96th Academy Awards: An Oscars comeback? How the film academy went global and found its footing again

LOS ANGELES — For a few years, the Oscars looked to be hanging on by a thread. Viewership was plummeting. The pandemic didn’t help. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind Hollywood’s biggest night, kept finding itself on the wrong side of the conversation, whether it be #OscarsSoWhite, envelope-gate, the blip that was the popular Oscar, the untelevised awards or the slap.

Then a funny thing happened: Interest started increasing both in and outside the academy. It seemed people were excited about the movies and, they hope, the Oscars again.

“It’s been an amazing year for film in general,” film academy CEO Bill Kramer said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Our art form has never been more relevant.”

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The Academy Awards showered nominations on Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster biopic, “Oppenheimer,” which came away with a leading 13 noms.

The scope, and wide public embrace, of the 10 films nominated for the best picture prize this year are proof. There is big studio fare, small intimate indies, two international films and two bilingual ones. And whether or not you think “Barbie” was snubbed in a few other categories, it still has people talking and debating what will happen at the 96th Oscars on March 10.

“There’s a lot of great energy around the movies of 2023 and the show this year. So we’re extremely hopeful and excited,” Kramer said. “The show is shaping up to be remarkable.”

Academy President Janet Yang chimed in that the “Barbie”-themed Jimmel Kimmel promo spot has over 35 million views, and the telecast is riding several years of ratings increases.

Janet Yang, left and Bill Kramer, arrive at the 96th Academy Awards Oscar nominees luncheon on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Janet Yang, left and Bill Kramer, arrive at the 96th Academy Awards Oscar nominees luncheon on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

A UNIFYING MOMENT

After some rough patches, the Oscars may have finally met the moment. But that comes as no surprise to the academy’s leaders, who have been working behind the scenes to foster this kind of evolution as they approach their 100th year. Both Kramer and Yang, who assumed their positions in 2022, are looking at the organization as a global entity. They’re not on the defensive anymore, instead pushing toward the future.

“We’re very unique in the sense that we represent all the disciplines of the industry. No other organization can say that,” said Yang. “We feel like we are in a potentially strong leadership position to unify. … We hear from members all the time ‘How can we have more inter-branch meetings?’ They just want to gather, and we can bring this.”

Nearly a century ago, unification wasn’t part of the plan. In fact, Louis B. Mayer got the idea to start the academy in part to counteract unionization efforts, under the pretense that it would help set standards. In reality, he envisioned the studio heads setting these standards with only their own interests in mind. Mayer’s dream evaporated quickly, however, and by the 1930s, writers, actors and directors were all forming unions.

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As proof of how far they’ve come, last year during the strikes, the academy took the initiative to host two member conversations about pressing topics: one about artificial intelligence and another about how the strikes were impacting members from traditionally marginalized communities.

“We felt that it was our responsibility,” Kramer said. “And we are in a position to actually do this, to create a space for our members to have honest, safe conversations around these topics.”

“It gave us a lot of food for thought,” he added. “And eventually these conversations will inform perhaps policies and procedures at the academy or inspire others in the industry to think differently.”

A MORE DIVERSE ACADEMY…

The academy as a catalyst for change is not new: They have longstanding programs for helping emerging artists (Academy Gold, the Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting and the Student Academy Awards among them). And its aggressive move to diversify its membership was in place before Yang and Kramer started, in response to #OscarsSoWhite and public exposes about its own ranks being largely older white men.

They’ve also taken more proactive steps in recent years to impact the industry they give awards to, including implementing the best picture inclusion standards that went into effect this year.

MORE | Even with progress, diversity of Oscar nominees remains a concern

Even with progress, diversity of Oscar nominees remains a concern

Now there are more than 10,500 members in the academy, representing more than 75 countries and territories. While parity is still a work in progress, 20% of members are from outside the U.S., 34% of members identify as women and 18% are from underrepresented ethnic and racial communities.

“We represent executives, editors, visual effects artists, technologists, and artisans and professionals across disciplines. … Not everybody is singing the same notes and not everybody feels the same way. But we can bring everybody together,” Kramer said. “Given the past couple of years with the pandemic, and the strikes, and to all of the topics associated with the strikes, the academy needs to remain a neutral ground for these conversations.”

…ENGAGING MORE WITH THE PUBLIC

There has also been substantial focus on engaging the public through social media, often drawing on the academy’s vast archival material – whether that be vintage acceptance speeches or just memorable moments from Oscars past.

Their Instagram account is close to 4 million followers and their YouTube channel is a treasure trove of fun clips: Leonardo DiCaprio’s best actor win (54 million views), Hugh Jackman’s 2009 opening number (23 million views), Chris Rock’s opening monologue (16 million views), Jack Black and Will Ferrell singing “Get Off the Stage” (15 million views), and Fred Astaire dancing at the 1970 Oscars (13 million views).

VIDEO: | Watch ‘On The Red Carpet at the Oscars Luncheon’

“On The Red Carpet” is taking you inside one of the most exclusive events of the Oscar season in a new special, “On The Red Carpet at the Oscars Luncheon.”

The interest in movie history has also driven enthusiasm around the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, which houses more than 23 million items of memorabilia, and has hosted exhibitions on everything from Hayao Miyazaki and the history of Black Cinema to “The Godfather” and the films of John Waters. Kramer noted that about half of the ticket buyers are under the age of 40.

But it’s not just about relics: Short videos they’ve made spotlighting below-the-line categories in the lead-up to the Oscars have also taken off. One about visual effects from last year has over 4 million views. They’re rolling out similar shorts for this year’s nominees soon too.

THE ACADEMY’S FUTURE

All of this plays into a different way of looking at the Oscars and the academy’s place in the culture.

“It’s important that we think about: How do we change our metric of success? We want millions and millions of people around the world to watch the show the night of, but we also want people watching it for many days after the initial run and on social in perpetuity,” Kramer said. “This is evergreen programming. And people overseas, outside of the U.S., engage with the show in a lot of different ways.”

All of these conversations will continue about the future of the industry, the academy, its membership, and, Yang said, even “weaning” the Oscars from ABC in a few years (the current contract runs through 2028). For both, one of the most satisfying experiences was the overwhelmingly positive response to the addition of an award for casting directors – something that had been discussed for decades – but was finally voted in this year.

“I think people feel gratified knowing that we can change. The reputation of the past was, you know, it was a little stodgy,” Yang said. “It’s been an entrepreneurial experience while maintaining the legacy of this very, very revered institution.”

And they hope the academy will stay at the center of it all.

“Business models are changing. The way people are engaging with movies and arts is changing. And the academy is really at the center of that conversation for the film community,” Kramer added. “We have a great responsibility to think this through and to ensure that the academy has a successful second 100 years.”

March 10 is Oscar Sunday! Watch the 2024 Oscars live on ABC.

Red carpet coverage starts at 1 p.m. ET 10 a.m. PT with “Countdown to Oscars: On The Red Carpet Live.” At 4 p.m. ET 1 p.m. PT, live coverage continues with “On The Red Carpet at the Oscars,” hosted by George Pennacchio with Roshumba Williams, Leslie Lopez and Rachel Brown.

Watch all the action on the red carpet live on ABC, streaming live on OnTheRedCarpet.com and on the On the Red Carpet Facebook and YouTube pages.

The 96th Oscars, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, begins at 7 p.m. ET 4 p.m. PT, an hour earlier than past years.

The Oscars are followed by an all-new episode of “Abbott Elementary.”

Copyright © 2024 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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