The Oscars are about honoring the year’s best movies, but they’re also a TV show, devoted to attracting an audience that will benefit host network ABC and promote the movie business. And after record-low ratings in 2021, the old adage about the Lord helping those who help themselves comes to mind.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is surely feeling pressure to breathe some life back into ratings for the Oscars, and part of that plan has logically involved nominating movies that more people have actually seen. Yet despite expanding the best-picture category to 10 nominees, few of the major contenders in the nominations unveiled Tuesday morning meet that description – especially if it means having seen those films in theaters.
Before the nominations, producer Cassian Elwes – known for smaller-scale films like “Mudbound” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – tweeted that it was “shortsighted” for the Producers Guild’s awards to overlook “the two terrific movies that saved the theatrical business this year,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “No Time to Die.”
If you subscribe to that theory, the Oscars will be inordinately reliant on movies that have primarily reached audiences through streaming, with two Netflix titles, “Don’t Look Up” and “The Power of the Dog,” among the 10 nominees, joined by Apple’s “Coda,” and “King Richard” and “Dune,” which premiered simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. (The last two are from Warner Bros., like CNN, part of WarnerMedia.)
As for the aforementioned movies that “saved the theatrical business,” “Spider-Man” – currently the fourth biggest domestic box-office release of all time – received a lone nomination for visual effects, while Daniel Craig’s final appearance as 007 was recognized for best song, sound and visual effects.
Granted, the belief that popular movies are key to boosting Oscar ratings doesn’t always hold true, although the most-watched telecast ever remains the year that “Titanic” sailed away with best picture. Yet it seems undeniable that hit films broadly help, giving potential viewers more of a rooting interest in who and what wins.
Mindful of that, the Academy flirted with introducing a “popular film” category in 2018, seeking to add a more populist streak to the ceremony. After members shot down the idea for various (mostly logical) reasons, the organization opted to expand the best picture category to 10 movies, in part hoping that at least a few widely seen titles would sneak into the mix.
Smaller movies, however, have generally prevailed. And part of the challenge that the Oscars and the movie business face has stemmed from the consumer pivot to streaming, a trend that was already growing before being dramatically hastened by the global pandemic.
For theaters worried about their future, the fact that people interested in catching up on nominees will find “The Power of the Dog” (this year’s most-nominated title, with 12) and “Don’t Look Up” on Netflix – along with others that earned major nominations, including “Tick, Tick … Boom!” and “The Lost Daughter” – won’t ease those concerns.
Because streamers generally don’t provide detailed viewing data, it’s unclear how many people have seen some of these movies, but they’re obviously being watched via those platforms in vast numbers. Witness the Billboard-topping songs from “Encanto,” a nominee for best animated movie, which took off once that title landed on Disney+.
While blockbusters (other than the sci-fi epic “Dune,” a more modest box-office performer) remain scarce in the best-picture category, the Academy did recognize an international movie, Japan’s critical darling “Drive My Car,” as well as its director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi. That follows the historic best-picture win by “Parasite” two years ago.
In addition, the Danish animated documentary “Flee” registered an impressive showing, notching nominations in the animated, documentary and international film categories.
The Academy’s ongoing efforts to be more representative in terms of diversity and inconclusion continue to yield mixed results, with some notable oversights (see Ruth Negga for Netflix’s “Passing”) but major acting nominations for Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”), and Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”).
Inevitably, the omissions will receive as much attention as the nominees, but by now it should be clear that the Oscars can never please everybody, especially with 10 best-picture nominees and only five slots for directors.
Whether that somewhat disjointed roster adds up to a menu that will lure back more viewers remains to be seen. But if the Academy does see ratings rebound, the hero will be streaming, not Spider-Man.