For decades, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has assumed its annual awards shindig is an event at the absolute center of American popular culture. Yet last year’s ceremony was such a disaster that the record-low ratings didn’t even crack the top ten of 2018’s most-watched programs. To put it another way, with an average rating of 26.5 million viewers, the ABC telecast was at any given moment not being watched by 92 percent of Americans. And this on a night when, by tradition, the other major TV networks don’t even air any strong competing programming.
The Academy knows what the problem is: Nobody is going to tune in to watch art-house offerings like Birdman or Twelve Years a Slave or The Shape of Water win. Nobody cares about Spotlight and nobody cares about Moonlight. The audience simply doesn’t take any interest in how many trophies get racked up by pictures it hasn’t seen. Especially when those movies are obviously banging a gong trying to attract our attention to some political message.
So desperate was AMPAS to regain some sliver of American attention that last summer it announced it would hand out a second Best Picture award, for a popular film. This plan was so loudly razzed by absolutely everyone that the Academy backed down, suspending it in what will likely be a permanent move
The Academy is caught in a bind between the white-knuckle, sweating-at-the-temples terror it feels at the prospect of being called racially insensitive by 75 people on Twitter and its desire to draw lots of viewers and retake a privileged place in the capital of American culture from the tumbleweed exurbs where it now resides. This year, though, salvation appeared to be at hand: A lot of movies that did boffo box office — A Star Is Born, Black Panther, A Quiet Place, Mary Poppins Returns — were also seen as viable Oscar candidates. Some hoped that Crazy Rich Asians or even Mission: Impossible — Fallout might be invited to the dance, too.
How did all this work out? So-so. A Star Is Born and Black Panther did indeed get Best Picture nominations as did the surprise blockbuster Bohemian Rhapsody, which as recently as two months ago appeared to have no chance whatsoever of edging its way into that conversation. (This is because the film is obviously not one of the best of the year, and also because it was directed by an alleged sexual predator, Bryan Singer, who was fired during shooting.) But neither A Star Is Born nor Black Panther was nominated for Best Director, indicating that the Academy isn’t head-over-heels about either. And all of the other audience-pleasers were rejected: A Quiet Place, Mary Poppins Returns and Crazy Rich Asians got no important nominations whatsoever. Instead, the slate of nominees filled up with movies audiences either haven’t liked (the strange Queen Anne lesbian comedy The Favourite, the let’s-laugh-at-Dick-Cheney’s-heart-attacks movie Vice) or have been tepid about (Green Book, BlacKkKlansman). Roma, a slow-moving black-and-white Netflix drama in Spanish with no stars which received a token theatrical release, tied for the lead with ten nominations.
After 2015, when none of the acting nominees were black and none of the Best Picture nominees was about a black person (because it wasn’t a strong year for black movies), a Twitter kerfuffle caused the Academy to push the panic button. It launched a massive affirmative-action push to admit more young and black members. This seems to have worked in the sense that lots of black movies have since been nominated. In fact, in the last three years, blacks have been substantially overrepresented in the voting results, garnering 20 percent of the acting nominations and playing the lead or co-lead in 27 percent of the Best Picture-nominated films.
Yet the classic Oscar watcher is a middle- or upper-class white woman. These viewers simply don’t care about movies like Moonlight or BlacKkKlansman (or The Shape of Water or Vice). They’d love to see a romance like A Star Is Born, a classic women’s picture, sweep the Oscars, but A Star Is Born can’t sweep because it wasn’t even nominated for Best Director. I’d rate A Star Is Born a very slight favorite to win Best Picture, and it could also win Best Actress for Lady Gaga (whom the audience would much rather see win than her unglamorous chief competitor, Olivia Colman, the star of The Favourite).
As for the telecast itself, here’s my prediction: Having a popular women’s movie in strong contention will lead to a ratings bump over last year’s abysmal showing, but only a slight one. That audience has excellent reason to feel wary about being served up yet another eat-your-broccoli Oscars.