Why making the Oscars popular is mission impossible

Attempts to make the Oscars more relevant has upset academy members and led to the series of missteps that illustrate the real challenges of making the awards audience-friendly.

Going hostless and shortening the show doesn't address the inherent challenges show producers face

The Oscars will be hostless this year for the first time since 1989. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made a number of missteps putting together this year's show. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

On Hollywood Boulevard, the sun is shining, the security fence is already in place, and high above the still-shrink-wrapped red carpet are massive billboards advertising the 91st Academy Awards.

On the poster, the shiny Oscar statue stands alone. No smiling host joins him — just one of the signs of a Hollywood institution under siege.  

After years of declining ratings, the board of governors of the academy instituted a plan to craft a new, more audience-friendly show.

But at every turn the nearly 8,000 members pushed back.

It began in the summer, when the academy announced the creation of a popular movie category, which led to an uproar from members complaining it sullied the value of the awards.  

Then there was debacle with host Kevin Hart.  

The hope was the social-media-savvy comedian would bring his audience with him. But when homophobic jokes from Hart's past resurfaced, he initially refused to apologize and walked away.

After weeks of waiting and wondering, the academy made it official: the show would be hostless for first time since 1989.

Kevin Hart announced he was bowing out of hosting the 91st Academy Awards after public outrage over anti-LGBT tweets and jokes he'd made in the past. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

While prognosticators gnashed their teeth over memories of Rob Lowe waltzing with Snow White, the academy made other moves. Only two of the original song nominees would be performed, and four awards — cinematography, film editing, live-action shorts and makeup/hairstyling — would be handed out during commercial breaks.

In the face of backlash from luminaries including Roma director Alfonso Cuaron and George Clooney the academy reversed course twice more.

Welcome to mission impossible: fixing the Oscars.

Part of the problem is lack of power afforded the producers of the show.

"You start getting down, and what you've got is a discretionary 10 or 15 minutes," says Bill Mechanic, who produced the 2010 Oscars co-hosted by Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. "You know, how do you order this show? Do you do the best actor first, or do you do a best supporting actor? It's really disappointing."

Mechanic himself once floated the idea of cutting down the number of televised categories, only to back down when various branches protested.

Runtime is a red herring

The Oscars aren't the only live show facing declining viewership. This year's Canadian Screen Awards also made the decision to go without a host, opting instead to give comedy ensembles more screen time. 

Big screen or small, film producer and Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television chair Martin Katz says the real problem is the one thing we all watch: our phones.

"Fewer people are watching TV in general, even though we're watching more audio-visual content than ever before in the history of the planet. But fewer people are doing appointment viewing. So we're not necessarily trying to chase those people, we're trying to deliver a great experience."

Musician Brian May and singer Adam Lambert of Queen will perform at this year's Oscars. The biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, based on the life of the late front man Freddie Mercury, has five nominations. (Kevin Winter/Getty)

Katz agrees its time to experiment, but he says even the Oscars can go overboard. "I think if you try too hard to bring an audience in ... people are going to see through that."

This year, much of the focus at the Oscars has been on shaving down the running time. But a quick look at Oscar history suggests show length is a red herring. 

The 2002 show ran nearly four and a half hours and yet it drew an audience of over 40 million. By comparison, only 26.5 million viewers tuned in last year for a show that ran under four hours.

New York Times red-carpet reporter Kyle Buchanan sees an academy in the midst of an identity crisis, focusing on the wrong thing.

"They're forgetting that people like the length of the show if you can fill it with good things," he said. "If it's bloated and the banter isn't great, and the musical numbers aren't wonderful, then sure, people might have a legitimate complaint. Just worry about making it wonderful."

What spells wonderful ratings is popular movies. The most-watched Oscars ever was in 1998, the year millions tuned in for the box-office-crashing cross-generational success of Titanic.

But remember what happened when the academy tried to add such a category.

The problem, according to producer Mechanic, is the academy isn't designed to reward truly popular films, and most members favour smaller art-house movies that mainstream viewers haven't seen. 

"This is what we consider best-of-the-best films, voted on by 16 branches [of members]," he said. The judges' narrow scope is "overpowering" the awards show's entertainment value.

Last year, Mechanic had enough of trying to change the academy from the inside and resigned from his position on the board of governors. In a letter published in Variety he complained about the "cataclysmic decline in ratings" and the fact that "no popular film has won in a decade."

As for this year's show, it will now feature a performance by the rock band Queen, the subject of the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

While the film's director Bryan Singer has become persona non grata after sexual assault allegations surfaced against him, the movie is a genuine box-office smash.

So, as Mercury himself said: "The show must go on."