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Q&A: How Streaming, COVID and Ratings Have Affected the Oscars

By Jonah Grinkewitz

Another year, another debate about interest in the Oscars.

Myles McNutt, an assistant professor of communication and theatre arts at ODU and a TV critic, has kept an eye on the ongoing conversation about the relevance of the awards ceremony.

ODU News caught up with him about the factors influencing this year's awards ceremony, and he even shared some predictions.

ODU News: This is the second year the Oscars are being held during a pandemic. How has COVID affected the awards ceremony and the types of films being nominated?

McNutt: To a certain degree, this was a more normal year - more box-office releases, more box-office hits - and yet what stands out to me is that by mid-March you can stream most Best Picture nominees at home.

For a long period of time there was a disconnect between the Oscars as they were experienced by hard-core film buffs and more casual filmgoers. This year, by comparison, it feels like these movies have been widely accessible, whether initially on platforms like Netflix and Apple TV+ or eventually faster than ever before on platforms like Disney+ or HBO Max (where subscribers can watch half the Best Picture nominees). It's safe to say that COVID very much hastened this move toward streaming, which was already happening across the industry.

ODU News: Since many of the nominated films are available to stream, do you think there is more interest in the Oscars this year?

McNutt: The Oscars are a fundamental paradox. More people have access to the nominated films than ever before, yet it is another year of panic from the academy and from ABC, which broadcasts the awards, over the fact that ratings are falling because normal people don't care about the Oscars.

This panic has the Oscars bending over backwards, introducing a Twitter campaign for an "Oscar Fan Favorite" and an "Oscar Cheer Moment" in an effort for people to get movies into these categories that aren't Oscar-nominated.

They also announced that they will pre-record the acceptance speeches for eight of the awards to try and free up time in the broadcast for things that are not the awards.

They're trying to say the Oscars are for normal people, too, yet these movies have been in front of more and more normal people than ever before. However, they don't trust that to be enough to get people's attention and are alienating filmmakers like Steven Spielberg in the process.

ODU News: Would it be better for the academy to just lean into making the Oscars a niche event and stop trying to appeal to everyone? I mean, this is a movie awards ceremony, after all.

McNutt: Until recently, the Oscars were a huge ratings draw, but as more entertainment options emerge, people who were watching without being invested in the awards themselves have other things to choose from. Except for football, all linear broadcast ratings are down. This is not an Oscars-specific problem; it's happening with all awards shows.

Logically, the thing to do would be to acknowledge who is watching and make this a niche event. But the academy's entire financial stability depends on the money ABC is spending for the rights to broadcast the awards ceremony. Which means the broadcast needs to appeal to a broad spectrum of people. Which means "Oscar Fan Favorite."

Until someone else - maybe a streaming service - steps in and says, "We're going to take the Oscars and let them be what they are," they are going to be trapped by ABC's belief something can be done to get the "normal people" back.

ODU News: With all these factors, do you think winning an Academy Award means as much today as it did in the past?

McNutt: I would argue the Oscars are more important industrially than ever before. Netflix is still searching for that Best Picture Oscar that asserts they are in the upper echelon of filmmaking despite being a streaming service. Meanwhile, the legacy studios and independent studios are fighting back against this. Awards shows might be dying, but the awards themselves are more critical than ever.

An Oscar will continue to remain a big deal because the context they exist in will always find new and old forces jockeying for position, and the innate desire to one-up your competition. The easiest way to do that in film is with a little gold dude you can shove in your opponent's face.

ODU News: How diverse are the Oscar nominations this year?

McNutt: This is not the least diverse or the most diverse set of nominees, but we continue to see progress. For instance, there were three international films - "The Worst Person in the World," "Drive My Car" and "Flee" - that ended up getting nominations across categories that those types of films normally don't, such as Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. That's the one place that there actually has been a significant shift in this year's nominations, which speaks to efforts by the academy to globalize their membership.

ODU News: We must end with a couple of predictions: What is one guaranteed winner and one nominee who should win, but won't?

McNutt: I am confident that Jane Campion is going to win best director for "The Power of the Dog." It's a striking visual piece and she certainly has a lot of respect in the industry.

In the supporting actress category, Kirsten Dunst has been historically underrated throughout her career and she was fantastic in "The Power of the Dog." But then there is Ariana DeBose in "West Side Story" playing Anita. It's a role that has won an Oscar before for Rita Moreno, and DeBose is fantastic in a film that was criminally overlooked in theaters (but is now streaming on both Disney+ and HBO Max). I really can't pick between those two and I'm going to feel sad for whoever doesn't win.


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