I’ve been writing columns for years observing that the Academy Awards audience is shrinking so quickly over time, regularly setting records for lowest-ever ratings, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) had better put things into hard reverse if it wanted to regain an audience and some cultural relevance. Now it’s too late. The Oscars have written themselves off. No one cares. It’s impossible to imagine more than 5 percent of the American public tuning into this year’s show. Estimates are in the range of 3 to 3.5 percent. Ratings will hit a record low yet again, and they’ll never recover to anything like the levels of even a decade ago, which were considered worrisome at the time.
As recently as 2009, when The Dark Knight failed to get a Best Picture nomination despite its obvious excellence and cultural impact, appealing to a broad audience was a central concern of AMPAS, which expanded the category to as many as ten nominees the following year, hoping that some blockbusters would wind up in competition for the top prize each year. That did, initially, happen — Avatar was among the nominees in 2010 — but in 2015 AMPAS (a group of proud gentry liberals) became petrified of social-media hashtags making spurious accusations of racism. It then undertook to change the taste of its voting body. Instead of membership being offered only to the most accomplished veterans — which yielded slates of nominees that balanced artistic achievement with traditional Hollywood concerns such as star power and audience engagement — AMPAS implemented a vigorous affirmative-action program.
The voting body is today much more diverse and much younger than it was in 2009, but its tastes are so out of the mainstream that the Oscars are today a sort of West Coast version of the Independent Spirit Awards, giving all of its attention to art-house offerings. The average American looks at this year’s list of obscure Best Picture nominees — Mank? Nomadland? Promising Young Woman? Judas and the Black Messiah? The Father? Minari? Sound of Metal? The Trial of the Chicago 7? — and thinks: I have no interest in any of these titles. All of them are downers, most of them push an overt political agenda, and none of them puts a beloved movie star front and center except The Father (in which Anthony Hopkins plays a man being destroyed by dementia). There is no glamour or Hollywood magic attached to any of them. All of them are essentially TV movies (though all of them had pro forma theatrical runs). Most of them are more interested in wrestling with intractable social problems (which, being intractable, tend to frustrate audiences) than in entertainment.
Even if theaters had been operating normally this year, none of these films would have grossed more than 50 cents at the box office. The Oscars have taken such a big step in the direction of arthouse films that even 2012 — the year when a French, silent, black-and-white picture titled The Artist won Best Picture, Director, and Actor — now looks like a relatively audience-friendly year. More than 39 million Americans tuned in to watch the 2012 Oscar broadcast. This year, the Oscars will be lucky to draw one-fourth as many viewers. The Oscars simply no longer matter, and AMPAS has no one but itself to blame for a long series of bad choices that drove what was once a signature American cultural event to the fringes.