Growing up, the Oscars were a major event in my house. My father, a TV and film junkie, never missed a single, glitzy broadcast. I came of pop-culture age during a four-year stretch (’90-’93) when Billy Crystal hosted four consecutive ceremonies, and you could always count on him to enter the stage in tongue-in-cheek style—on horseback, say, or dressed as Hannibal Lecter.
At age 10, I didn’t read newspapers or entertainment magazines (lazy, I know), and the Internet didn’t exist (at least, not in any popular form). But the Oscars were still a Very Big Deal, the television equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner, everyone gorging on tassels and tuxes and impossible glamour until they felt sick.
It’s become much more of an industry now, with competing red-carpet specials, 360-degree ShoeCams and round-the-clock coverage so absurdly speculative that it starts before the Moët from the current year’s after-parties has gone flat. Amid the hubbub, ABC must continue to court ratings to justify the price of putting on the show. It’s resulted in flashy moves, such as the pairing of last year’s beautiful yet woefully unqualified co-hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway (even Paul Hogan, a.k.a. Crocodile Dundee, was paired with seasoned comics Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn for his 1987 hosting gig).
But the media attention and overeager gimmicks seem to only render the Academy Awards inert. Why sit for the full-length show when you can just glance at your Facebook wall to find out who won in real time, and watch the highlights on YouTube by midnight? Why bother with an Oscar pool when the nominees have already been handicapped by casino sportsbooks? Why suffer through tepid jokes from someone who (ahem, Franco) appears to be stoned? Hell, even Kodak is distancing itself from the production, breaking its naming contract with the Hollywood theater that’s hosted the ceremony for the past 10 years.
Three major hurdles face today’s jaded, BlackBerry-thumbed Oscar audience: soporific length, out-of-touch content and the expanded awards-show market, which, in an ironic twist, threatens the supremacy of the very ceremony that spawned it.
The issue of run time has been moaned about for decades, but Twitter really puts things into perspective. In a world that eschews any thoughts expressed in more than 140 characters, the bloated Oscar proceedings challenge even those of us who don’t land on the ADHD spectrum. The Academy claims it’s trying to make the show shorter (and, yes, last year’s ceremony, clocking in at 3 hours and 17 minutes, was the leanest—by mere minutes—since 2005), but for every step forward there are inevitably two steps back. A tedious technical category is excised only to have 10 Best Picture nominees (nine this year), each with its own five-minute “introduction” (read: trailer). The “Who Died Last Year?” montage speeds up, but an inexplicable autotune mashup of the Twilight and Harry Potter movies makes it on the air. In an attempt to deliver a spectacle, new and “improved” features are frantically added, an exercise that proves as helpful as lobbing anchors onto the Titanic.
Speaking of 1912, many of the show’s features seem stuck in that era. I appreciate tradition, but is it really necessary to trot out the Pricewaterhouse Coopers agents clutching their briefcase full of ballots? Or the president of the Academy, who unfailingly launches the clicks of a million mute buttons? Celebrities are the reason most viewers tune in, and the reason that Oscar producers stuff as many A-list names onto the presenters list as humanly possible (in fact, shots of actresses traversing the stage in stilettos probably eats up 30 minutes of air time).
But to keep the show on schedule, stars are limited to a few minutes of canned banter. And because of their suffocating entourages of agents, managers and publicists, many winners spend their precious mic-time thanking their “team” instead of saying anything meaningful. The death of improvisation increasingly acts as a dam to those coveted watercooler moments: 73-year-old Jack Palance dropping to the floor for one-armed push-ups in ’92; Roberto Benigni (bless those foreigners) virtually crowd-surfing to the stage in ’98; Adrien Brody planting a wet one on a gobsmacked Halle Berry in ’03.
The Oscars suffer most from the encroachment of festivals and awards shows that now beat them to the punch. For example, the Sundance Film Festival, which identifies Oscar contenders in the zygote stage, takes place at the end of January, generating buzz for next year’s nominees before this year’s crop has even picked out who they’re wearing. And the Golden Globes—that boozy bacchanal celebrating the bizarre predilections of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—now air about six weeks before the Oscars, and are widely considered to be among the best predictors of who’ll take home the svelte gold statuette.
How can producers reinvigorate the foundering franchise? Short of live-streaming the proceedings, chopping a quarter of the categories (sorry, Sound Editing) and getting the talent drunk, the cobwebs aren’t likely to clear. But a few things about this year do inspire optimism. There are only two original songs nominated, which should cut down on the ill-advised dance routines. Host Eddie Murphy stepped aside in November, allowing for Billy Crystal’s triumphant return as ringmaster for the first time since 2004 (I’m betting on a silent entrance in a hat-tip to Best Picture frontrunner The Artist). And the top races promise to be thrillingly close: Meryl Streep vs. Viola Davis, Pitt vs. Clooney, The Artist’s underdog foreign film vs. The Help’s big racist book adaptation.
Regardless of how things play out on Sunday, by the time the 84th annual Academy Awards at the No-Longer-Kodak-Theatre is over, we’ll probably be hard-pressed to remember them. Our pop-culture metabolism is too fast, and our appetite too large, to pick over the bones. The #oscars hashtag will peter out on Twitter. The recording will be purged from DVRs. And somewhere, the network honchos will cluck over the ratings, promising that next year, things will be different.