Are the Oscars Over?

Sinking ratings, shrinking movie stars, boring broadcasts, not to mention battles over its controversial new museum. And now a quota system that threatens to tear the Oscars apart. How the Academy Awards are struggling to get on with the show
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Have you heard about Aperture 2025?

It may sound like a Roland Emmerich sci-fi movie, but it’s actually more frightening. And much more controversial. It’s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s latest initiative to make Hollywood more equitable and diverse—more woke—by changing the rules by which films are eligible for Best Picture nominations. Here’s how it works: Starting in 2024, producers will be required to submit a summation of the race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status of members of their movie’s cast and crew. If a particular movie does not have enough people of color or disabled people or gays or lesbians working on the set—and what is “enough” will be determined by a knotty tangle of byzantine formularies—then that movie will no longer be eligible for an Oscar.

Not surprisingly, the plan is not being universally applauded in Hollywood. Critics say it’s invasive, anticreative, opens the door to privacy issues, and is spectacularly unfair to actors and crew members, who may want to keep their sexual orientation or health profiles to themselves, not to mention to producers and directors who have enough to worry about while shooting a movie than to be saddled with the thankless task of tallying up the identity markers of their creative partners. 

“I mean, why aren’t animals in this?” sneers one industry insider. “What if the main character is a horse?”

Unfortunately, Aperture 2025 isn’t the only Academy initiative to recently raise eyebrows in Hollywood. In February, Oscar organizers triggered a civil war in Hollywood over a plan to pretape many of the below-the-line categories—film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, the short-film selections—and roll edits of those awards into the live broadcast. Predictably, many Academy members (especially film editors, makeup and hairstylists, and production designers) balked at the change, but at least that one was designed to address an actual existential threat to the ceremony: that it’s become so long and boring that huge swaths of the audience have begun tuning out.

“The Academy was out of touch with the public when it was mostly white, and it remained so when it became somewhat less white.”

Last year, the Oscars drew an all-time low of 9.85 million viewers—less than what an episode of The Big Bang Theory used to get. Granted, the pandemic and the resulting dearth of theatrical releases contributed to the decline, but the truth is, Oscar ratings began plummeting long before COVID-19. At its height in the 1990s, the ceremony was pulling in as many as 55 million viewers in the United States. Even into the 2000s, it was drawing at least 40 million. But by the 2010s, the numbers started falling into the 30 millions and, by that decade’s end, had dropped further, into the 20 millions. The audience for the last pre-pandemic Oscars, in February 2020, was 23.6 million, less than half of its one-time peak.

There’s no shortage of theories to explain why viewers are turning off to the Oscars: The shrinking of movie actors as cultural icons (as TikTok and Instagram stars become the ascendant media gods); the reluctance of the Academy to update the ceremony, which has remained substantially unchanged since it was first broadcast in 1953; the growing chasm between the esoteric tastes of the Academy’s voting members (who this year nominated Drive My Car, a Japanese drama about a grieving theater director putting on a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima) and the preferences of the wider theatergoing public (who likes Spider-Man). 

Whatever the reason, the conclusion is inescapable: The Oscars are tanking. And no matter how well-intentioned Aperture 2025 may be, the initiative isn’t going to fix that problem. On the contrary, at this rate, by 2025, filmmakers with even the most equitable and diverse sets may not give a damn whether their films are eligible for an Oscar or not because hardly anyone will be watching.

FRONT-ROW SEATS Meryl Streep and other luminaries at the 90th Academy Awards ceremony, where she was up for the 2018 Best Actress award for her portrayal of editor Katharine Graham in The Post. (TODD WAWRYCHUK/AMPAS VIA ZUMA WIRE/ZUMAPRESS.COM)

THE ACADEMY—and Hollywood—has faced existential crises before. Back in the 1950s, when the cathode-ray tube first crackled to life, the industry convinced itself that television would eventually murder the movies. The studios concocted all sorts of wacky gimmicks—CinemaScope and Cinerama, 3-D, even Smell-O-Vision—to keep audiences in theaters and stave off cinema’s seemingly inevitable extinction. 

As it turned out, TV proved to be a boon to the movies—and especially to the Oscars. Within a few short years of their first televised broadcast, the Academy Awards went from an insular industry dinner party to a giant global advertisement for Hollywood and a unifying cultural event that stitched together the entire planet. True, its numbers never quite reached Super Bowl levels—that show draws 100 million viewers—but the Oscars had much more cultural clout and international appeal. And it became a huge boon to L.A., pumping an estimated $130 million a year into the local economy, with spends on everything from catering to carpentry to carpet installation (the red one outside the Dolby costs a whopping $24,700).

Decades before the advent of the internet meme, the Oscars were churning out viral moments. When an 82-year-old Charlie Chaplin was given a 12-minute ovation at the 1972 awards, the whole world cheered. When Marlon Brando dispatched a Native American to reject his trophy for The Godfather in 1973, the world scratched its head. When a streaker upstaged the ceremony in 1974, there wasn’t a soul whose heart didn’t go out to a clearly mortified David Niven.  

“It’s filmmaking by affirmative action. It’s totally daft, and it can’t be done.”

Sometimes, when the (movie) stars aligned just right, the Oscars succeeded in advancing social change, pushing the culture in a brighter, more enlightened direction. Sidney Poitier winning Best Actor in 1964—at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states—arguably did as much to mainstream the civil rights movement as any march or lunch-counter protest. Other times, the Oscars stirred up a hornet’s nest, like when, in 1978, Vanessa Redgrave took a swipe at “Zionist hoodlums” while accepting a Best Supporting Actress award for Julia (prompting an annoyed Paddy Chayefsky to quip, “A simple ‘Thank you’ would’ve sufficed”). 

Vanessa Redgrave, after winning the 1978 Best Supporting Actress award for her role in Julia, thanked the academy for refusing “to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums. (VANESSA REDGRAVE: BETTMANN ARCHIVE)
In 1974, a streaker surprised David Niven on stage. (STREAKER: AP PHOTO FILE)
in 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather refused an award on behalf of Marlon Brando. (SACHEEN: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)
Al Sharpton at a 2016 rally protesting the slate of all-white acting nominees. (AL SHARPTON: RINGO CHIU/ZUMAPRESS.COM)

Either way, for one stupendously glamorous, often endless-seeming evening, the awards made Hollywood the undisputed center of attention.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Academy was hatching a vast Oscar-industrial complex, which reached its zenith in the 1990s, with producers like Harvey Weinstein transforming what had been a relatively sleepy awards-season windup into a Hunger Games–like blood sport. Oscar PR campaigns—waged with VHS screeners, lavish studio parties, and gift bags stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of luxury swag—consumed Hollywood in the months leading up to the ceremony, with the lesser guild shows, like the SAG and DGA awards, as well as the always-sketchy Golden Globes, becoming momentum-building battlegrounds in a new type of marketing trench warfare. 

There was, at the time, good reason for militarizing the awards race: the so-called Oscar bump. Along with being a splendid decorative fixture to a producer’s fireplace mantel, a Best Picture statuette—or even just a nomination for one—used to spur tens of millions in additional ticket sales. Back in 1993, The Crying Game grossed less than $20 million before getting nominated; it ultimately ended up making more than $60 million (even though it lost to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven). In 1999, American Beauty added more than $55 million to its total box office after its win, ultimately raking in $130 million.

In more recent decades, though, as the Oscar audience has dwindled, that awards bump has flattened. Best Picture winners still manage to scrape together a bit of extra box-office cash—2016’s Moonlight picked up $2.5 million in its post-Oscar afterglow, while 2017’s The Shape of Water added $2.3 million, 2018’s Green Book, $4.7 million, and 2019’s Parasite, $5.5 million—although it’s nothing like the bounce winners used to experience. These days, there’s sometimes a streaming bump for some films, but how big it might be is anybody’s guess. Still, it’s hard to imagine that last year’s winner, Nomadland, which grossed just $3.7 million in theaters, set off a huge stampede of new Hulu subscriptions.

“There can still be an Oscar bump today, in ancillary money that movies earn from streaming and downloads,” says one well-connected Academy member. “But only for movies that people actually want to see. And the Academy doesn’t seem to be nominating a whole lot of those these days.”

And that, when you get down to it, is the real existential crisis facing the Oscars: It’s losing its raison d’être. If winning a trophy no longer means all that much at the box office, then what purpose does the ceremony serve, other than to stroke some of the biggest, most-massaged egos on earth? 

Even as a TV show, the Academy Awards has been coming up short. ABC reportedly shells out $100 million a year for the rights to broadcast the Oscars. Ad revenues in recent years have hovered at around $130 million a year, but that number may have peaked; if the show continues to tank in the ratings, it’s hard to imagine advertisers continuing to pay upwards of $2 million for a 30-second spot. More to the point, a sizable chunk of those ad dollars goes back to the Academy in ad sharing deals to help pay for the production costs of the show, which are reportedly upwards of $40 million for the night. Do the math, and it’s hard to see how ABC is making much money by airing the Oscars — which may well be why the network has reportedly been squeezing the Academy to make the ceremony more audience-friendly, allegedly even threatening to cancel this year’s show unless those below-the-line awards were cut from the live broadcast.

None of the above has been lost on the Academy—or at least some of its members. As early as 2009, there were moves to boost viewership, bumping the number of Best Picture nominees from five to up to ten in the hopes that Academy voters might be coaxed to include more mainstream films in the mix. “I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words ‘Dark Knight’ did not come up,” then-Academy president Sid Ganis admitted to the New York Times while explaining the change. But, alas, expanding the category didn’t work—Academy voters started filling it with ten movies most people had never seen.

Crowds under the marquee of the Pantages Theatre at the 26th Academy Awards ceremony in 1954. (PANTAGES: THE REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES. LIBRARY. DEPARTMENT OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.)
Producer Bill Mechanic. (MECHANIC: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/GETTY IMAGES)
Producers Michael Shamberg. (SHAMBERG: KYLE ESPELETA/FILM MAGIC/GETTY IMAGES)
Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll arrive in 1965. (POITIER AND CARROLL: BUD GRAY/MPTV)

There was lots of hope in 2014 that expanding the Academy membership—nearly doubling it, in fact, to 9,400 members, with an emphasis on diversity—would pump new blood into the proceedings. That move, of course, came around the same time as the #OscarsSoWhite scandal, when the Academy was skewered for its lack of equity after two years in which not a single Black performer was nominated for Best Actor. But the increase in membership failed to reignite the Oscars, because it turned out lack of diversity wasn’t the Academy’s only problem. The organization was out of touch with the moviegoing public when it was mostly white, and it remained out of touch when it became somewhat less white.

“They just don’t want to hear from the public. They don’t want to get ideas from the members. They have circled the wagons in this bubble,” says Michael Shamberg, the Oscar-nominated producer of Erin Brockovich. He argues that the Academy has been merely shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic and ignoring calls for a much more drastic course correction. “There’s an iceberg up there, and they’re sailing toward the iceberg and the captain isn’t asking anybody for help. It’s a perfect storm of inertia.”

That iceberg appears to be getting closer and closer as the ceremony continues to grow duller and duller every cycle, becoming something like an infomercial for a product nobody wants to buy. Last year’s was so excruciating, comedian Bill Maher cracked that the Academy seemed to be saying, “We dare you to be entertained.” 

The pandemic obviously didn’t help, but COVID can only be blamed for so much. “The pandemic was an excuse—it provided cover,” says Bill Mechanic, a producer and former member of the Academy’s Board of Governors. In recent years he has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of the Academy, writing an open letter in 2018 accusing it of “having failed to move the Oscars into the modern age.” 

Even those who loyally don ties and gowns to attend the ceremony in person (once the most coveted ticket in Hollywood—the ultimate status symbol in a town built on status symbols) are finding the proceedings increasingly unbearable. “Going to the Academy Awards is like going to the DMV,” complains an industry insider who has attended the Oscars for years. “Everyone’s just hanging in the bar; they just want to drink. There are more seat-savers these days than actual attendees.”

Shamberg believes the Oscars desperately need to overhaul the format of the show. He has suggested relaxing the dress code to be more like the Grammys or live-streaming the stars from their limos on the way to the Dolby Theatre or changing the venue altogether. Barring major changes, he offers a similarly bleak assessment. “You have the greatest showmen in the world,” he says, “doing the lamest show.” 

TO BE FAIR, not all the Academy’s problems are self-inflicted. The streaming revolution, the splintering of the audience, the globalization of entertainment—these are challenges not just for the Academy but for Hollywood as a whole. 

 Everywhere you look, the scaffolding that has held the town in place for the last 70 years is crumbling, and awards shows in general seem to be on the shakiest ground. NBC canceled its broadcast of the Golden Globes after the Los Angeles Times revealed last year that not a single member of the group behind it, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, was Black. The scandal sparked a boycott from 100 top PR firms and prompted Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu to distance themselves. Tom Cruise returned three of his awards. Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson issued public rebukes. The most damning lesson from the Globes cancellation? That nobody seemed to care, or even notice, that they were gone.

Some true believers insist the Oscars will have a different fate—that they’ll ultimately endure the turmoil currently roiling the industry and someday rise again. “They’re the most endangered awards show except for all the rest,” claims Scott Feinberg, who covers the Oscars for the Hollywood Reporter

Still, it’s hard to argue that the Academy is doing much to guarantee its survival. On the contrary, it continues to dare people to be entertained. Take its new $480 million museum in the old May Company Building at Wilshire and Fairfax, which has become something of a flashpoint since it opened in September. 

The 300,000-square-foot Academy Museum of Motion Pictures was inaugurated with a splashy, star-studded opening that included appearances by Brad Pitt and Queen Latifah and a performance by Lady Gaga. But in what many viewed as a ham-fisted attempt to adhere to new cultural norms, the Academy ended up building something a bit like a shrine to white liberal guilt, devoting big chunks of exhibit space to things like Spike Lee’s movie-poster collection while ignoring the contributions of the Jewish émigrés who invented Hollywood in the 1920s and ’30s. According to a recent article in Rolling Stone, this wasn’t accidental: board members were actively advocating for the contributions of white artists to be excluded or downplayed so that “nonwhite cinema” could be highlighted. 

“It’s an exercise in making us apologize for history,” says one industry insider who is clearly no fan of the museum or the Academy. “Instead of something that celebrates movies, the museum goes out of its way to make you feel bad.”

On the one hand, it’s hard to criticize the Academy for good faith efforts to address the racism and misogyny that are still rampant in the industry. On the other hand, it’s even harder to imagine film-loving tourists from Middle America waiting in line at the Academy Museum for a chance to relish its exhibit on racist movie-makeup palettes from the 1930s. More to the point, it’s impossible to see how any of this helps the Academy deal with the true threat—Oscar’s incredibly shrinking audience. Indeed, it almost seems as if the Academy is willfully ignoring the most imminent crisis.

The Aperture initiative is, in some ways, more of the same, only potentially worse. At a particularly polarized moment in American political life, it’s one thing for a film museum to wade into the culture wars. But for the Academy to use its Oscar leverage to meddle in the nuts and bolts of current movie production—stipulating what percentage of a picture’s cast must be Asian or Latino or disabled, even requiring that storylines center on underrepresented groups—is quite another. Even if it is intended to “better reflect the diversity of the moviegoing audience,” the initiative strikes many insiders as misguided. “Diversity and inclusion is not just a set of goals in the Academy now,” notes a source close to the Oscars. “It’s an organic component of what we set out to achieve.”

Supporters insist that this sort of top-down interference is nothing new for the movie business. “Look at the history of Hollywood—there has always been some group of people dictating how films get made,” argues Linda Lichter, an attorney who is an ambassador for Reframe, a gender-equity program for women filmmakers launched several years ago. Samuel Goldwyn at MGM, Lew Wasserman at Universal—those old moguls’ power to shape what audiences saw on screens was downright monarchical. “But there isn’t anybody like that now,” Lichter goes on. “So someone steps into the breach, and if that’s the Academy, so be it.”

Except the Academy is not Lew Wasserman. And the logistical complexities involved in the Aperture initiative may well embroil the Academy in some troubling controversies ahead. Just how much Native American ancestry does a Native American actor need to count towards a movie’s quotas? Are Jews a marginalized ethnic group? What qualifies as a disability? And exactly who on a movie set is going to be asking the cast and crew about their ethnic backgrounds and medical histories, not to mention their sexual orientations? 

“Instead of making it easier, they want to make it harder,” complains one filmmaker. “And it’s hard enough as it is to get movies made. People are just not going to do it.”

Also, precisely where and how is the Academy planning on storing all this information? The data it’s asking for is, at least in some cases, sensitive and private and perhaps protected by law. Who will have access to it? And to what other potential uses might this information be put? The Academy won’t provide details other than to say an “inclusion staff” will review the data and be responsible for safeguarding it. 

“Data is a toxic asset,” notes Rory Mir, a grassroots-advocacy organizer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization devoted to exploring privacy issues. “Any program that involves collecting data puts the collector at risk because it can be breached.” 

And Hollywood has been breached before. In 2014, North Korean hackers targeted email servers at Sony Pictures Entertainment. The “Sony hack” revealed confidential salary information about stars and studio executives as well as embarrassing email correspondence about Angelina Jolie.  

Putting aside the question of why an organization dedicated primarily to the doling out of 13½-inch golden statuettes should be in possession of such a vast trove of intimate data, there is a broader concern. What’s this new layer of interference going to do to the creative process? “It’s meddlesome and intrusive,” says one veteran producer. “I’ll be thinking long and hard before I fill out any paperwork. This is not the Academy’s business.” 

“It’s filmmaking by affirmative action,” adds an Academy member who, like several people interviewed for this story, asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation and loss of work opportunities. “It’s totally daft, and it can’t be done.”

Actually, in less ambitious ways, it’s already being done. Director-producer Ava DuVernay, who helped spearhead the Aperture initiative, maintains her own archive of cast and crew ethnic- and gender-identity information. But at least in her case, she’s not holding anybody’s Oscar dreams hostage to compliance with her data bank. The same can’t be said of the Academy’s plan.

It took a major #MeToo accusation to push Kevin Spacey to publicly reveal his sexual orientation. But critics contend the new Aperture requirements could force other discretion-seeking performers into reluctantly opening up their private lives. Some may fight back. Lawsuits have been mounted on far flimsier grounds. In 2012, the actress Huong Hoang sued IMDb for publishing her age, claiming that the revelation hurt her career ambitions. Hoang ultimately lost the suit, but not before nabbing the support of fellow actors as well as the Screen Actors Guild. 

Fast forward to 2025, when the first Best Picture nominations adhering to these requirements will be announced. One can easily imagine a grotesque new parlor game in which the audience speculates on how a film passed the baroque diversity metrics required to land a nomination—a new and not-so-improved version of Guess Which Star is Gay. Or perhaps Oscar viewers will wonder which great films might have been overlooked simply because, through laziness or accident or resentment, their producers failed to adhere to these standards.

Of course, all that presumes there’s still an audience left to play those games. And there are a growing number of folks in Hollywood who are becoming increasingly convinced that won’t be the case. “Is there any going back?” wonders one well-known producer with a sigh. “I don’t think so. I think the Oscars are dead.”

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