Oscar has a problem, and I say that as a fan. If I could, I’d take one of those famous statuettes by its tiny golden hand, and show it a happy life in the bars, restaurants and movie theatres of its native Hollywood. But, clearly, others don’t feel the same way. The number of people who tuned into the Academy Awards last year was the lowest it has been for eight years. Even the traditional box office boost for victorious movies isn’t necessarily worth as much as it used to be.
Viewing figures and box office receipts are, however, only the visible tip of what is a deeper problem: the Oscars aren’t keeping pace with cinema itself. They’re falling behind at a time when movies – and the ways in which they are funded, made and consumed – are a-changin’.
It was so much simpler when the first Academy Awards ceremony took place in the faux-Spanish ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel, on 16 May 1929. Back then, the American film industry was a definable thing. It was, basically, a group of Hollywood pros making feature-length fictions that would then be screened theatrically for paying audiences. If you wanted to start handing out awards, as Louis B. Mayer did at the time, then you knew which backlots to visit.
It’s not the same nowadays. One of this year’s nominees for the Best Documentary Feature award, 13th, is a good example of how the old ways are subsiding, and have been for years. It was produced not by a Warner Bros. or a Paramount or a Twentieth Century Fox, but by a bunch of Silicon Valley geeks known collectively as Netflix. You’ve probably heard of them. Netflix, of course, makes films and series to be beamed directly to our televisions, but 13th had to have a limited