyone who has ever voted for the People’s Choice Awards, or any other fan-voted award, knows how fanbases mobilise on social media to support the films their favourite stars are in. 

However, taking some extra time to recognize these fan favourites, while tacky, would have been forgivable, had this not been accompanied by a decision the Academy took this year to shorten the ceremony. This year, eight categories — animated short film, documentary short subject, film editing, live-action short film, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design and sound —  were removed from the Oscars’ live broadcast. These categories were instead awarded in a taped ceremony before the live one, with edited clips of the acceptance speeches broadcast during the live show.

While there is certainly a section of the Oscars audience that may not care much about these categories, the core audience of the Oscars is film lovers. People who love and care about cinema as an art form understand that it takes many people across multiple departments to bring these stories to life. With that knowledge, it is hard to see the Academy’s decision to sideline eight categories as anything but disdain for the art form. 

According to the Hollywood Reporter, this was a decision the Academy came to after being pressured by ABC, which holds the broadcasting rights of the ceremony until 2028. It is shameful that companies like ABC (and its parent company Disney) are in the film and media business and still disrespect the medium in this manner. However, the Academy’s choice to bow down to these demands signifies that they believe it is more important to telecast the ceremony than to properly and respectfully honour the best of cinema. The Academy should have refused to negotiate on this matter.

Furthermore, what does this decision communicate to their viewership? The fact that the Academy seems to think more than a third of the Oscars are not deserving of a live telecast suggests that they are awarding these categories just as a formality, to tick a box. That attitude can make even their most loyal viewers question why they should care about awards that even the organisers only selectively care about. 

Moreover, they had an in memoriam section which ended with them directing the viewers to their website to see the list of others who passed away last year. In other words, people who the Academy felt were not important enough to be honoured during the telecast. The theme of this year’s Oscars should have been “Some Matter More” rather than “Movie Lovers Unite.” That would have certainly been more honest. 

Even seeing them pay tribute to 50 years of The Godfather trilogy did not incite the emotion that it should have. Any time that was being spent not presenting awards or for the Best Song nominee performances felt like a slap in the face of the eight excluded craft categories.

I don’t know if these moves will make the awards more appealing to those beyond the Oscars’ current viewership (I’m inclined to believe not). What I do know is that these moves will alienate their current base. It seems like a strange tactic to reach out to a new audience at the cost of their current one. Additionally, what should a viewer expect if these moves fail to give the Oscars a wider reach and high enough ratings? Will the Academy continue making these kinds of knee-jerk decisions until they have no audience left? 

However, there were moments during the telecast which reminded cinephiles why we love the Oscars. Troy Kotsur, Jessica Chastain, Kevin Costner and Sian Heder among others gave amazing speeches reminding us about the importance of cinema and all that goes into making it. Hopefully, the Academy heard what we did and realises that on one of the year’s biggest nights for cinema, fan service can take a back seat. Those who care about film — the “movie lovers” their theme referred to — don’t mind a longer show. One with all categories being honoured, awardees not being cut off in the middle of their speeches by music, a full length in memoriam segment and all the tributes, performances and comedy that the night demands.