In 2009, Hugh Jackman presided over one of the greatest song-and-dance openers in the history of the Oscars, beginning with a pleading question: “Why don’t comic-book movies ever get nominated? How can a billion dollars be unsophisticated?” He shame-facedly confessed to having skipped one of that year’s best-picture nominees: “The Reader,” Kate Winslet’s dreadful slog through the Holocaust. “I really meant to see ‘The Reader,’ ” he sang. “I even went down to the theater, but there was a line — all the people seeing ‘Iron Man’ a second time.”
The academy, it seems, has finally come around to Jackman’s point of view: It has announced the creation of a new Academy Award, this one for “outstanding achievement in popular film,” i.e., Best Picture That People Actually Went To See. The film snobs have scoffed, and one can understand their concern: It would be terrible if this undermined the artistic and intellectual reputation of the academy, an organization that has just added to its ranks Emilia Clarke, an actress so god-awful she routinely fails to live up to the dialogue on “Game of Thrones” (she made oatmeal out of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” on stage in New York) along with the great mind behind “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.”
This is pure terror, and it is delicious.
The powers that be in Hollywood are alarmed by the declining viewership of the Oscars, which mirrors that of other formerly big-time events such as the Super Bowl. The Oscars’ audience tanked almost 20 percent in 2018 as hordes of people tuned out that sanctimonious little twerp Jimmy Kimmel. The film that won Best Picture in 2018 (Quick: Can you name it?) did about one-tenth the business comic-book smash “Black Panther” has — and it was the top-grossing Best Picture in years.
So they’ve added that People’s Choice Oscar, they will present the nerd awards (sound-editing, etc.) during commercial breaks, and they will ruthlessly work to keep the broadcast at three hours.
Critics, conservatives prominent among them, point to the stupid and graceless political speechifying that now disfigures practically every Oscars ceremony, and they suggest that this may explain some of the broadcast’s decline. They make the same argument about the Super Bowl and NFL broadcasts generally. There may be something to that: Trump voters go to the movies, too, and they watch television, and they probably are not eager to be insulted by a rabble of miscreants who were sucking up to Harvey Weinstein until the day before yesterday. Even Meryl Streep can’t shine up that tired old stuff.
Less politics would be good for the Oscars, just as it would be good for the NFL, for Broadway and for much else.
But that may not be enough to fix the Oscars.
The average Oscars viewer is on the threshold of the seniors’ discount at Arby’s
The problem is structural. I am a middle-aged man who came of age mostly in the pre-Internet era, not a millennial with an 11-second attention span, but even geezers like me have grown remarkably disinclined to watch television on anybody else’s schedule.
What time is “The Walking Dead” on? Whenever I damn well decide it is. I can’t remember the last time I’ve said: “Oh, better finish up whatever it is I’m doing, that television show’s on at 7 p.m.” What is this, the Ford administration?
The premise of the Academy Awards — that any mentally normal adult person really wants to sit and watch three full hours (or so) of a business convention — already is questionable.
The Academy Awards is just another industry awards program; it’s a more glamorous and less intelligent version of the annual convention of the American Dental Association, with more Dom Pérignon and fewer appletinis. Yes, you could block out three hours on your schedule for that — or you could watch the best bits online whenever you like.
The Oscars have a problem, but it’s not just the Oscars: The season finale of “The Bachelorette” also is a three-hour live broadcast, and this year’s version took a 14 percent ratings hit over last year’s. Semi-pornographic trash like that ought to be as popular as Chicken McNuggets — and it is popular — but not enough to park butts on sofas for three hours on somebody else’s schedule in anything but declining numbers. The Academy Awards have declining and elderly numbers: The average Oscars viewer is on the threshold of the seniors’ discount at Arby’s.
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Hugh Jackman is not going to be remembered as Jean Valjean — he’s Wolverine, and he knows it. So, by all means, give an Oscar or two to a movie that somebody other than Upper West Side culture snobs might have seen. But the kids probably are still going to skip the main broadcast for the highlight reel online.