MCN Commentary & Analysis

The Little *Oscar Show That Couldn’t

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, ‘If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.'”

“Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”

Steven Soderbergh is an iconoclast. Has been one from the start.

The ideas that drove the Incredibly Bad Oscar Show™ are not new to Soderbergh. He clearly believes in turning the Oscars back into an industry cocktail party (last seen 50 years or so ago). And I, for one, don’t disagree.

But there are issues that need to be accounted for. Like The Independent Spirit Awards have been doing this schtick for 20 years and can’t find an audience as big as a M*A*S*H rerun. Like The Golden Globes – a made-up organization of people who are not part of the industry and are funded to the point on absurdity – have been doing this schtick in tuxedos on a major network for a couple decades and are purely a marketing tool which can’t compare to Oscar in TV ratings.

How does one overcome what fails for those shows?

Steven Soderbergh, the biggest brain in the big-brain party, rarely seems to ask those questions. He barrels into whatever he does with passion and artistic intent and often manages to overcome expectations and blockages with his skill and passion.

Except when he doesn’t.

Last night was “doesn’t.” Writ large.

He had additional burdens that he seemed comfortable overlooking. The only reason this format shift and Soderbergh were a real option is that The Academy decided last year that it needed the money more than it needed to protect its brand or The Industry and tried to outrun COVID. Technically, it almost got there. The June *Oscars would have been 90% of the way there.

One has to forgive Soderbergh for this from the get-go. Not his fault. He couldn’t fix it. He needed to work around it and did. Not easy. And as we have seen in award show after award show, there are no quick fixes. The one successfully produced award so, The Grammys, did a lot of pre-tape and was mostly a performance show with some awards interrupting.

What we can blame Soderbergh for is the epic-fail choice to make *Oscar a non-performance show. The show suddenly and randomly would offer a few clips. But mostly, not even images from the movies.

It is true that seeing the same clip packages all award season, in normal years, can become painfully repetitive. But we didn’t have that issue this season. And Soderbergh could have picked unexpected clips. But to be crass about it, even the most movie-love movie lovers need a little foreplay, damn it.

The not-final award, Best Picture, gave the 8 nominees a whole 30 seconds of a clip to wrap up their brilliance. Four minutes. Not enough. Or maybe too much… they could have spent some of those four minutes finding the oldest man in the room to twerk. Ha ha! Genius!

Soderbergh took an inside-baseball show and turned it into Bubble, a show examining the making of the hardball inside the baseball and the people who manufacture it.

But the truth is, it didn’t work as that either. The one element that was universally loved, it seems, was that winners got their time to speak. I love that, too. But what the hell were they on about? There was so little context, like it was the world’s job to provide its own context.

Some on Twitter insisted that the audience should be doing its homework. In not, just don’t watch. They heard that in droves. Under 10 million viewers in the 18-49 demo. I am interested in the audience size by the half hour.

And who were the *Oscar winners speaking to? Literally, as well as spiritually. Because there was no camera set for the show that captured the winners speaking to the middle of the room, where one after another after another got up and spoke to the room like they would any normal proscenium arch theater… and were shot exclusively from the side (or what would be a “B” camera on interviews). It’s not like there was a cinematic reason or alternative for this. They had the “A” camera for speeches off to a side, like you couldn’t get orchestra seats to see the show.

Having done a few thousand talent interviews on camera, focused on the work, I have some insight into the disaster of “Joe Nominee found their love for movies by sneaking into the living room” for every person and then groups, etc. I can tell you the story from, say, Luc Besson, about identifying with the lost child in The Jungle Book and wishing he could be raised by animals… but if you want to feel weepy, you need to watch Luc Besson tell the story. (Of course, you may not be willing to hear from Luc Besson in 2021 and that is a different problem.)

Hundreds of tweets said it. “Show, don’t tell.” Soderbergh knows this as well as anyone alive. My real thought on this is that they did all those interviews with every nominee with a long list of questions and when they cut them together, they were just too bulky or Zoom-y or whatever to use on the show. So they threw them into the pre-show with all the other not-garbage garbage that they didn’t feel fit the show. I can attest, cutting a spontaneous emotional thought and a factual answer into five seconds or ten seconds or even thirty seconds can be hard. This is why I don’t do it. And I know, directly from Soderbergh, that it is why he stopped doing short-form interviews.

What will people remember from this year’s *Oscars, aside from the missteps? Three women of advanced years delivering their well-loved personalities at full force. Thomas Vinterberg exposing his deepest pain. Tyler Perry being all mensch. Daniel Kaluuya on Parental Sex.

THAT is what Oscar is about. The rest of it is just how you get there.

Soderbergh knows this… and knew this. And he tried to deliver the experience he would prefer for the evening were he nominated again. Less tension. More familiarity. Respectful presentation. I get it.

But here is the problem. The Oscars is a three-hour entertainment show. It is not a Freshman class on film. It is not a show for people who have been obsessing on Oscars all season and “know” everything. It is an evening of celebrating highly successful, mostly entitled people for doing great work in the framework of an art form that is incredibly expensive even when it is cheap.

Criticizing is much easier than doing. Guilty. But there are some basics that were just plain missing in Soderbergh’s approach. And this is not a “should have done this or that.” I’m trying to stick to bigger ideas, to be executed by an artist like Steven in a greater way than I am capable of delivering (or I’d be directing).

Opening 30 minutes. Imagine it all works to perfection. Let’s say that the Jackie Brown opening with Regina King (let’s not start on the connected Cadillac ad) works just the way you imagined it. Okay. After 30 minutes, what have you delivered to your audience?

Ms. King hijacks the opening to talk about George Floyd, securing the lead slot on Hannity and Fucker Carlson tonight. Not trying to silence Regina King, but that is Hour 2 stuff. You don’t open the show on a soapbox.

Then, “the movies helped us get through” is just a line that no one believes. People watched a lot of bloody TV… and if some of the shows called themselves “movies,” cool.

Then the show had a little self-promotion. Then “think of this as a movie set.” Real people have never worked on a movie set. What about showing footage from a real movie set working under those conditions. Show, don’t tell.

Then an unclear entry into the writing nominees. Is this an award giving out or are we just telling stories? Perhaps the individual stories were better for people outside the industry, as anyone who knows how things work know full well that the journey of these writers were all a million times more complex than the facts thrown at them.

We are dragged into the work of writers – putting words in actors’ mouths – without a single example of the great writing of these nominees. If the audience is 10 million, less than 10% have seen Promising Young Woman. What is it about? What is interesting about it? What is magical about the words?

Unknown, unless you are one of the in-crowd.

Then we get Laura Dern, who everyone loves, going on about her own journey to being interested in film. But the audience didn’t tune in to hear about Laura Dern’s journey. Foreign language gets clips… but the first two have no words. When we get words from Collectiv, a pivotal moment, but no context for what the film is. Then back to no words. Then an English beat from Quo Vadis, Aida?. Could we get less hip than avoiding subtitles? We are bailed out by a powerful speech by Thomas Vinterberg.

Dern, a princess of Hollywood by birth, is then given the task of telling three black men, one deaf man, and Sacha Baron Cohen how great they are and how much they have overcome. All the good intentions an thesauruses here can’t make it feel any less patronizing and repetitive and awkward. (There is a reason that Bill Condon had one actor honor one other actor, not one honoring five in depth.)

Thank goodness for Daniel Kaluuya and his long speech that ended up with his parents having sex.

The half hour closed with Ariana DeBose doing an infomercial for West Side Story that, I can only assume, was paid from one pocket to the other by Disney.

What is this show? What is the audience supposed to be getting? Two good speeches… amongst the best of the night. But the only movie that got highlighted was West Side Story, due in eight months from Dead Fox via Disney… because, irony of ironies… they showed footage. (They later did a promo with Rita Moreno giving out Best Picture. Really?)

Is any audience member who had not already seen Judas & The Black Messiah – now available only in theaters ($38,000 on 714 screens this weekend, fewer than two tickets= per theater) and $19.99 VOD rental – going to pay to watch the film now or will people just appreciate how cool Daniel Kaluuya is? Will anyone know what Promising Young Woman is… enough to rent or buy it or see it in a theater (744 screens, $70,000 last weekend… fewer than 4 people per screen each day)? The two films, combined, have been seen by around a million people in America since they opened a few months ago.

There are moments that I loved in the show. Some were combinations of hit and miss, like Bong Joon-Ho’s Director presentation. Did they shoot the interviews with the five directors? Couldn’t they have at least done audio under the slide show for each director, explaining what making a movie is like? The idea was good. The international element was good. Bong is great. But the execution undercut the moment.

There was a lot of that. Some was excusable because of the pandemic.

But a lot of it just felt like confusing storytelling.

And the elephant in the room? The show and pre-show going way out of its way to prioritize inclusion over all else. To feel that the valuable effort to be highly conscious of inclusion – particularly being cautious about exclusion – is not the purpose of the Oscar show is not an effort to dismiss inclusion.

But the only white male with a speaking part in this “movie” in the first two hours was Bryan Cranston, speaking from off location about a special award. Brad Pitt was the second white male invited to the ball… but he had produced the film that won the category. Harrison Ford came on (stoned out of his gourd) to do a bit about bad notes on Blade Runner that has been on the internet for years. Last year’s Best Actor winner, Joaquin Phoenix, gave out Best Actor.

I know that White Men have dominated the Oscars for a long time… but 4 white male voices in a three-hour-twenty-minute show? This can’t be a coincidence, can it? Is turnabout fair play?

No one is suffering this morning for not having been a presentor in this year’s *Oscar show. It’s not about needing more representation of white men. The last hour looked like most other Oscar shows in history. But the choices felt way too chewed over, starting with the pre-show, which was hosted by a comedian who didn’t know what he was doing except being cool and charming and an actress in (shocker!) West Side Story and had absolutely no interviewing skills besides being charming and sassy and snappy. Is there a message? What is the message?

As with so many things in show business, talented people being on camera has always got benefits. And the show had some moments. But overall… not a disaster so much as a giant mess of ideas that didn’t work out and an uninspiring flatness.

And I am not even getting into flipping Best Picture and Actor/Actress. What in the religious epithet of a mutha-curse was that all about? Even if the assumption was that the show would end on a win by two people of color, particularly Chadwick Boseman, the actually ending would have been a (understandably) tearful speech by Boseman’s widow. Is that a great closer?

Instead, we got a winning Actor home, asleep, in Wales, and a sign-off from Questlove, which is the kind of sloppiness – however wonderful Questlove and his upcoming release are – is the kind of thing that gets people fired.

And finally, the core problem was not addressed and not resolved. Almost no one saw any of these movies in a theater or built a relationship with the films the way one does when people (and voters) see them in a theater.

While so many smart people are just removing their undergarments and staring at the ceiling while thinking of the Queen, throwing away theatrical because of the latest paradigm shift in television… the TV does not replace the theatrical experience. Not financially, not in spirit, and not in how people process content.

Audiences value what they are invested in more than that which they flip on and put on hold whenever there is a noise in the house or an urge to pee. I do not denigrate the TV experience. I love it. I have always loved it. But it is not the same as seeing a movie in a theater. That is why people overpay to go to the movies.

We have more content available at a lower price than ever before in the history of mankind. 24/7, on demand, in the privacy and comfort of our own homes. We are drowning in content. Notoriously content xenophobic Americans have been watching TV from other countries on streamers in record numbers for months now. All of this is fantastic. Truly. No irony.

But what differentiates the Oscars from everything else… why it is remained the big dog in a clearly narrowing awards business… why people watch… is that movies are a greater commitment and a communal experience.

Oscar is about inviting the world to the movie party… those who have seen every film and those who have seen none.

I adore Soderbergh and his work. But he missed here. It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last.

The sting of last night will go away quickly. But if The Academy doesn’t reaffirm and embrace its brand, the muscular, powerful, highly rated Oscar show will not exist after this ABC contract is done. It won’t die. The brand will be valued. But for TV, it will become an insider’s equivalent of The People’s Choice Awards. And that is a win for no one.

14 Responses to “The Little *Oscar Show That Couldn’t”

  1. Nick Arden says:

    I think all the winners deserved their awards but if you keep going on and on about inclusion people (very few of whom saw any of these movies) will begin to wonder if that is the only reason they are getting the awards.

    The big problem is this. If you would have said 5 years ago that there would be an entire year coming up when virtually nobody in the USA would be able to see a film shown in a movie theater people would have gone out of their minds. The op/eds and think pieces about what all this means would have lit up the internet. Well, it just happened and nobody really cared. That is the problem Hollywood and the Oscars need to think about.

  2. Manliano says:

    Nick Arden, I can assure you from deep within my soul, I cared. And I still care.

  3. Bob Burns says:

    Good commentary, David. No argument with any of it. I would add….

    The small ceremony was just about the right size to honor a group of small movies. very, very good small movies.

    Actor driven dramas have strangled the Oscars. Hollywood is honoring a small, elite, part of its output. The films it honors can be, and are, made, and made well, in large numbers in many different countries everywhere in the world. Not to mention that drama shows up quite well on TV, in a wide variety of formats.

    Next year these little films will be given massive publicity campaigns that puff them up, and maybe help them build up a box office of up to eight or nine figures… a hobby that pays for itself, more, or less.

    I don’t expect change. The Academy and its voters, are consistently self-destructive.

    Regarding politics. Film is political. All film. Get over it.

  4. Bill Morton says:

    Mr. Burns, you have motivated me to comment here for the first time. I couldn’t agree with you more! I saw every film nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and all the Acting awards. And they are, indeed, made well and also, for the most part, elite. I’m sorry – NOMADLAND is a marvel at subtle, elegant film making and I think the Independent Spirit Awards is a perfect place to honor it. And that is a perfect place to honor a brilliant actress excelling at staring at the countryside and at real people and feeling heartfelt but not particularly challenging emotions. For me rewarding an actress for doing something she could do while half asleep is not appropriate for the “OSCARS”. Where are the big, grand, complex, thrilling movies? Where are the sweeping films that do engage the majority of the American audience and motivate them to go to the theatres? I’m absolutely in favor of small, elegant, elite films being made and I’m all for acknowledging them in an appropriate arena, but if we want the Oscars to return to the exciting, elevated place they once held in the minds (and hearts) of the movie going public – we must recognize and acknowledge the excellence in not such elite films. It’s like the members of the Academy want to be seen as the high brow, elite, snobs who really get and appreciate high brow, elite films. I hate that.

  5. Stella's Boy says:

    The Oscars is never, ever going to return to what it was. That is not going to happen. Ratings were already in steep decline before this year’s broadcast. It is about figuring out what their place is going forward. The past is not coming back. Streaming and fragmented viewing, etc. How many people would rather watch Disney Plus? I used to be a regular viewer and I passionately love several of the nominees, but I chose to watch three new episodes of shows I’m watching and it was not a difficult decision. Over the last couple days I’ve seen many people argue that huge blockbusters/tentpoles aside, the movies are not as culturally significant as they used to be. I think they have a point there. There are just too many other viewing options and that is not going away.

  6. Bradley Laing says:

    Oscars 2021: why Tyler Perry’s viral Oscars speech has proven so incredibly divisive

    —I think that I am confused by Perry’s speech going viral. If the audience numbers for the show went down so much, and so few cared about the show, why did the Perry speech get passed around as a viral video? Is the viral video aspect of this evidence that the audience cares about the Academy Awards, they just will not watch three hours of it?

    —Could someone set some benchmarks to compare the success of the Perry speech to the seeming failure of the televised ABC broadcast?

  7. BallyWhooo says:

    I agree with your assessment David, and for me it simply comes down to the fact that the telecast was not entertaining. I’ve griped in the past about how past hosts have gobbled up time with listless, unimaginative banter, but now I sorely miss that… well, to an extent. The thing I DID like about hosts all along was that they gave the show an additional identity, a framing idea, so to speak. Compare the shows hosted by Whoopi Goldberg to Johnny Carson. Both hosts were among the very best and performed at their highest level, but the shows of the 70s and 80s were MUCH different in tone than those of the late 90s and early 2000s. And I REMEMBER those telecasts as much for their hosting performances as the actual awards given out. In fact their hosting often helps me remember what was nominated and won in a given year (think Ms. Goldberg’s zillion costume changes in 1998. I’ll never forget her showing up as Elizabeth I. I’ll always remember that the movie “Elizabeth” was nominated and lost to “Shakespeare in Love” because I remember that humor so vividly). I’m sure I will regret this comment the very next time there is a host, but based on Sunday night, I think I’d rather have someone to guide me along through the evening to connect all the various elements that generate the awards to be given… since the producers seem to have failed over the last 20 years to figure out how to do it. I don’t think you can just depend or hope that you’ll have a moment like Ms. Close shaking her posterior on camera. You have to try to PLAN some memorable moments as well.

    By far my biggest complaint is that in a season where even avid movie goers likely did not see many of the nominated movies (like me), the producers failed to show us substantial clips from those movies. I just can’t get over that failure. Showing substantial clips from the movies should have the same effect as watching trailers prior to the Feature Film. It generates interest to see the movie, right? Sometimes the simplest and most impactful ideas are the ones we overlook… but this… I just don’t get it… especially since it appears the embargo on advertising upcoming movies appears to have finally bit the dust.

    The presenters were given a hard row to hoe. Snooze, snooze, snooze. I appreciate what the producers were trying to do, but why not utilize commentary from the nominees about something really important to them about their nominated film? Why didn’t EVERYTHING relate back to the films themselves? How, for instance, did Chloe Zhao come to understand that subtlety was the best strategy to employ for “Nomadland”. That’s what we needed to connect to films we hadn’t seen. And CLIPS! One of the reasons the Tony Awards telecast is almost always very entertaining is because they do not shy away from presenting the plays and musicals that they know the vast majority of viewers could not have seen, yet they queue up at least 10 dynamic musical performances year after year… and they almost always have a host (with bonafides). And I for one want to hear the nominated songs (and excerpts from the nominated film scores btw) during the show. Sometimes the staging concept foisted on the songs/scores may be somewhat silly or disconnected, but it’s still almost always entertaining, and we need the break from speech after speech after speech, especially when winners continue to reel off a laundry list of industry names that very few viewers will have any connection to. Speeches, by the way, are vastly improved over years past, but you have to allow for the fact that it’s a business and thanking certain people can be a deciding factor in your next ambitious project. Just have them written down and keep it to a dozen or fewer names is all I would ask. I’d much rather hear someone talk about the high school teacher that inspired and supported them than hear someone thank Steven Spielberg for the thousandth time (we should ALL be thankful for him, whether we like his films or not)… UNLESS the there’s a STORY to be told that will give us insight into him or filmmaking or just gives us a laugh. It’s about the STORY. That’s why I was so confounded by all the reports that the telecast would be like a 3-hour movie. I’m no authority on filmmaking, but I’ve been watching movies with a critical eye for over 40 years, and I didn’t get it. It did not seem filmic to me. I’d appreciate anyone’s thoughts on that. I love to learn and I want to understand this aspect of the telecast. I also like and want more of the “how we do it”-type segments that explain and SHOW (as rightly noted by other contributors here) how movies are made, how editing or production design has such major impact on movies, for example. Then those awards no longer seem minor in comparison to the acting awards, because we can see and begin to understand how complex and creative these artisans all are. In the age of DVDs and Blu-Rays, the bonus materials were (and are) loved by many movie fans. That’s what these segments do for the telecast, when they are utilized; they educate while entertaining us. And they are usually presented visually, rather than hearing a presenter just talk and talk and talk. If the viewer can’t define cinematography, why should he/she care about the award for it?

    Last but not least… Best Picture IS the culmination of everything that comes before it in the show.
    It should be last. Even Mr. Boseman winning posthumously would have been an anti-climax to me. That’s just me. It has nothing to do with Mr. Boseman. I greatly admired him. I would have loved to see him win. But the repositioning of the awards seemed calculated, and therefore false, which was incongruous to the honesty that the telecast otherwise achieved for me.

  8. Serg says:

    Felt like regional theatre in-crowd where few people were having fun and mostly people were over it before it began.
    Parties need hosts to set the tone and carry the energy. And for gods sake, make it about the MOVIES and people seeing them!
    I get it, personal achievement, thank your peeps but upsell the MOVIE! Hundreds of millions used to tune into this crap, that’s a lot of tickets, rentals, dvds, or even distribution in new territories. This is all about promoting the work and industry product, if we lose track of that, we end up with an irrelevant, boring circle jerk.

  9. Chris says:

    Raci is not deaf. His parents were.

  10. cadavra says:

    You danced around the main problem but didn’t quite land on it.

    The show wasn’t FUN.

    Everyone was dour as hell, and even a lot of the winners didn’t seem particularly overjoyed. It’s as if SS decided that since most of the nominees were downers they should keep that tone going. Where were the comedians who could liven things up? (Lil Rel playing fake trivia didn’t really hit that mark.) I kept flashing back to the year the AFI gave its Lifetime Achievement Award to Scorsese. It was the biggest snooze imaginable until Rickles was introduced. He stood up and for a mere two minutes the place suddenly jolted into life and laughter (“Somebody get him a phone book so he can see me.”) Then he sat down and the sleepiness returned. This year there was no Rickles to provide that spark; it’s not surprising that people began tuning out of sheer boredom.

  11. YancySkancy says:

    BallyWhooo: I’m pretty sure Glenn Close’s entire segment re “Da Butt” was planned and scripted. She rattled off a bunch of facts about the song that she either memorized from a script or was reading off a TelePrompter. So I suspect the dance was planned as well.

    As for the Best Song nominees, surely they weren’t performed on the show this year because of the impracticality of including a bunch of musicians and dancers in the scaled-down production. I suppose they could’ve shown the prerecorded performances during the show instead of in a pre-show.

  12. Bradley Laing says:

    —Sometime last year, I thought: with COVID 19 making it less likely to film a live action film with actors, would animated movies with the voice actors not in the same room together (often) pick up the slack? Are there any clues that a measurable number of animated films were “greenlit” that otherwise would have waited in line behind something else?

    —I think it is possible that the 18 months from script to finished film time line is so long that the COVID 19 epidemic did not, in the end make more animated movies greenlit.

    —On the other hand, with so many productions shut down, has there been a boom in animated shorts because so many actors had time to do voice work?

  13. Bob Burns says:

    Not surprisingly, the number of hardcore fans of the NFL, watching the draft, is roughly the same size as hardcore film fans, watching the Oscars.

    over the next year we will see the impact of many hundreds of millions spent on publicity for theatrical. This should re-build the Oscar audience. Everyone looks so small without all the PR.

    But…. the PR and the film budgets will mostly go to movies that have no chance with the awards machine.

  14. palmtree says:

    “Is turnabout fair play?”

    I mean, it’s called reading the room. It’s fair play if that’s the consensus among the Academy and the show’s producers, isn’t it?

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