Is It Still The Oscars? Or Just Another Selection Sunday?

Later this afternoon, two major events will occur live, back-to-back, and their results will be played out over national broadcast television.  Both will involve hundreds of candidates looking for recognition, with the emotion of waiting to see if they are acknowledged to be covered by ongoing close-ups and explosions of emotion when they find out if they’ve gotten it or not.  Both will be watched by millions of people, one in the eight-figure range, one in the seven-figure range.

And, as has been the case for decades, the one in the eight-figure range will be the awarding of the Oscars, and the one in the seven-figure range will be NCAA Selection Sunday, the first step on the Road to March Madness.  To the best our knowledge, this will be the first time these events are being held on the same night, virtually back-to-back.

But the gap in audience between them has never been narrower, and I’m not so sure it won’t be even more so this year.  Because, like most awards shows, the Oscars have seen massive erosion in viewership, and the pandemic accelerated that greatly.  Last year, the Oscars did rebound 60% in viewership over the 2021 debacle held in a train station that reached an all-time low of less than 11 million linear TV viewers.  But, as we know, some of that was merely a course correction and relative timing; after all, we were still in the midst of an Omicron surge and the world had regressed enough to have more people indoors.  And, of course, there was that little, ahem, unplanned incident that spiked viewership enough at the end to materially impact the final number.  Nothing like a live bitch-slap between legends to goose a ceremony that has, sadly, become more and more outdated and perceptually tone-deaf.

There are simply too many gaps between those most passionate about the Academy Awards and the vox populi, based on age, ethnicity, lifetyle and life stage, for anyone to reasonably expect that the glory days of the glamorous Hollywood fashion show with viewership as close to the Super Bowl as anything else other than football can achieve can return .  And if you think it’s just me that’s being a Negative Nellie, look at the objective facts about where the appeal of the movie industry has trended since COVID, as Mel-Leo Rosal of Zippia: The Career Expert compiled:

    • Domestic box office revenue reached $7.37 billion in 2022.
    • Box office revenue was only $2.09 billion for the North American film industry in 2020.
    • While this might seem like a lot, it was actually down from $11.32 billion in 2019.
    • As of April 2021, 60% of North American theaters reopened for the first time in six months. However, U.S. box office revenue is still 76% lower than it was the same month prior to the Pandemic.
    • The Film Industry is worth $42.5 billion, being vastly overtaken in the entertainment industry by Gaming, which is now worth $145.7 billion.
    • Top Gun: Maverick was the top-grossing movie of 2022, with a total gross income of about $718.7 million.

That’s right, one single movie, a sequel to a film that was eligible for the Oscars in the EIGHTIES, accounted for roughly 10 per cent of the take of an industry where the very concept of going out to a movie is now, more than ever, is as polarizing and variable as ever.  Consider these findings which Zippia’s research also uncovered:

    • 41% of movie goers among adults rarely go to the movie theaters in 2022.In fact, 33% of said that they go to the movies sometimes. 18% said that they never go to the movies. Only 8% said that they go often. No doubt, this has had a huge impact on the film industry’s recent decline.

Frequency of going to the mv

  • Gen Z sees the most movies, with 43% reporting that they’ve seen a movie within the past month.Though it might be surprising when you consider digitization, the younger generations actually go to the theaters more often than the older ones.

    Only 34% of those in Gen X had seen a movie within the past month, and the number was even lower for Boomers. Of course, COVID-19 could have a hand in this, as older generations might feel less comfortable going out.

  • When considering population percentage, theaters are most popular with Latin X people.Despite only making up 16.7% of the population, there were 10.4 million frequent Latin X moviegoers in 2019. While there were 22 million frequent moviegoers that were Caucasian, Caucasians constituted about 76.3%.
  • In only 17 years, the cost of seeing a movie has doubled.In 2001, the average price of a single movie theater ticket was only $5.66. However, as of 2018, that number was up to $9.11. Families reported that they could easily spend upwards of $35 to see a movie, which had an impact on their decision to go.

Creative talent believes that what their voters consider to be “great work” is deserving of these gold statuettes, and will defend to the death their value and viability.  And with nearly a century of grandeur behind it, they dream of their shining moment where they can stand before America, before a swelling orchestra, and thank people profusely, usually starting with their agent, and being played off the stage as they argue to squeeze in those that actually did contribute.   Yes, a few still emotional moments occur, particularly when winners of what are perceived as underrepresented segments wind up winning.  Tonight, the multicultural, multigenerational cast and crew of EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, from the powerful Michelle Yeoh to the unapologetically grey-haired and early-to-bed “momma” Jamie Lee Curtis are expected to win a host of awards.  It’s a fine, creative, original work, and it’s benefitted Peacock and other outlets with non-theatrical exposure in the months leading up to tonight.

But it’s a fraction of the appeal and impact TOP GUN:MAVERICK has had, including its impact on spiking viewership and adoption of Paramount+ (…grrr, SHOWTIME) and, sadly, an awful lot of those that ABC and the Academy hope will tune in and maintain as much of last year’s bump are likely to be disappointed.  And mind you, they are WORRIED.  I’ve rarely seen such a marketing blitz for what was always considered to be one that didn’t need it.  For the past couple of weeks, ABC has been running spots across its family of linear networks, including those with ESPN, as well as the podcasts of Bill Singer’s Ringer-verse, which are the Venn diagram of sports and entertainment passion.

Getting people there at all, whether it’s into a theatre to watch one of the nominees or to a TV to watch them sweat out their nominations over at least three (often, closer to four) bloated hours, amidst some lame jokes, tepid performances of the nominated songs and an inevitably unsatisfying “In Memoriam” list, is clearly difficult.  Indeed, Selection Sunday will award its winners within an hour, mostly through remotes and zoom, and then devote a few more hours of analysis and reaction.  I truly wonder if, at this point, the Academy Awards might not be better received, and certainly far more cost-effective, were it to be played out in similar fashion.  After all, plenty of people, especially those in Gen Z who apparently still do go the movies, will be able to follow the results on live blogs, and will be free to do other things, including watch the season 1 finale of THE LAST OF US.  Yes, while that won’t come all that close to the Oscars’ audience, it will likely rival that of Selection Sunday’s, and airs smack in the middle of the evening live on HBO (for the moment, the linear channel will still be called that).  Don’t think that won’t hinder the eventual average for tonight’s festivities.

Further consider that the audiences for the myriad of award ceremonies that have led up to tonight have mostly been in decline.  Indeed, the SAG Awards, perhaps one of the most impassioned and anticipated ceremonies among Oscar nominees, was reduced from an event across Turner networks to an afterthought on You Tube and Facebook and other non-linear outlets.  Reportedly, less than a million unique viewers bothered to watch, substantially less than Turner was able to provide and a fraction of what that ceremony attracted when it was on broadcast TV.

There’s probably no clear-cut solution.  I’ll still be watching, from home, like many of those who even bothered to see these nominated movies did.  I probably spent more time in a theatre last year watching a short film I made a small investment in, back when I had money, win a bunch of awards at various film festivals.  These are REALLY talented people that are deserving of a bigger reach and budget to tell a more extended version of their story.  The brains behind it qualifies as a diversity hire, too.  Know I’m rooting like crazy for them.  But I’m sanguine about their chances for a real studio to take a chance on them, or enough of America to care.  We’re THAT polarized and some of us are THAT broke.  Studio execs care far more about the bottom line, streaming services, franchises and wrtiteoffs more than ever.  The days of the mogul content with awards is even more far gone than the days of 40 million viewers watching them being handed out.  Which makes the whole idea of celebrating movies all the more complicated.

For panicked, and in some cases bankrupting theatre owners, let me offer a small suggestion.  Perhaps if you want to get butts in the theatre for something other than TOP GUN, you might want to consider some lower price points.  This weekend, my roommate took his teenage son to a movie and it cost him $24 for a ticket, and $10 for a lukewarm bucket of greasy, high-calorie popcorn that, thankfully, the boy’s metabolism can withstand.  Mine, not so much.  It was opening night, so the small theater was reasonably crowded–plus, it was pouring, so outdoor activities weren’t as much of an option.

Me–I’m air-popping a bag of far healthier and tastier popcorn, will graze between ABC and HBO while I’m still awake, and probably will see the big winners on my phone long after Jamie Lee is asleep.  But I’m planning to watch all of Selection Sunday, and perhaps some of the analysis.  And since it’s the first day of Daylight Savings Time, all the more likely on my phone, outdoors.

Is that the future of the Oscars?  Not likely, although I’d contend the return of Jimmy Kimmel isn’t enough to assure that we won’t see another downtrend in viewership.  I don’t expect TOP GUN to win any significant awards, so that will leave many of its fans disappointed.  So I honestly don’t know where that future trend line will end up.  But I know the Oscars, and indeed the theatrical movie industry, will never, ever return to its past.

Blame the popcorn?

Until next time…

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