When The Power of the Dog took 12 Oscar nominations on Tuesday, the key question for this year’s awards became not what would win – a clean sweep for Jane Campion’s western is now looking inevitable – but whether anyone would watch it happen.
Last year’s ceremony was a muted, socially distanced affair held at Los Angeles’s Union Station. Ratings for the US TV network ABC fell by more than half from the previous year, which itself was a record-breaking low.
A new producer, Will Packer, has been drafted in to return the ceremony to the Dolby Theatre with enhanced pomp and pageantry on 27 March. A “super-event” loophole is being used to mean that even unvaccinated people can attend, with guests requiring only proof of a negative test within 24 hours to attend.
It appears unlikely organisers will want A-listers to cover their faces. A no-Zoom mandate is also on the cards, although exceptions may be made in extreme circumstances to avoid a repeat of last year’s most memorable moment, when Joaquin Phoenix abruptly accepted the best actor award on behalf of Anthony Hopkins, then 83 and not permitted to video-call in from Wales.
This year, 87-year-old Judi Dench is a contender in the supporting actress category for her role in Belfast. Should she win, she would become the oldest ever Oscar acting winner. Representatives for Dench did not comment on whether she would attend.
The host for the awards will be announced in the next few days and the frontrunner is the 25-year-old British actor Tom Holland, reckoned to be a powerful draw for younger audiences. Spider-Man: No Way Home may have landed only two nominations (for costume design and visual effects), but producers are eager to harness the interest of cinemagoers who last month made it the sixth highest grossing film in history.
Yet some suspect such measures are merely a case of deckchair rearrangement. “I don’t believe the host ever has an impact on ratings,” says Anne Thompson, the editor-at-large at IndieWire. Indeed, previous efforts to woo the under-30s with hosts such as Seth MacFarlane, James Franco and Anne Hathaway have been spectacular flops.
“Ratings are going to rise from last year, there’s nowhere to go but back up,” says Thompson. Yet the economic model that relied on advertising spend for the awards telecast is almost certainly under urgent review by the Academy.
“If you’re standing in the middle of a rainstorm, nobody has to tell you you need an umbrella,” says Steven Gaydos, executive VP of content at Variety. Gaydos believes that the Academy, caught unawares by the rapidity of change, will be scrambling to replicate the kinds of strategies now adopted by movie studios. Rather than concentrating on the box office performance of one headline movie, the focus is on the impact of a year’s worth of content.
Cash-generation measures under consideration by the Academy are likely to include sponsorship deals, year-long awards clubs, social media monetisation – and belt-tightening.
And while the Oscars – and many in the industry – were previously sniffy about ceremonies such as the Golden Globes, this year’s cancellation of that, after celebrities boycotted the event and NBC refused to screen it, may have been an unexpected blow. “The Globes was a drumbeat of awareness,” says Thompson. “They were a good thing, because they were promoting the movies, and the race.”
Yet the Oscars’ difficulty in attracting TV audiences predates Covid. The advent of streaming had already caused a schism in the relationship between the awards and actual cinema-going, before the pandemic accelerated the trend.
“There’s some very imprecise magic that happens when you go see a movie in a theatre,” says Gaydos, “It demands some part of you.” Even if the film disappoints, “you say: ‘Well, we got out of the house!’ It was part of the human social experience.”
Those films that did lure people from their sofas were conspicuously absent on the award lists, with the exception of Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic, but its 10 nominations were primarily technical.
It did make the 10-strong shortlist for best picture but ABC’s hopes for the likes of No Time to Die, House of Gucci or even Spider-Man were crushed after space was instead made for Drive My Car (a Japanese meditation on grief), Flee (an animated documentary about a gay Afghan refugee) and Coda (an indie tearjerker with a predominantly deaf cast).
The days of the Academy being criticised for being too mainstream are long past, thanks to the recent drive to increase inclusivity in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo. This largely involved increasing voter numbers from 6,000 to 9,500 with judiciously picked new recruits who have, accordingly, awarded best picture to Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland in 2021 and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in 2020.
“There is now a built-in disconnect between the Academy’s choices and the demands of a ratings-driven show,” says Thompson. “They thought this was what they wanted. But now they’re pulling back on it.”
The Baftas, which take place a fortnight before the Oscars, have also seen the fruits of backstage labours reflected in their shortlists. A review of practice in 2020 led to hundreds of rule changes to further diversity.
That ceremony is also now back in person, at a full-capacity Royal Albert Hall with the “largest red carpet in Europe”. Hopes have been placed on the new host Rebel Wilson – a regular show-stealer – to engage audiences in the stalls and at home.
“Things were tricky with distributors last year, and engagement wasn’t there,” says Emma Baehr, Bafta’s executive director of awards and content. Now that has returned, Baehr thinks, it calls for a ceremony which has “everything as it was before – but better.”
Despite the negative publicity that accompanied their – now-withdrawn – special award for Noel Clarke last year, the Baftas do appear on confident ground. Their primetime BBC spot is locked in, and this is the 25th year of a headline sponsorship deal with EE, formerly Orange.
Baehr points to the number of first-time nominees on their ballots and credits interventions such as those to ensure all voters watch a minimum of 15 randomly selected films. “Bafta has culturally shifted,” she says, “and part of that means that awards shows have to move on.”
And the podium goes to … the contenders to host this year’s Oscars
Earlier this year, the actor said that hosting the Oscars was something he’d “love” to do, reportedly leading to an approach by the Academy. As well as being incredibly famous in the demographic the Oscars most want to target, Holland’s musical background – he was once Billy Elliot – mean he could handle the song-and-dance duties.
The ABC chat show host received warm notices from hosting stints in 2017 and 2018 but might look too traditional for a revitalised ceremony. Kimmel also attacked The Power of the Dog’s glut of nominations on Tuesday, which failed to endear him to the Academy and would make the predicted wins for Campion’s film awkward. Conan O’Brien could be a safer pair of old hands.
Incoming producer Will Packer was behind Haddish’s breakthrough, Girls Night – as well as numerous movies with Kevin Hart, who stepped down as host in 2019 after homophobic jokes emerged. Haddish, who recently starred in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, would be a fresh and credible bet, but her arrest last month on suspicion of driving under the influence may have ruled her out of the race.
Before the buzz around Holland, the Saturday Night Live stalwart and Judd Apatow collaborator was bookies’ favourite. Davidson’s infamy in dating a succession of well-known celebrities – currently thought to include Kim Kardashian – would certainly lead to an uptick of tabloid and social media interest.
Amy Poehler and Tina Fey
The duo whose Golden Globe hosting stints between 2013-2015 were the most celebrated in recent memory opened last year’s Oscars and left many bemoaning the fact they weren’t in charge throughout. But the Academy may balk at such a naked imitation of its closest awards season rival.