Why the Oscars Don’t Matter

  • May 12, 2021
The lack of viewers for this year’s Oscars may not be an outlier in the years to come

On Saturday, April 25, the most prestigious film awards ceremony was held: the Oscars. The award is known and sought after all around the world, and many filmmakers, actors, film crews, writers, and musicians waited anxiously this year to see if their names would be called to receive the coveted gold trophy. However, this year, the show was watched by the smallest audience ever, with only 9.85 million viewers (a 59% drop from last year). In addition, among those that did watch, the show was given an average rating of 1.9 (a 64% drop from last year). This decline in viewership brings up an interesting question: do the Oscars matter anymore?

The dramatic decrease in viewership this year is in part due to COVID, and the viewership rates may rise at next year’s Oscars since the virus’s hold over the world is weakening. Obviously, people haven’t been able to see movies as much (especially ones released in theaters), so not as many people are familiar with the movies that are being presented. They also weren’t able to make the Oscars as glamorous as it was in previous years because of social distancing guidelines, which probably meant that potential viewers were less enticed and drawn in to watch. But Oscar viewership rates have been gradually declining anyway, as seen by a 2020 Statista data set that depicts how many millions of people watched the Oscars every year from 2000 to 2021. In 2000, 46.33 million people watched, and although the viewership was quite volatile, that peak was never matched or passed in the years to come, and starting in 2015 a rapid and more consistent decline began. So, when looking at Oscar viewership in this broader context, it seems that they are indeed becoming more and more irrelevant.

The first possible reason why this is the case may be that the Oscars have stayed with an outdated format: cable television. A 2018 Digital Media Trends Survey by Deloitte (a multinational professional services network), shows that 70% of cable TV subscribers don’t think they are getting their money’s worth, and that 56%of cable users only keep their cable plan because the plan also includes their internet. This suggests that, in the future, people will stop paying for cable in the first place; in fact, this same survey showed that 24.9 million people cancelled their cable in 2017, and that this number went up to about 33 million in 2018. This is especially true among the younger generations (who are now growing to become the target demographic). Older people may keep cable because that’s the medium they are used to (and perhaps because they don’t know how to change it), but members of Generation X, millennials, and members of Generation Z certainly will not, and the Deloitte survey reveals that people in these generations (deemed holistically as MilleXZials) are consuming the most content on streaming services. And while the Oscars are available in some formats that don’t involve paying an expensive fee for a service that doesn’t have many benefits or selling points, these formats are very limited and are only available to specific people instead of the general public. Nowadays, anyone can look up the results on Google or watch clips on YouTube, rather than paying upwards of $60 every month and sitting through three and a half hours of the ceremony.

Another possible reason that the Oscars are becoming less popular is because of how arbitrary the voting process is. It’s true that all the voters have some sort of experience in the film industry, but that doesn’t mean they have to be experts in their field, and ultimately they are still just random people who for some reason get to decide which movies are best. This may have been permissible when the opinions of the public on movies mostly matched the Oscar choices, but in recent years, it has become painfully obvious that Oscars are given based on someone’s personal whims rather than what the majority agrees to. The outrage over diversity at the Oscars effectively demonstrated (and continues to demonstrate) this. In 2015, the hashtag “OscarsSoWhite” started trending in response to the fact that, according to the recipients of awards and nominations over the years, 92% of the best film directors were men and 86% of the best films featured white actors in the lead roles. Granted, the Oscars have taken this into consideration and have made a few changes, and this year Chloe Zhao became the second female director in 93 years to be named best director and the first woman of color to receive the distinction. But the fact still remains that they only began to do this when they got criticized on a large scale for their seemingly one-sided decisions. There are other ways in which the Academy doesn’t please many viewers with their choices. For instance, comedy, horror, and superhero films are increasingly popular genres, and it isn’t rare to see movies like these raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. And yet, with a few notable exceptions, there is a very low likelihood that viewers will see these movies get awards. There are obviously many movies in these genres that don’t deserve such an award due to an unoriginal plot, simplistic writing, bad acting, and so on, but there are still quite a few that have been overlooked over the years, seemingly because of a bias against those genres.

In addition, the existence of the Oscars often doesn’t motivate people to make the best, most creative and meaningful films- just the ones that will win. This year, the Netflix film Mank (which is about the screenwriter for the 1941 film Citizen Kane) received 10 nominations and 2 Oscars. Not only is that more Oscars than Citizen Kane actually received, but it also became the movie with the most Oscar nominations at the 2021 Oscars. However, despite these successes, Mank is not one of the top 500 most popular films on streaming platforms over the past 12 months, and it actually only spent one day on the Netflix top 10 (in 10th place). And according to the BBC, this is because it fits one of the many pre-existing molds that appeal to the Oscars (in this case, a movie about another great movie). There’s even a word for it: Oscar bait. Examples of these films include period dramas, musician biopics, or melodramas that often center around characters with physical or mental disabilities. This was also shown this year by Anthony Hopkins’ Best Actor win- people like Joyce Eng (a senior editor of the award season website GoldDerby) recognize that a large part of the reason for Hopkins’ win is that his movie came out at the right time. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Boseman’s film) was released back in November, whereas The Father was strategically released in February, so it peaked right as the Academy was choosing who to vote for. In essence, Oscars are often not chosen based solely on objective quality, but rather on whether the movie made the “right” choices to appeal to them.

Finally, the concept of the Oscars in general seems to be becoming less and less appealing to people. Essentially, we’re just watching rich and famous people congratulate themselves for several hours, which isn’t enough to make a lot of non-cinephiles stop what they’re doing and tune in. The fact that the Oscars have been around for so long could add on to this- it’s nothing new or novel anymore (and thus nothing to get excited about). Furthermore, they haven’t had a host in three years now, and so there’s no one to hold the show together and keep it from seeming disjointed and disorganized. The Oscars were created to honor exemplary films and unite different branches of the film industry, but it quickly turned into the commercial venture it is today. Because they have advertisements and want to make a profit off of their viewers, they have to entertain them (just like every other show on TV), which they are seemingly failing to do. The “prestige” of the Oscars is no longer able to overshadow the boredom or lack of interest that many viewers experience.

In the end, while the Oscars have been a significant institution in film history for almost 100 years, it’s actually not such a horrible thing that they don’t matter as much anymore. After all, what worth do they really have? Oscars are only important because everyone says they are important. Just like every other prestigious award, they have value simply because we all associate them with greatness. Leonardo DiCaprio has been acting for around 30 years and is known throughout the world for being in incredible films, completely embodying the character he is playing. Nicolas Cage is known for taking most roles he is offered (along with many box office flops) and for his peculiar style of overacting his part. And yet, both have won the same amount of Oscars. Some may say these awards are important to the film industry since they publicize certain movies. But in many cases, the Oscar-winning films are already popular anyway. Furthermore, that line of reasoning seems somewhat condescending, since it implies that we should have a group of so-called “film experts” telling us what to think and what to watch, especially when we can easily read reviews for films. The Oscars are unnecessary and perhaps even detrimental due to unintentional discriminatory policies (like when it comes to racial minorities, women, and foreign films), encouraging the practice of using other people’s opinions to evaluate a piece of art, which directly contrasts with the fact that everyone has their own subjective tastes. Awards can be given, but they shouldn’t hold so much importance in our society.

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