The Oscars announced some major changes to the awards show in an obvious attempt to improve sagging ratings. It is believed that the board of governors approved these major changes after pressure from ABC to become more mainstream since the network is contracted to broadcast the awards until 2028. The big changes are that the show now promises to keep the telecast to three hours and will do this by running some of the awards during the commercial breaks (then provide a highlight reel of the winners later in the show); creating a new award called "Outstanding Achievement in a Popular film"; and finally, starting in 2020 they are moving up the awards show with that year the show airing on February 9.
There has been a lot of talk about the Oscars losing relevance and the major dip in the TV ratings over the last several years. You know what else has seen a major dip in the ratings over the last few years: almost every single other awards show. Despite all the talk of the Oscars losing popularity, it is still the highest rated awards show every year. The reason more people talk about the Oscars losing viewers than the other awards shows is due to it still being the most prestigious and celebrated of all the award shows. It remains the most recognizable, so more people are paying attention to how it is doing in ratings compared to the Tony Awards or the MTV Music Video Awards.
This isn't to say that the Oscars shouldn't make changes to try to improve ratings and be a more appealing show. I am always for being open to change and not feeling anchored down by tradition. In the YouTube era where more people watch clips the next day rather than an entire show, I am not sure these are the changes to drive in more people. I do think that it is more harmful than beneficial.
The worst idea is relegating several of the awards to the commercial breaks. The Academy Awards are way too long and it is silly that most years it doesn't end until past midnight. It is an insult to many hard working and talented craftspeople, who are crucial to making a movie a success, do not get their one big moment to be recognized but rather shuffled off to an end of the night montage segment.
If the awards show wants to cut down the runtime than they can scrap all the segment where Hollywood pats themselves on their backs or all the unfunny segments with that year's host or 'gags' that really just end up being shameless promotion for a Disney movie (who owns ABC by the way). The Academy is the one time of the year that artists and craftspeople like the editors or special effects people or makeup/costume designers get some recognition and can be celebrated by a mainstream audience. This is a huge slap to the face for them and easily the worst decision the Oscars have decided to implement.
The most obvious appeal to a mass audience decision is the new award, Outstanding Achievement in a Popular Film or what is already being dubbed as "The Popcorn Award" by many. This feels like such a blatant ratings grab and such a meaningless thing designed to appease those who whine every year that comic book movies or big tentpoles get shunned by the Oscars. I'd also call this award "The Kiddie Table Trophy" where some movies that amassed a huge amount of money get its nice try ribbon to keep slobbering fans happy while the adults battle over the real award Best Picture.
What does most popular even mean? The highest grossing movies? The most buzzworthy movies? Are we saying that "Best Picture" awards are unpopular? Why can't a popular movie also be the best of the year without any caveat? Are we trying to say these movies are a cut below in quality? Will the criteria be popularity or quality? The Academy has already announced that a movie will be eligible to be nominated in both Best Picture and Most Popular. If that is the case and the Academy believes a popular movie can be one of the best of the year then why even bother with this new awards category? All it does is increase the stigma that a Best Picture movie is something pretentious and artsy only loved by the high-brow while the tentpole category is for the real average movie goer.
There has already been serious buzz that Black Panther, the highest grossing movie of the year, has a strong chance of being nominated for Best Picture. If a popular movie is nominated for Best Picture does increase ratings (and history shows that it has) then this year already had a strong chance without the mock award. It also means that a popular movie can also be more than just popcorn but have social relevance and worthy of award recognition. In the past, we've had big box office heavyweights like Inception, Toy Story 3, Gravity, Avatar, Up, Lord of the Rings, Titanic, Star War, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and so on. It has leaned heavier to smaller and independence movies the last several years but that is more an example of a shift in society and what the Academy has decided to recognize.
A strong strategy would be an initiative for Academy to have voters appreciate and see the value in genre movies. It also would be better for the Academy to make an initiative to make Best Picture nominees more accessible to the average viewer and to focus on getting them to appreciate the movies' qualities and value. The current strategy devalues both type of movies. The Best Picture is further seen as something not for the average person and far too pretentious, while it reaffirms that a tentpole can't aspire to be an awards-worthy movie. The new award feels condescending to genre and tentpoles. If it is true that ABC (owned by Disney) pushed for this awards then it also feels like a way to ensure Black Panther gets some major awards recognition. Will even the average viewers feel like it is any kind of prestigious award? It is the "hey, it made money and was kind of watchable" type of victory. I am pretty sure the average movie fan will see through it.
The Oscars are claiming that a movie can get into both categories. In order to legitimize the award, my guess is that Black Panther will end up in both this year and win the Popcorn award. Just like how in 2009 and 2010 we had a Pixar movie get nominated for Best Picture (Up and Toy Story 3 respectively) but over this past decade, another animated movie has not seemed to even be considered but instead get relegated to the Best Animated Feature category. This is what will happen to the Popcorn award, and I fear what type of movies will eventually get shoved in their for the sake of ratings. Transformers: Robots Bash Good? GI Joe: Here We Go Again? Pirates of the Caribbean: The Search for Relevance? Texas Chainsaw on Elm Street?
As I mentioned, the key to helping the appeal of the Best Picture category is making sure viewers have a chance to see those movies. That is going to be even harder when the awards show get moved to the start of February. As it is right now, only a few of the movies tend to be available for rent before the Oscars. If movie studios keep to their current strategy of limited release in December and big roll out in theatres in January, there will be even less time for the average movie goer to catch every movie. If the goal is to make these movies matter, then if anything, the awards should be pushed to March for more time and to ensure every movie is available for rental.
I get that the reason for the push was to avoid awards fatigue. By the time the Academy Awards arrive, we've gone through 50 billion awards shows and so there may be some burnout. Though I think journalist are more burned out than the movie goer who may not really pay attention to many of the other awards. I am sure all the awards bloggers that make their living predicting the winners are bummed that they now have lost a few weeks of premium ad revenue. I think earlier in theory is good, but only if a strategy goes in place that ensures all the Best Picture nominees are accessible to the public before awards time.
Change is good. I do think Academy needs to look at ways of making the awards show more relevant and to connect to today's movie going audience. I just don't think this is the change that was needed or that any small rating increase is worth the damage these changes will make. There is already a great deal of backlash against these changes, and I hope Academy listens to these concerns. There is still time to alter these changes. I think the new format devalues the awards and is harmful for some hardworking people in the industry. Hopefully, Academy can find ways to make their show popular but also maintain its prestige and value.