The Oscars have always been an ad for going to the movies, but as we head into this year’s ceremony on Sunday, the future of movie-going and the Academy Awards themselves are as uncertain as they’ve ever been in the show’s 93-year history.
Popular box-office hits have been few and far between when it comes to winning Best Picture in recent years, so the films that have won may not be as familiar to general audiences as they once were. Now — following a year that saw streaming emerge as a lifeline for studios with no other way to distribute their movies — that seems to be even more the case. Going forward, some of the biggest winners of an awards show that celebrates going to the movies may be films that never see the inside of a theater.
This year, five of the eight movies vying for best picture premiered via streaming, on Netflix (NFLX), Amazon (AMZN), Hulu and HBO Max, which is owned by CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia. Disney (DIS) also bypassed theaters with its nominee for best animated film, “Soul,” as it dealt with the realities of lockdown and sought to built up its nascent streaming platform, Disney (DIS)+.
If 2020 was in some respects a lost year for the movie industry — and certainly for theaters — there’s still little sense of what the new normal will be. It could be a future in which blockbusters play primarily in theaters while smaller awards fare skip theaters entirely.
“The Oscars will always be a part of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore (SCOR), told CNN Business. “The difference may come in the way that the ‘bump’ they provide is measured; whether in box office dollars, streaming views, video sales and rentals or social media likes.”
However, Dergarabedian added, “The currency of whatever ‘bump’ the Oscars provide will likely never be the same.”
An uncertain future for Hollywood’s biggest night
Even before the pandemic, the Academy Awards and the other award ceremonies faced an uncertain future. Their ratings have been slipping for years, and a persistent lack of diversity has made the shows and the organizations behind them appear out of touch with their audiences.
The disruption of Covid-19 prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the group that oversees the Oscars — to amend its rules to allow movies that premiered on streaming to compete for awards. It was supposed to be a one-time exception. But now that audiences have experienced first-run movies from the comfort of their own homes, exclusive theatrical windows seem even more tenuous for prestige titles.
At the same time, studios will continue to test the extent to which simultaneous home release can coexist with theatrical distribution. Disney, for one, is employing that strategy with “Black Widow” and the live-action “101 Dalmatians” spinoff “Cruella” — sometimes for a premium fee.
Warner Bros., similarly, has seen encouraging returns for “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which has amassed $400 million globally despite premiering on HBO Max. The question is how much bigger that number would be without streaming siphoning away a portion of potential ticket buyers.
Streaming services clearly benefited from the pandemic, with Netflix crossing the 200-million-subscriber threshold worldwide, and Disney+ reaching 100 million faster than anyone anticipated. Maintaining that, while rebuilding the box office, is the challenge that studios uniquely face.
“Godzilla” and “Black Widow” are unlikely to be big players in next year’s Oscar race, which represents just one of the hurdles facing award shows.
“The direct-to-streaming strategy might increase exposure of prestige films due to easier accessibility, but it could become a very complicated future,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, told CNN Business. “Art-house films have already faced a number of challenges in recent years trying to vie for screens in an increasingly competitive theatrical landscape as big-budget tentpoles rule the day.”
Hollywood’s most important awards show has celebrated the biggest blockbusters of the year before. For example, “Titanic,” “The Godfather” and “Forrest Gump” were all hits as well as Best Picture winners. However, despite some big moneymakers like “Black Panther,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “American Sniper” being nominated in recent years, Oscar’s biggest prize and the box office’s biggest ticket sellers haven’t overlapped since the early years of this century.
As Variety noted, not a single Best Picture winner has ranked in the top 10 in global box office since the sequel “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” in 2004, evidence of “a growing gap between awards and the public” and a more pronounced split between commercial releases and those that captivate award voters.
In fact, the last film to make more than $100 million at the box office and take home Oscar’s biggest prize was nearly a decade ago with 2012’s “Argo.”
“The fate of indie film may lie in the hands of the Academy”
Even as the dynamics continue to evolve in Hollywood post-pandemic, Robbins believes we haven’t seen the last of blockbusters that will also be Best Picture winners.
“The voter base of the Academy is progressing from one generation to the next. New voices always supplant current and previous ones,” he said. “We saw ‘Black Panther’ receive a Best Picture nomination just three years ago, and it’s a fair guess to say something like ‘The Dark Knight’ would be nominated if it were released today, given the changing dynamics and tastes of voters.”
Ultimately, Robbins noted, “Best Picture nominees and winners are often reflective of culture and society in the moment at their time of release.”
It’s worth noting, too, that the industry around movie awards, such as promotional events and ads that power entertainment-focused news outlets, has experienced other setbacks.
That includes scandal surrounding the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the steward of the Golden Globes, which is wrestling with its future after the Los Angeles Times exposed the group’s lack of any Black members and questionable ethical practices. Most recently, the HFPA expelled former president Philip Berk for distributing an inflammatory email about the Black Lives Matter movement.
And as other awards have discovered, presenting the Oscars won’t be easy under pandemic protocols. But after that last statuette gets handed out the real work for the movie industry begins, which includes finding an equilibrium between the needs of streaming services and theaters.
“The fate of indie film may lie in the hands of the Academy,” Dergarabedian noted. “If the rules that allow films that never play in theaters to qualify for Oscars remain, then the effect on the business will be profound and long lasting.”