2019 Academy Awards: Oscar bosses have lost sight of reason for the show

The 91st-annual Academy Awards ceremony will be telecast at 7 p.m. Sunday on ABC-TV. Interviews and conversations about fashion commence 90 minutes earlier on ABC and fill most afternoon hours Sunday on cable’s E network.

Yet both the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences (MPAAS), and ABC, are, more than ever, concerned with advertising profits.

Specifically, will viewership Sunday be adversely affected by the 2018 Oscars snooze-fest that lasted almost four hours before “The Shape of Water” was named Best Picture?

ABC already is contracted to telecast the annual Oscars ceremony through 2028. Network officials want a three-hour running time. Last year’s ratings were more frightening than the best horror flicks.

Loss of viewers cannot be blamed solely on program length. On the other hand, these numbers don’t lie. The 2018 Oscars broadcast averaged 26.6 million viewers, according to the Nielsen live-plus-same-day reports. That only sounds like a lot of movie fans.

The 26.6 million represents a 19 percent overall decline from 2017’s Oscars, when the show ended with a dramatic Envelope-Gate and the wrong title proclaimed victorious. The same number represents a 39 percent drop from a recent high figure in 2014, according to variety.com.

Viewership by fans between ages 18 and 49 dropped 24 percent from the previous year and 47 percent from 2014 – and ratings for even younger fans age 18 to 34 decreased 29 percent from 2017 and 56 percent from 2014. Yikes.

No wonder producers were in panic mode. Some nutty decisions followed.

No wonder producers were in panic mode. Some nutty decisions followed.

I have not witnessed movie fans bail on the Oscars because they disagreed with who won. Instead, when watching with guests, my family passed out Styrofoam “bricks,” urging friends to let them fly toward the television screen if upset. I recall tossing harmless “bricks” when “Gandhi” won over “E.T. the Extraterrestrial.” Only recently have viewers mentioned pacing or length.

The Oscars ceremony became less entertaining because producers and writers, finding a need for laughs between awards, drifted away from their much larger, traditional focus group.

Who is the primary audience? Film fans.

And film fans would rather see more clips than watch stars in the audience parade into a nearby movie theater and pass out candy.

Also not helping: Filmmakers making jokes and speeches about political preferences and Best Song nominees choreographed as overblown song-and-dance spectacles.

If only those timing speeches could recognize when winners speak from the heart and how that differs from thanking everyone in their posse. The former deserves some leniency in the 90-second rule. That might work better than 2018 host Jimmy Kimmel playing “The Price is Right,” offering a jet ski to the winner giving the shortest acceptance speech.

An Academy Award is the pinnacle of success for those in the film industry.  Winners deserve some time to shine.

Consider cinematographer Roger Deakins, a perennial bridesmaid, winning his first gold statue last year. Consider possible history on Sunday, should actress Glenn Close win her first Oscar on her seventh nomination.  A production designer who is both female and black (Hannah Beachler for “Black Panther”) is nominated; that’s never happened before. Spike Lee, one of this generation’s great filmmakers, never has been handed an Oscar. Could it happen Sunday? Lee is nominated three times (producer, director and co-writer) for “BlackKKlansman.”

Fans want to know their stories.

Fans want to know their stories.

It is the Academy Awards, not the Academy Variety Show.  Why should length be emphasized more than achievements?

It has become impossible to keep politics off the Oscar stage. The occasional winner, or presenter, will want to help viewers decide which way to vote.

Mind you, the academy has made strides when asked to look in the mirror, thanks to hashtag campaigns ranging from #OscarsSoWhite to #MeToo.

Consider, also, some of the ways Academy officials hoped to boost ratings, attract more and younger viewers, or shorten running time.

  • First, the Academy announced an undefined, new category: Most Popular Film. Most assumed the category was meant to draw attention to movies that make the most money. Not only was this a tasteless idea, but the reason that the maximum number of Best Picture nominees was raised from five to 10 was to make room for commercial success stories.

Good luck figuring out Oscar’s current “preferential ballot,” which never has seen 10 films nominated. Meanwhile, popular films already have Best Picture nominations. “Black Panther” has earned more than a billion dollars, and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Green Book” and “A Star is Born” are blockbusters. This idea was scrapped.

  • Sunday’s Oscar ceremony is the first in 30 years without a host, thanks to entertainer Kevin Hart leaving the motion picture academy’s take-it-or-leave-it demand to issue another apology for past transgressions. Why worry? Well, the last time the Oscars had no host, one of the longer-lasting memories became Rob Lowe dancing with Snow White.
  • In case you didn’t know, Best Song is the easiest category to predict this year. After all, producers initially approved the performance of only one nominated song: “Shallow,” from “A Star is Born,” music and lyrics by Lady Gaga and three co-writers. Lady Gaga is the one who nipped this in the bud. She refused to perform unless all five Best Song nominees were heard. New rule: shortened performances of each nominated song.
  • Only recently was it confirmed that winners in the four Best Actor categories will be introduced by the previous year’s winners. Tradition, at last, won out.
  • That was just before the academy decided winners in four categories would be announced off stage during commercial breaks. Winners’ statements would be edited for brevity, and shown near the end of the telecast. The television audience would not see Oscars presented live for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Live Action Short and Best Makeup & Hairstyling.

Movie fans and Oscar purists were appalled.

Movie fans and Oscar purists were appalled. Happily, so was the membership of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences.

When names ranging from Martin Scorsese to Spike Lee were attached to a letter of protest, academy leaders flipflopped, Winners in all 24 Oscar categories again will be televised live.

So it’s likely Sunday’s ceremony will again pass the three-hour mark. But will it be entertaining?

It is a safe bet that those in charge already are discussing possible hosts for the 2020 Academy Awards. Meanwhile, eyes this year are on both the winners and the ratings.