Are these the Oscars from hell?
In the runup to Sunday night’s ceremony on ABC, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has weathered a string of controversies that have alienated everyone from the Screen Actors Guild to makeup artists to Allison Janney.
As producers of this year’s show struggle to reverse a 40% decline in ratings over the last five years—and rejuvenate a telecast many see as moribund—they’ve proved the adage that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. From Kevin Hart’s hiring, firing, and then possible rehiring as host to the abrupt about-face on last week’s announcement that four category winners will be announced during commercial breaks, the Oscar producers have found themselves addressing myriad controversies weeks before any winner is revealed.
ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke subscribes to the theory that bad buzz is better than no buzz at all. “I, ironically, have found that the lack of clarity around the Oscars has kept the Oscars really in the conversation and that the mystery has been really compelling,” Ms. Burke said at a news briefing this month. ABC largely plays a spectator role when it comes to producing the Oscars but the network has pressured the Academy to shorten the show to three hours.
“Our mission is to promote these movies and this art form to the widest possible audience. We have a 91-year history of evolving to meet that goal—and discussions about how to keep the show relevant are ongoing,” an Academy spokeswoman said.
Telecast producers are striving to satisfy two constituents: a network that wants to reverse a dramatic ratings decline and Academy members or die-hard fans who view such changes as antithetical to Oscar tradition.
To shorten the show, which in some years has run more than four hours, the producers are focusing on a practical sticking point: How much time winners take to reach the stage.
At an annual lunch in Beverly Hills where nominees pose for a “class photo” and get marching orders on matters such as keeping acceptance speeches succinct, the telecast’s producers stopped just short of asking winners to wear sneakers and sprint from their seats to the podium.
“Move quickly!” Academy President John Bailey beseeched the nominees. “Show us how eager you are to get up there.”
To say the Oscar telecast is in a ratings slump would be an understatement. Last year’s broadcast averaged a record low 26.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen. The show’s ratings have plummeted from the 1990s, when about 45 million tuned in. This year, Walt Disney Co.’s ABC is paying more than $75 million for the rights to the telecast, about the same as last year, a person familiar with the pact said.
Last week, the Academy took just a few days to reverse a plan to announce four of its 24 winners during commercial breaks, then air just the acceptance speeches later during the ceremony. The categories that would have lost their moment on live TV: cinematography, editing, live-action short film and makeup and hairstyling. Blowback was swift.
“Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of our craft,” last year’s best director winner, Guillermo del Toro, wrote in a tweet following the announcement. “They … are cinema itself.” Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese urged the Academy to reverse course, in a public letter calling the commercial-break plan “nothing less than an insult.”
In announcing the reversal, the organization’s board of governors said, “The Academy has heard the feedback from its membership.”
In another bid for wider appeal, the Academy initially asked Dwayne Johnson to host, according to a person familiar with the matter. After he declined, the Academy in December hired Mr. Hart, only to fire him two days later over homophobic tweets and jokes he had made.
With no replacement for Mr. Hart, Sunday’s ceremony will be the first hostless Oscars since 1989, when the show notoriously opened with Rob Lowe performing a duet with an unknown actress dressed as Snow White. Audiences were flummoxed by the performance and the ensuing ceremony often is cited as memorable—for all the wrong reasons.
Six months ago, in a bid to pull in more viewers, the Academy announced a “best popular film” award. The announcement came with few details, including what constituted a “popular” film and how that would differ from best picture. A month later the plan was scrapped. The Academy ended up nominating hugely popular movies anyway: the blockbusters “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born” are all up for best picture.
Over the past month, nearly every Academy decision about the Oscars was rejected and ultimately reversed. The Academy began enforcing rules on how many other awards shows presenters may participate in before the Oscars. If Jennifer Lawrence or Chadwick Boseman haven’t been on television much lately, the thinking went, viewers may tune to the Oscars to see them.
The Screen Actors Guild criticized the Academy last month over the rules, assailing what it called the organization’s “graceless pressure tactics and attempts to control the awards show talent pipeline.” The dispute remains unresolved.
Ten days later, Hollywood trade magazines reported that in a departure from tradition, only two of the five nominated songs would be performed during the ceremony. After fan outcry, the producers reversed course a week later and said all five songs would be sung.
Less than a week after that, it was revealed that the producers weren’t planning to have last year’s winners hand out prizes this year. The reasons behind the decision, which ran counter to yet another tradition, weren’t clear.
“It breaks my heart,” Ms. Janney, a winner last year for “I, Tonya,” wrote on Instagram. Within days, the producers reversed course again and added back winners from the prior year.
Despite the decline in viewers, the price to advertise during the Oscars continues to rise. Last year, the average 30-second spot in the broadcast went for more than $2.1 million, according to advertising-tracking firm Kantar Media, an increase of 10% from the previous year and up 20% from five years ago. This year, the price of the average spot went up single digits and some commercials went for as much as $2.6 million, a person familiar with the matter said.
“We continue to see an increase in rates,” said Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising Sales. Ms. Ferro said 16 companies created commercials specifically for the Oscars, 12 of which celebrate the entertainment industry.
This year ABC is taking the unusual step of premiering a series—the spy thriller “Whiskey Cavalier”—after the Oscars, making the three-hour deadline all the more important.
ABC’s current deal with the Academy runs through 2028—and when it comes to controversy, there appears to be a sequel in the making. Mr. Bailey, the Academy president, said he still supports reviving the most-popular movie award, suggesting it could return under a different name. “General” or “wide-release” were two terms he threw out. “Categories have long been in flux,” he said. “People seem to act like they’re written in stone.”