Academy Awards 2021: In a year of streaming, the Oscars should go with the flow

Therein lies the challenge for the producers of this year’s awards, after a stretch that has already seen the Emmys and Golden Globes sink to record-low ratings. It has left producers of the ceremony in what looks like a difficult bind — with no theatrical blockbusters to help drive interest in the ceremony — but also with an opportunity, if they embrace the freedom that should come with diminished viewership expectations and having little to lose.

In the past, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the awards, has collectively exhibited mixed feelings about Netflix’s role in the movie industry’s marquee event, unable to clearly decide if streaming was friend or foe. The effects of the pandemic — and the related shift toward home viewing — essentially pushed the Academy into Netflix’s waiting arms.

All told, the service amassed a best-ever 35 nominations, more than any other single entity. That included two of the eight best picture nominees, a pair of historical dramas in “Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and six of the 20 acting bids.

Netflix, of course, wasn’t alone, with streamers like Amazon (with a dozen total), Hulu and Disney+ all leaving their mark on the roster of contenders. In some instances, that recognition came for movies that were redirected from planned theatrical release to streaming, such as Hulu’s “Nomadland” and Disney+’s “Soul” and “Mulan.”

What that means for the Oscars in practical terms is unclear. Ratings for the awards have been trending downward due to a host of factors, but the off-a-cliff decline for the Golden Globes has only fed the sense that the appetite for such events has been greatly diminished by a year that shut movie theaters and blunted the celebratory aspects of live events.
The Emmys, notably, charted a path for handing out awards despite coronavirus restrictions, a formula that the Globes largely botched. The Grammys recaptured some of the live experience with their performance-oriented ceremony on Sunday night.
The Oscars have also outlined plans for a more in-person format, but even with the awards delayed until late April, the kind of massive gathering staged in the past won’t be possible. And while viewers can access most nominees online, the fragmentation of the audience — and diminished rooting interest that comes with it — has been exacerbated by everything that has transpired since “Parasite” made history at the 2020 Oscars, in what feels like much longer than 13 months ago.

Award shows, of course, exist for multiple reasons, which in their highest calling involves celebrating and encouraging admirable work. But they are also commercial endeavors, with practical implications built around getting people to watch, and broadcast fees that support the organizations behind them.

The Grammys seemingly found a sweet spot, creatively speaking, in a more intimate ceremony that still showcased the nominees, which could point the way in terms of a workable model. But if the Academy and host network ABC haven’t already resigned themselves to disappointing numbers even relative to even last year’s record-low Oscars, perhaps they should. (Ratings for the Grammys declined about 53% between 2020 and 2021.)

In a year where the Oscars have become mostly about streaming, there’s not much left to do but go with the flow.

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