Every year since 1929, the Academy has ensured the Oscars must go on, but in a year when no industry has been immune to the devastating impact of COVID-19, it’s hard to see how the 93rd Oscars will pull in a big audience tonight.
A toxic cocktail of awards fatigue coupled with the effects of the pandemic has seen awards season viewing figures plummet.
With COVID restrictions, cinemas closed, countless films left on the shelf and the rapid shift to streaming (delivering a record 35 nods for Netflix) the stage is set for a very different Oscars experience.
Oscar-nominated Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell told Sky News she has felt torn between the advantages of films being made available to huge audiences at home (Promising Young Woman is available on Sky Cinema) and the desire for a cinematic release.
“We’re in such a peculiar world right now,” she said.
“I’m sad that it’s not going to be watched in movie theatres or is unlikely to in a lot of places, because it was made for a kind of communal viewing. It was made, you know, for everyone to be in that moment together.”
Fennell has become the woman of the moment this awards season, for her edgy and timely take on predatory behaviour – her growing reputation epitomised by her charming acceptance speech for her double BAFTA win saying, “pretty much everyone did this film for a packet of crisps”.
“But on the other hand,” she continued, “you know, so many people are watching it now that might not have seen it. So there has been absolutely good and bad.
“It’s just so exciting – honestly, to just have your film made and have it watched by people,” added the 35-year-old former star of The Crown and Call The Midwife.
If you’re a geek, you’ll agree the actress category is perhaps the most exciting and unpredictable race: nominees Andra Day won the Globe, Viola Davis won the SAG, Frances McDormand won the BAFTA, and Carey Mulligan won the Indie Spirt.
Mulligan is Fennell’s leading lady in Promising Young Woman and is Oscar-nominated tonight for Best Actress for her role.
She echoes Fennell’s sentiment on the strange limbo land cinema currently inhabits, telling Sky News: “I want to watch all films on a big screen.
“But, you know, in the grand scheme of things, it’s kind of terrifying. So, you know, we’ve all been, you know, just very happy to release the film we love,” she says.
And I suppose that’s it. Anyone who still has a job, who is lucky enough to have their health and finances still largely intact after the last year, is just feeling grateful right now.
So, you can’t help but wonder how the self-congratulatory, decadent and unavoidably out of touch nature of the Oscars ceremony will land with viewers this year?
We’ve all been very grateful for the extra films to watch and shows to binge in lockdown, but can we stomach the self-indulgence of it all when, at best, we are fatigued by both lockdown and awards shows?
Perhaps we will welcome the escapism Hollywood has to offer?
Oscars ceremony producer Steven Soderbergh (an Oscar winner himself who, incidentally, made Contagion) said at the news conference it should “feel like a movie” rather than “a show made by an institution”.
But Variety editor Steve Gaydos tells Sky News “it’s crunch time for the Academy”.
“The telecast is a big piece of the Academy’s revenue for the year – they get a licensing fee for the show, and if the ratings continue to decline and the Oscars continue this kind of path toward a less relevance, the money will affect them.
“You used to turn on an award show because you wanted to see movie stars, you wanted to see them in a special moment, a personal moment of triumph and drama. You wanted to see the frocks. You know the movies star culture has declined in some ways, replaced by influencer culture and a lot of other cultures. It’s a more fragmented universe,” Gaydos adds.
And this year’s awards season so far has bombed.
The Golden Globes US audience plummeted to the lowest in its 27-year history, with average viewers below 7 million, compared to 18.5 million last year when it was one of the most-watched non-sports live shows.
The Emmys also had a record low with an audience of 6 million.
The Grammys attracted 8.8 million American viewers this year compared to 18.7 million in 2020.
And the BAFTAs UK audience plummeted to a 13-year low of 2 million when all of its winners attended on Zoom.
It doesn’t bode well for the Academy, which seemed to blame the virtual nature of the shows. So it banned Zoom.
A letter from the Oscar producers to nominees stated: “For those of you unable to attend because of scheduling or continued uneasiness about travelling, we want you to know there will not be an option to Zoom in for the show.
“We feel the virtual thing will diminish [those] efforts.”
And so, under mammoth COVID-19 protocols they’ve orchestrated a multi-location event, with two LA venues and remote outside broadcasts in London, Paris, Berlin, and several places around the world accommodating nominees unable to travel because of coronavirus restrictions.
A huge effort has gone into delivering a ‘real’ rather than virtual show, and I’ve no doubt they’ll make it all look beautiful and slick, and it will be a genuine delight to be able to check out the frocks and knock-out speeches of the night, without the fear of rubbish wi-fi breaking up the picture.
And it’s true we’ve all had enough of life on video calls, but we can’t blame Zoom for everything, and I fear there is more to the waning interest in awards shows this year.
It’s also hard to get excited about films we’ve not seen.
The front-runner Nomadland – widely expected to take Best Picture and Best Director for Chloe Zhao – isn’t out yet in the UK (out 30 April Disney+’s Star and in cinemas 17 May) so while a handful of critics might be raving about it (I thought it was beautiful, but not Best Picture-worthy) no one here will much care whether it wins or not.
The same goes for The Father which is up for six Oscars, including one for Sir Anthony Hopkins – who at 83 is the oldest Best Actor nominee – and Olivia Colman is nominated, but it’s not out in the UK until June so our excitement is somewhat contained.
Mank leads the nominations with 10 but won’t win (m)any, and while a handful of films this year deserve to be celebrated (I’d love to see Riz Ahmed win Best Actor, and either Daniel Kaluuya or Sacha Baron Cohen win Best Supporting Actor for Judas And The Black Messiah and The Trial Of The Chicago 7 respectively, and Promising Young Woman has to win at least for Screenplay surely?) this year lacks a big, exciting movie to carry the momentum.
My memories of covering the Oscars over the last decade or so are defined by those big films.
I was on the red carpet at the Oscars in 2009 when Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire won big, and the elation in the warm evening Hollywood smog was palpable. It was all a bit surreal, but also quite exciting to be crammed alongside the world’s press and paps, shouting at the British winners (including Kate Winslet that year) to “come over and show us your statue!”.
It was a great story when The Hurt Locker triumphed over Avatar.
As a half-cut Colin Firth swayed along the Vanity Fair party red carpet having won for The King’s Speech, we all took a moment away from stuffing our In-And-Out burgers into our faces to give him a cheer.
We all thoroughly enjoyed the chaos which ensued when they cocked up the Best Picture announcement in 2017, reading out La La Land, when Moonlight had in fact won. And last year – which feels like a lifetime ago – I particularly enjoyed the long flight out (anyone with three children will understand this) and was genuinely chuffed when Parasite stole the night, winning Best Picture.
They’re going to have to go some way to replicate that this year.
Not because the films are lacking. There is plenty worthy of recognition.
But with the mix of COVID-19, apathy, fatigue, closed cinemas and no over-riding big film saving the audience figures from bombing as they have with all the other awards shows this year, it will be a tall order.
The last time the Oscars drew in an audience of more than 40 million was in 2014 when 12 Years A Slave won, and 43.7 million Americans tuned in. Since then, viewing figures have declined, falling to 23.6 million last year.
However, this is Hollywood, right? They’ve saved the world from certain doom how many times now? We should have faith that they’ll pull some knock-out performance out of the bag that will blow us all away.
Perhaps some kind of stunt will steal the show? An A-lister selfie anyone? Oh no, they did that.
Someone could slag off Donald Trump in their speech? No? That’s been done too?
Brad Pitt is presenting an award, so they could also invite Jennifer Aniston and make sure she and Brad serendipitously brush elbows as they bump into each other backstage? Oh no, that one’s been done already too.
Well I’m stumped. Perhaps I’ll just watch the highlights dressed according to the Academy’s strict dress code of ‘inspirational and aspirational’ in my PJs.
Watch the Oscars exclusively on Sky Cinema from 10pm on Sunday 25 April, starting with E!’s live red carpet show, followed by the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony