The Academy Awards nominations last week was met with the same response we get every year. Happy surprises. Disappointing snubs. Accusations of racism (against plastic people and black people). Complaints about smaller films being nominated. And, of course, articles after articles expressing the concerns regarding Oscar viewership. While I understand the need/desire for the Oscars to get significant ratings, most of these articles are ignoring the most important question: just who is the Academy Awards ceremony for?
For starters, the Oscars ceremony is not for cinephiles. The nominations are mildly interesting to get a sense of movies we might have missed/underrated or give us a list of movies “to see” over the next month (though I could easily think of plenty of 2014 movies better than some of those nominated for Best Picture). It’s fine discussion fodder for when you want to get into a row about which biopic better captured the essence of a British scientist you’ve maybe heard of. And it’s something you can gamble on, which is always welcome. So you might rope in a few people who love movies just for the horse race, but those folks probably aren’t tuning in en masse. All of the information you need can be boiled down to a list you can get online seconds after the show ends. If you did happen to see every Best Picture nominee, there maybe some enjoyment in the tension of the moment, but it’s still easy enough to experience without the three-hour time commitment. And those who like to “complete the collection” and see all 86-and-counting best picture winners can easily wait the extra day to learn what to rent next.
What about the general public? The complaints that the Oscars were focusing on prestige films, often ones in limited release that most of the country didn’t have access to, led them to introduce a 10-nomonee Best Picture category, with the expectations that more masses-friendly movies would worm their way onto the list. But since its introduction in 2009, only the first two years hit the maximum 10 nominees, with only eight movies getting a nod this year. Secondly, the “more masses-friendly” theory never panned out. It took until January for one of the films to break $100 million. American Sniper, in just its first weekend of wide release, outgrossed every other Best Picture nominee at the box office and by the end of its release, it will likely gross more than all of its other competitors combined.
And thirdly, isn’t it a bit condescending to think just by mentioning a popular movie more people will flock to your ceremony? Even supposing there was an off chance Guardians of the Galaxy or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, could win the ultimate award, so what? Are people so dedicated to the Popcorn Movie of the Year that watching it grace the Oscars ceremony for two minutes during its nomination montage is, once again, worth the three hour slog? A big part of the enjoyment people got from Guardians came from the chemistry among the actors. Having Pratt, Saldana, Bautista, Cooper, and Diesel present an award would come far closer to capturing why that movie succeeded than having James Gunn give a speech thanking the team behind the film. Nothing against Gunn (seriously, watch Super if you haven’t yet), and I would personally rather watch him talk about anything than watch people awkwardly read a teleprompter. However, I fall into the second paragraph (i.e. “cinephiles”) and can utilize all the pretentiousness that implies.
Which leads to the group whom the Oscars are actually for: people who like celebrities. There might be a smaller portion who watch to follow their favorite comedians on Twitter MSTing the affair, but for the most part, it’s celebrity culture that draws in people. And there’s definitely an audience for that. If there weren’t, E! wouldn’t spent more time being “Live from the Red Carpet” than a cable news station covering a presidential election night. The ceremony itself naturally draws in more people than Fashion Police, but it’s still more about pageantry than anything else, and this self-congratulatory spectacle is kind of lame. A mildly-amusing-at-best-song-and-dance number, with sub-Comedy Central Roast level jokes poking light fun at Hollywood’s elite. A good joke or segment will make its way onto YouTube or Twitter by the end of the night, but it’s never at the level of “must-see” hilarity that warrants sitting through the ceremony.
Last year, the Oscars hit a 10-year high of a truly remarkable 43 million viewers. (For comparison, the highest rated network shows for 2013-2014 were NBC Sunday Night Football with 21.5 million, The Big Bang Theory with 19.9 million, and NCIS with 19.7 million). Did it reach those numbers because people wanted to see the cutthroat battle between Gravity, Her, and 12 Years a Slave or because they wanted to hear the wisecracks from host Ellen DeGeneres? It will likely be the same situation this year with host Neil Patrick Harris – same format, same type of humor, same style of intermittent bits. That isn’t saying he’ll be bad, he’s a consummate showman and will probably be fine for what the Oscars are and should be. People who watch the Oscars know what to expect, and that’s what they like to see. The same goes for people who don’t. Trying to gerrymander the ceremony for “younger viewers” misses why the Oscars are successful and shows a lack of understanding as to why it has difficulty catching on. Besides, the time spent watching the ceremony could be used for something actually important – watching a movie.