Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why Do People Watch the Oscars?

In the past few days, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made some headlines by announcing that they've changed the Best Picture process for their annual Oscar awards.

Rather than having five nominees for best picture of the year, they'll now have ten. Apparently that's how they used to do it way back when, and now they're bringing it back.

Why? From what I've read, industry experts suggest that the Academy wants more people to watch the Oscars telecast and that this change is designed to encourage more people to watch.

I'm trying to figure out why that must be true.

A popular argument, and one made below in an excerpt from the NY Times, is that more nominees will then include more popular films that your everyday Joe Sixpack and Hockey Mom will know and love, and THEN they'll watch the ceremonies.

Last year, the academy threw the sticks into the air by hiring the veteran producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon to re-imagine the broadcast and was rewarded with incrementally better ratings. But when those producers were debriefed, they suggested that the problem was not the presentation of the race but the number of horses.

“The Dark Knight” and “Wall-E,” two movies that thrilled critics and audiences alike, did not have the muscle to make their way into the rarefied confines of the final five. It didn’t help matters that “Slumdog Millionaire,” a smallish film that most Americans had not seen or really heard much about to begin with, went out front to stay.

I have two concerns about this theory and the change in general.

- Let's assume that the Academy's assumption is true, and that more people will watch the Oscars when a popular movie is nominated for best picture. I would suggest that this past year was an anomaly in terms of popular movies that also happened to be of significant quality. Yeah, the Dark Knight and Wall-E were really good movies, I enjoyed them both, and wouldn't have minded if they got nominated for best picture (although let's not forget I would have also given the 1985 best picture honors to Death Wish 3, so I'm clearly not the best judge).

However, if the Academy's motivation for expanding the best picture nominees is that popular films will get nominated and therefore attract a bigger audience, I think that's a decision based on an insignificant sample of last year. I went back and looked at the top 10 grossing films from each of the last five years to see how many "high-quality" films were in the bunch. If I really wanted to make it data-driven, I would've gotten their rotten tomatoes scores too, but I figured my opinions alone would be good enough.

Here is a list of the top 10 grossing movies from each of the last five years, you tell me how many you think would be reasonably considered for a best picture nomination:

The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar 2
Quantum of Solace
Dr. Suess' Horton Hears a Who

Spiderman 3
Shrek 3
Pirates of the Caribbean 3
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
I Am Legend
The Bourne Ultimatum
National Treasure 2
Alvin and the Chipmunks

Pirates of the Caribbean 2
Night at the Museum
X-Men 3
The Da Vinci Code
Superman Returns
Happy Feet
Ice Age 2
Casino Royale
The Pursuit of Happyness

Star Wars 3
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
War of the Worlds
King Kong
Wedding Crashers
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Batman Begins
Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Shrek 2
Spiderman 2
The Passion of the Christ
Meet the Fockers
The Incredibles
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The Day After Tomorrow
The Bourne Supremacy
National Treasure
The Polar Express

OK, now you've seen that list. Notice anything other than the crazy number of sequels? How about the fact that, apart from Dark Knight and Wall-E, I would argue NONE of these movies would EVER come close to a best picture nomination, even if the field were extended to 1,000 movies and ended up including most of the hardcore pornography industry. I really liked the Incredibles a lot, I think that would be my most likely (unless you dug the Passion of the Christ, which I obviously never saw)

The point is, even if you expand the field of best picture nominees to 10 from 5, you aren't going to all of a sudden get a bunch of popular titles in there, unless the academy starts nominating things like Wedding Crashers and the Day After Tomorrow, which I doubt.

So that's a reason this thing doesn't make a lot of sense to me. But if you'll remember the beginning of my diatribe, I said I had TWO concerns about the change.

- I honestly don't think a majority of Americans CARE about who wins at the Oscars

I know that might be heresy to the academy, but let's look at their strategic goal. They want as many people as possible to watch the Oscars. Right now, we know that the Oscars attracts a wide swath of people (I think it's still the most watched program for the week whenever it's on). Anyone who really cares about the Oscar winners, like my friend Paul who's memorized the entire list of historical winners and has actually SEEN each one, will obviously be watching the Oscars already.

The move to include more nominees, if it is designed to attract more casual fans, assumes that they actively CARE who wins. But if they do care, I would argue they'd already be watching!

So, since I already said a wide swatch watch, why are these casual people watching?

Some watch as an excuse to party, some watch as an excuse to gamble, and some watch so they can trash celebrity fashion choices, but I would argue the primary benefit to watching the Oscars (because they are NOT objectively entertaining) is based on network effects.

The Oscars do NOT make for compelling television. There are a TON of awards, the scripted banter is always terrible, and the speeches are essentially people reading from scribbled lists of people they need to be sure and thank.

Oh, and if that doesn't excite you, it also goes on for FOUR HOURS!

So why would you watch? Because you think everyone else you know is watching and you want to be able to talk about it with them and laugh about how boring/long/unexciting is was!

The shared experience of watching a program many other people watch makes for much easier conversation during the next week for anyone regardless of whether they want to make small talk with office mates or if they're trying to bang their Starbucks barista.

In my view, that's why people watch, because it creates shared knowledge that enables more conversation and relationship building.

Based on that assumption, the academy doesn't NEED to expand the field of nominees to get more people to watch, it needs to make sure the ceremony is filled with things people WILL talk about. Such changes would increase the number of conversations dedicated to the Oscars, raising the relational benefits derived from watching, and imposing a higher cost on those who choose not to watch (in the form of being left out)

Incidentally, one could argue that the nominee expansion announcement has some of this effect, in that some people are talking about it, but I think that's small potatoes.

So I think we need to increase the network effects of watching, which can be accomplished by increasing the number of discussions about Oscar events, which is something the academy can actively cultivate through a number of initiatives.

First, I would BAN all written acceptance speeches.

Why? Well, for one, that's offensive to me on a personal level. These are professional filmmakers/actors who obviously have dreamed of winning an Oscar since they got off the bus in Hollywood. You're telling me they haven't thought about EXACTLY what they'd say up there? Nonsense. Further, some of the moments I remember from watching Oscar ceremonies, you know, the ones I would talk about, were unscripted.

Like this one, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnCMqr1QRQw

See...makes for much better television than some jerk reading a cocktail napkin for 75 seconds.

Second, I would take the gloves off with regard to making fun of Hollywood. I've read many accounts that the academy has little/no regard for those that would poke fun at the movie industry under the argument that Oscar night is too prestigious or whatever. I would counter that this is the industry that just gave us Transformers 2, relax a little bit and have a gosh darned sense of humor. Get some funny people up there, and while I'm not talking about Artie Lange or someone who'll go completely batsh*t crazy, at least let someone point out how absurd all of the pomp and circumstance really is

Lastly, make things a little more spontaneous and a little less like Operation Overlord. I'd prefer to watch something where I didn't know exactly what was going to happen. Take some chances or something. Stop scripting everything, throw out some free booze to the celebs, turn on the mics and give us something organic.

It could end up being hilarious, or hilariously awkward, but I'm sure everyone would be talking about it the next day.

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