Are Americans Falling Out Of Love With Awards Shows?

Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 9:32am
Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 2:21pm
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MARK BRODIE: The Oscar nominations came out this morning, and there's already some buzz about the Best Picture nominations. But for at least some people, the reaction was a giant yawn. Award shows like the Oscars, Golden Globes and others just don't seem as popular as they once were. To get a sense as to why, I caught up earlier with Jonathan Kuntz via Skype. He teaches American film history at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. And I asked him if he thinks people care less about award shows.

JONATHAN KUNTZ: Well I guess there's no doubt that the ratings are down over the 20-teens for the Oscar broadcast. So in that sense, I guess there has been somewhat of a falling off of interest in the Oscar ceremony itself. However, it seems like the press about the Oscars is as big as it's ever been.

BRODIE: So to what do you attribute that disparity then?

KUNTZ: That's kind of a good question. For the one thing is maybe the fall off at the Oscars, there's probably a variety of reasons. One is there's just so darn many awards nowadays. Once upon a time, there was just the Oscars. But now you've got so many other awards — the various guilds and so on, and then of course the infamous Golden Globes. So there's inevitably I think a delusion when there's so many different awards. Another argument that's been advanced about the Oscars has been throughout the 20-teens — the films that have been rewarded by the Oscars and have been most talked about at the Oscars have not been the big hundred million dollar crowd pleasers but instead have been more kind of art films and specialty films. And so if you're giving your awards to smaller films, I guess you've got to expect a smaller audience.

BRODIE: Well is that something that the academy cares about? I mean, would they go so far as to include blockbuster superhero-type movies in the best film categories?

KUNTZ: The Academy has the best of intentions and they're kind of wonderful in some ways, the Academy. But you also have to remember that the Academy broadcast is a huge source of revenue for the Academy and for all the good things that the Academy does. So I'm sure the Academy would like to have the Oscar broadcast be as successful in the ratings as possible to keep their ad rates up so they can, you know, maximize the amount of money they bring in from that event.

BRODIE: It seems as though these organizations then are sort of having to figure out amongst themselves, like do we want to be sort of the high-minded organizations that are really awarding and rewarding fine cinema, or do we want people to actually watch these shows?

KUNTZ: Well you're talking about a tricky thing here. When you talk about what the organization is doing, the organization can do whatever it wants, but the fact is it's thousands of people voting on the Oscars, the members of the academy. And they're not so easily herded, I don't think necessarily. Regardless of what the Academy wants, its membership still ultimately does the voting on the Oscars and that isn't completely manageable.

BRODIE: Do you think that these organizations - the Academy, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whichever other organization is in charge of a particular awards show — do they need to be maybe thinking about different categories or even maybe different criteria for voters to try to walk that line maybe a little bit differently, in terms of movies that a lot of people go to see versus the movies that tend to win these awards?

KUNTZ: It's a very tricky thing. The Academy has obviously tried to tweak things extensively in the last few years, most famously the aborted attempt to add a popular film category that was floated but then pulled back just recently. They were clearly dealing with the situation that you know was flagrantly of course back when Avatar lost to The Hurt Locker, that super popular films don't seem to be getting the awards and therefore maybe the majority of the audience out there isn't going to be paying attention, and the Academy has debated how to address this. And one of the things they proposed was changing the categories or adding a category that doesn't turn out to have worked that successfully, or at least not yet. I'm sure they'll come back at us with more things along those lines. But again it's not so easy. Also remember that these awards shows and the organizations, they're dependent on the films themselves that are released. It's not like they're making the films or creating them, they are just responding to the films that are out there and they can only deal with this pool of movies that were released in 2018, for better or for worse.

BRODIE: So you mentioned that the ratings for these awards shows are going down. I'm wondering if there's something to be said about a potential connection between how people feel about awards shows and maybe how people are watching and using movies more broadly.

KUNTZ: Well maybe there is something to that. Maybe also the fact is maybe the audience itself has become more fragmented in the modern era. And so any attempt to bring that all back together is going to be doomed. On the other hand of course we still do have those Marvel movies that seem to break free and pretty much everyone on the planet and cross one billion dollars, so somebody still has a formula that works out there. But it's a very tricky thing.

BRODIE: Is this a trend that you expect to change anytime soon? I mean do you see a time when there will be a big ratings bump and maybe interest bump in some of these award shows?

KUNTZ: I don't see it getting easier or any better for the Academy. In fact, I mean look at what's already happened this year. This year has already turned into craziness. I mean there isn't even an Oscar host that has been settled on yet because of all the controversies and the fact that nobody really has figured the situation out about what's going on now. So it doesn't look like things are getting particularly better. It will be interesting to see with these Oscars. We do have one super popular money making film, Black Panther, that I think it will be interesting to see how many nominations it gets. This film seems to hit every quadrant, to me. It's super popular but it also has special interests to a lot of folks. And I'll be very interested to see if that gets a Best Picture nomination. If it doesn't, I'm going to despair a little bit about the Academy. Not that I'm necessarily saying it has to win Best Picture. There's some other great films right up there, of course Roma and so on.

BRODIE: Jonathan Kuntz teaches American film history at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and TV. We spoke Monday before the Oscar nominations came out.

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