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Can the Oscars be saved? Academy members can’t even agree on what it would take

Hollywood loves a good comeback story, and this year’s Academy Awards will feature a few of them.

There’s former morning heartthrob Brendan Fraser, whose role as a morbidly obese teacher in “The Whale” earned him a leading actor nomination. There’s former child star Ke Huy Quan, who earned a supporting actor nomination for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” three decades after leaving acting.

Then there are the Oscars themselves, who will be looking for their own shot at redemption on Sunday night.

For those responsible for putting on the Academy Awards, and the millions more who love to watch them, the last two years have been difficult. The 2021 Oscars, marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, drew the lowest ratings in the show’s history. Last year’s broadcast was preceded by weeks of bitter infighting over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ decision to shift eight less-star categories out of the live broadcast, then shockingly derailed when Will Smith punched Chris Rock in the stage for a joke about his wife. , Jada Pinkett Smith.

Even as the reverberations of last year’s calamitous broadcast continue to be felt, with Rock delivering a dazzling 10-minute repartee to Slap in his new Netflix comedy special, academy leaders hope to turn the page. The producers of this year’s telecast are banking on the inclusion of a handful of bona fide blockbusters in the best picture race, including “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and “Elvis “, will help drive interest in the show.

“We have a lot to celebrate,” says Ricky Kirshner, who co-produces this year’s broadcast with Glenn Weiss. “We have movies that people have seen, big blockbusters with big movie stars, like ‘Top Gun.’ And there are some great horse races in many different categories, so you will have to stay until the end to see who is going to win this or that prize.”

For the beleaguered movie industry, struggling to return to its pre-pandemic health and beset by nervous talk about a possible writers’ strike, the Oscars offer a welcome opportunity to unwind in a familiar ritual of glamor and merriment. Still, there’s no denying the existential challenges facing Hollywood’s biggest night, as the entertainment landscape becomes increasingly fragmented, pushing movies away from the center of the cultural conversation.

While ratings for the 2022 telecast rebounded from the previous year’s all-time low, it remained the second-lowest-rated show in Oscar history, averaging 15.4 million viewers, below from the more than 40 million a decade ago. Last year’s best picture winner, Apple’s heartwarming drama “CODA,” marked the first time a streaming service had claimed the academy top prize, but it earned just $2 million in theaters.

Oscar leaders are hoping to build on last year’s spectacle, where Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage.

(Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times)

In a telltale sign of the Oscars’ dwindling status as a must-see event, HBO, which moved an episode of its hit series “The Last of Us” from the path of the Super Bowl last month, will air the show. season finale right in front of the awards broadcast.

For an academy that has grown dramatically in size in recent years to more than 10,000 members, reaching a consensus on how to fix the Oscars — or, indeed, accepting that they fundamentally need to be fixed — has proven difficult.

In an effort to revive fading enthusiasm for the Oscars and trim the show’s notoriously bloated runtime, the academy last year cut eight short film categories and below the line from the live broadcast. In a letter to group members announcing the decision, then-academy president David Rubin wrote: “We must prioritize television viewership to increase viewer engagement and keep the show vital, kinetic and relevant.”

After fierce pushback from rank and file members, the academy reversed the decision, which failed to produce a shorter show, announcing that all 23 awards will be delivered live once again this year. (An earlier effort in 2019 to move four categories to commercial breaks also foundered after members protested.)

“We want to get back to a show that has reverence for cinema and the 95th anniversary of the Oscars,” said the academy’s executive director, Bill Kramer, who took over the reins of the organization last year, in a roundtable interview with journalists in August. “It’s a time to really reflect on our membership, all areas of craft, our changing industry (and) our fans. … There are ways to do that that are both entertaining and authentic and tied to our mission to honor excellence in filmmaking. I don’t think that’s mutually exclusive.”

"Elvis" star Austin Butler and "Top Gun: Maverick" star Tom Cruise to meet at the Oscar nominees luncheon on February 13

Actors Austin Butler, left, and Tom Cruise, stars of “Elvis” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” respectively, gather at the Oscar nominees luncheon on February 13. The producers of this year’s Oscar telecast hope that such blockbusters will be included. in the race for best picture will attract a larger audience.

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Film producer and former academy governor Bill Mechanic, who co-produced the Oscars in 2010, said the organization’s handling of the controversy highlighted its struggle to adapt. In 2018, Mechanic resigned from the board due to his frustrations with the direction of the group.

“Everything in academia is about not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, regardless of the fact that that’s what life often entails,” says Mechanic, who advocates taking certain categories, like short film awards, out of the picture. streaming and find more ways to recognize the most popular movies. “The ratings will continue to drop because the audience has no vested interest and the show has no form. …There is no one leading the parade. It’s the blind leading the blind.”

Even this year’s host Jimmy Kimmel, who is hosting the Oscars for the third time, has criticized the academy for too often favoring niche critical darlings over more mainstream fare. On his late-night show earlier this year, Kimmel said this year’s field of best movies includes “six movies that no one has seen, including a movie called ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ which I always thought was a slice of pizza.” from Papa John’s.”

Some members of the academy share Kimmel’s sentiment. “I think we need to redefine what quality means,” says one member who, like other interviewees, requested anonymity to speak candidly on a sensitive topic. “Many times ‘quality’ means a certain type of film. It’s a movie that walks like a duck and talks like a duck, even if it’s a turkey. We have an idea of ​​’This is what the academy is’. Hopefully that will change with an evolving membership.”

Other academy insiders point to the show’s dated format, which seems increasingly out of step with the sensibilities of younger viewers, who seem uninterested in award shows.

“The younger generation likes to participate or be entertained,” says a former academy member. “Sitting and watching the rich and mostly white get awards is not his thing. His is TikTok. Make the show like a fun, entertaining, fast-paced, and high-energy TikTok video series. Why are they reluctant to adopt a new format?

Critics inside and outside academia also point out that the show’s frequent emphasis on questions of identity and other thorny political issues is a turnoff for much of the viewing public.

“The Oscars have felt tonally very serious and at times self-righteous for the past few years, and they need to get back to throwing a real party,” says one academy insider. “A celebration of your favorite movies of the year should be fun, that should be North Star. Somehow, in an effort to make the Oscars matter, they’re becoming pointless.”

While keeping many of their plans under wraps, the producers of this year’s Oscars promise the telecast will offer plenty of entertainment value, including a musical performance by Rihanna, fresh from her Super Bowl halftime show, of her original song. nominated “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

“If you watch the show, I think you’re going to see something at the top that is so exciting and never seen before at the Oscars. If that’s not a sneak peek, I don’t know what is,” she says. Weiss, who co-produced the 2019 broadcast and will direct the show for the eighth consecutive year.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the format wheel here,” Weiss continues. “What we’re trying to do is celebrate something that everyone can relate to. We’re telling a story about storytellers, and I think the way we tell it is adapting and changing with the times. … At the end of the day, our metric (for success) is that we’ve tuned out all the noise out there and put on a good show. If you’re having a good time and you’re immersed in the show, that’s the win.”