Should the Oscars rip up the rulebook on the ceremony?

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The 2007 set was typically glitzy, but the Oscars doesn’t attract as many viewers as it used to

The Oscars are looming, and for film fans clutching a bottomless popcorn bucket, that means yet another TV marathon.

Last year’s ceremony was a whopping three hours and 23 minutes and was watched by 29.6 million people in the US – a 12% boost from 2018’s viewing figures.

But it was still the second-smallest audience recorded for an Academy Awards broadcast – part of a general fall in award ceremonies ratings as more people prefer to discover the highlights online rather than sit through the whole thing.

In contrast, when Titanic swept the board at the Oscars back in 1998, the ceremony was watched by a record 57 million viewers.

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James Cameron declared himself “king of the world” when his film Titanic won 11 Oscars

Matthew Belloni, the Hollywood Reporter’s editorial director, thinks the ceremony needs a fresh approach.

“I believe the Oscars telecast would be improved if there was exclusive movie content that viewers had to tune in to see,” he tells BBC News.

“For instance, the Hollywood studios could all agree to air an exclusive trailer no one has seen during the telecast. Who wouldn’t want to watch for a first look at Top Gun 2 or Fast Furious 9?”

Belloni went further on the Media Masters podcast in 2018, saying: “The fact that the Oscars are so boring is a colossal failure on the Academy’s part.

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Julia Roberts and Russell Crowe won acting Oscars for Erin Brockovich and Gladiator in 2001

“First of all there are 24 categories, most of which the average person does not care about. And they are presented with the exact same fanfare and exact same time allotted to each one of them.

“It’s after midnight on the [US] east coast by the time they get to best picture, and they’re running through it to get it done because they’re already late. It is crazy.”

He also thinks the Academy “has been nominating films that fewer people are seeing” in recent years.

“You don’t see as many of the Titanic or Gladiator-style movies that win best picture any more. It’s smaller films, films with niche audiences.”

That means, he says, that “there’s less of an incentive for viewers to tune in, because they don’t feel like they have a horse in the race”.

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Editor Thelma Schoonmaker thinks the ceremony “could be shorter”

Three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker, whose working life is spent deciding how to best present film footage, also had some ideas for the ceremony.

“Frankly I don’t watch it unless one of our people is nominated,” she told BBC News.

But the veteran editor suggests “it could be shorter probably [with] shorter speeches”.

“There’s so many thank yous that everybody does – to their agent, their this, their that. That, I think, is not as meaningful to most of the audience as it is obviously to the people they’re thanking.

“Maybe the speeches could be more about the work – you know, the art of it.”

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Oscar winner Mark Bridges won a jet ski for the brevity of his speech in 2018

In 2018, host Jimmy Kimmel was so keen to cut down the speeches he gave a jet ski to the winner who spoke for the least amount of time.

“I have a stopwatch,” he told that year’s nominees. “Why waste precious time thanking your mom when you could be taking her for the ride of her life on a brand new jet ski?”

Phantom Thread costume designer Mark Bridges ended up with the $18,000 (£13,800) vehicle, which he donated to charity.

‘Endless list of thanking’

Schoonmaker, who is up for an Oscar this year for The Irishman, noted that when she attended the recent American Cinema Editors awards, the speeches were top notch.

“I was very impressed. They were very moving speeches. There was hardly any of the endless, endless list of thanking. The speeches were short and it was a very good ceremony.”

Perhaps film editors have a thing or two to teach the rest of the movie industry when it comes to speaking succinctly.

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Jimmy Kimmel wanted to keep the 2018 ceremony short

Another suggestion came from The Big Picture podcast, which suggested the Academy should count down to the winning film by actually revealing the votes each best film nominee got.

Hosts Sean Fennessy and Amanda Dobbins, who’d seen the idea on Twitter, said this would make the ceremony “much more fun”, adding that a ranking should be revealed “every 15 or 20 minutes until you get to the final film – you have the elimination chamber of Oscars”.

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Of course, the Oscars are not the only TV show facing declining audiences. Traditional TV as a whole is struggling to reach younger viewers.

“The hottest shows on TV networks – which command the highest ad prices – are attracting older viewers, which is a challenge for brands that want to reach millennials and teens,” said the New York Times in 2018.

“As TV ad spending has begun to drop, marketers have been diverting more money to tech giants like Google and Facebook.”

So what can be done to stem the exodus of award show viewers?

This year’s Brit Awards are slimming down the number of winners from 12 to nine, compared with the Oscars’ 24 categories.

The Brits are also promising “more music”, with artists given full creative control of their performances.

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Celeste, the BBC’s Sound Of 2020, is performing at the Brits as their Rising Star winner

The Baftas already edit their film awards ceremony down to a two-hour BBC broadcast.

Even with new host Graham Norton, this year’s event attracted an average of 3.03m viewers, down from 2019’s 3.5m – which in turn was 500,000 fewer than 2018.

  • 10 things we learned at the Baftas ceremony

Oscar watchers may recall that organisers tried to update the ceremony last year.

They wanted to include a popular films category, have fewer songs performed and to give awards including cinematography and editing during ad breaks.

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Spike Lee criticised a proposal to hand out Oscars during ad breaks

But after objections from heavyweights including Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, the ad break decision was reversed.

The overall format remained the same – minus a host, after Kevin Hart resigned amid controversy over old homophobic tweets.

  • Oscars TV review: No host? No problem

No doubt the Academy hopes another hostless ceremony could maintain or boost viewing figures – especially after Ricky Gervais’s caustic hosting of last month’s Golden Globes saw viewership drop 2% from 2019.

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Ricky Gervais returned to host this year’s Golden Globes

So was former host Johnny Carson right when he famously called the Oscars “two hours of sparkling entertainment, spread out over a four-hour show”?

BBC News asked a group of students from the Los Angeles Film School what they thought.

As potential academy voters, and maybe even future winners, they were able to offer a youthful perspective – and their views were decidedly mixed.

While most of them enjoyed the ceremony, they felt it was “too long”, “hasn’t changed in years” and “doesn’t captivate younger audiences”.

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Attendees at the Governors Ball can enjoy a chocolate Oscar after the ceremony

None of them said it should be hostless.

The ditching of the popular film category split opinion. Some said it would simply reward “the movie that made the most money” and was “useless” because “the awards must be about quality”.

But others liked the idea, feeling it “might attract the attention of younger viewers” who are currently being courted by many parts of the media.

Captivating winners’ speeches, such as Olivia Colman’s last year, make for memorable moments, and some students love it when film-makers speak about their work or politics.

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“Movies are meant to move people, and the people making them have powerful voices and should speak for what they believe,” said one.

But others believe “overlong thank you’s are the worst”, with one student stating: “I don’t care about Hollywood’s opinion on politics.”

There also was no consensus about consigning categories like editing to the ad breaks. One student argued these awards represented “where the real skill is”, but another replied: “It should be reported afterwards.”

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Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s Oscars duet went viral last year

Best song performances were a big hit with the students. After all, who could forget last year’s steamy performance of Shallow by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper?

One remarked they “loved” the songs as “they make the show feel more modern”, while another advocated reducing them all to a “medley”.

BBC News has also contacted Oscars organisers to see if they have any further plans for the ceremony.

According to Matt Wolf from the International New York Times, Oscars organisers will “incur outrage almost no matter what they do with the ceremony”.

‘Winners are guessable’

“Even if five new preconditions were met, five more would emerge,” said Wolf, who describes himself as a “self-confessed Oscars nerd”.

He also thinks the organisers should televise all the categories, but said of the technical nominees: “Mr and Mrs Middle America have no idea what they do.”

He complained that “all four acting winners are guessable this year in advance, which takes the suspense out of it.

“It’s not the Oscars’ fault, but Renée Zellweger, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern seem dead certs so the awards seem a bore.”

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Security is always tight inside the Dolby Theatre

Yet Wolf is sympathetic to the ceremony’s organisers.

“The Oscars have become a very pliable punching bag; people can use it to vent their frustrations from all quarters. If they do A people want B; if they do Q people want Z.”

The Oscars, he goes on, need to reflect all aspects of the ceremony. “You want the garish dress on the red carpet as much as you want someone stunning and stellar. We need the package, warts and all.

“People love to complain about the Oscars, it’s sort of a cultural sport, but the imperfections are what make them so glorious.”