This is an age of niches: To better capture precious eyeballs, the entertainment industry is marketing its products to the narrowest possible communities. Perhaps it’s time to start treating the Oscars ceremony similar to other quirky entertainment, one better suited to air on a streaming service than over the broadcast airwaves. Netflix is desperate to win Oscars: Why not give them the entire show?
The audience for the august award ceremony is in near-terminal decline, shrinking each year and attempting to appeal to an aging and dwindling market of movie lovers. Given what the members of the Academy are nominating, it appears they aren’t particularly interested in attempting to arrest that decline.
According to a new poll highlighted in Ryan Faughnder’s Wide Shot newsletter, the two putative favorites for best picture at the 2022 Oscars have been seen by almost no one. “The Power of the Dog,” which garnered the most nominations overall and was considered the front-runner for the top award until recently, has been watched by 6 percent of the 4,500 general entertainment consumers polled by Screen Engine/ASI. “CODA,” which looks to have edged into the lead, has been watched by just 4 percent of those polled.
Both of these pictures were released by streaming services: “Dog” on Netflix and “CODA” on Apple TV Plus. Streamers don’t really have any need to advertise individual properties: They just want subscribers to know that they have a lot of content. As a result, these two movies, ostensibly two of the very best released this past year, don’t just have small audiences. Most people haven’t even heard of them.
Just 1 in 5 people polled by Screen Engine/ASI had even heard of “The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s look at the complicated state of masculinity in the not-quite-old West. Only 14 percent of those polled had heard of “CODA,” the schmaltzy and endearing Sundance darling picked up for big bucks by Cupertino’s streaming service. Increasingly, it appears, streaming is where the sort of movies that the Oscars want to reward are going to find themselves.
That’s a shame, because the polling reveals that films receiving a theatrical release continue to be the films that generate the most general awareness. A proper theatrical release (i.e. one that goes wide rather than just in New York and Los Angeles) doesn’t generate awareness merely by dint of putting films on a ton of screens; it generates awareness because putting films on a ton of screens requires a decent advertising campaign. Even if audiences don’t show up, they know the movie exists.
“West Side Story” is the only best picture nominee that more than half of those polled is aware of, aided largely by the fact that it received a release on more than 2,800 screens. Nearly half, 49 percent, are aware of “Dune,” released on more than 4,000 screens. “King Richard,” released on over 3,300 screens, came in third with 42 percent. Fourth? That was Netflix’s climate change parable “Don’t Look Up,” a film that 4 in 10 of those polled had heard of.
This tracks with something I noted about last year’s crop of nominees for films released in 2020, a decidedly strange year for movies given the vagaries of the pandemic and the resultant changes in release strategy. Films that received a proper theatrical release — even a theatrical release that coincided with a day-and-date trip to streaming, as “Dune” and “King Richard” did — were better known than films that simply dropped on Netflix or similar services.
But audiences, increasingly, are on streaming services. It’s telling that “Don’t Look Up,” despite being less recognized than the others mentioned above, was actually the most-watched of the films nominated, with 19 percent of those polled saying they’d actually seen it. “Dune,” the biggest box office hit of the year to garner a best picture nod with $400 million worldwide, $108 million of that coming domestically, was seen by just 16 percent of those polled.
When the Academy announced it would give out a handful of awards before the show and tape the acceptances to broadcast later on, I heard someone joke that the Oscars should just give broadcast rights to Netflix, a streaming service that has never had a problem with a program being too long and poorly paced. But it’s not a bad idea, given that the Academy has decided to abdicate its role as Hollywood’s trade show designed to promote what the dream factory can do and instead celebrate the best films no one bothered to see.
Netflix is perfectly suited to create niche films that appeal to aesthetes, such as “The Power of the Dog” and broader comedies that appeal to wider audiences, such as “Don’t Look Up.” Netflix doesn’t have to worry about advertisers or broadcast schedules; the wrap-it-up music that was used to tell winners to finish their speeches will be a thing of the past. Besides, such a shift would recognize what’s already happened: The Oscars have become just another piece of content.