AWFJ Opinion Poll: What Caused 2008’s Oscars Slump?

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Leading up to this year’s Oscars ceremonies, several AWJF members expressed concerns that their editors and/or readers were showing less than usual interest in Hollywood’s golden event. Now that the dust has settled on the statuettes and all the stats are in, it seems their concerns were valid.

According to the tally reported by Nielsen Media Research, the 2008 edition of the Academy Awards captured the record for the least watched Oscars telecast ever, attracting some 32 million viewers–a number down by about one million from the previous low set in 2003, when the show aired just after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had begun.

We’re five years into the Iraq War, and there seem to be fewer and fewer shock and awe war headlines to distract us from our passion for entertainment news. So, wondering what caused the lack of viewer interest and significant ratings drop this year, we conducted an informal opinion poll among AWFJ members, posing a dozen question which required yes or no answers, and extending an invitation to respond with additional comments, as well.

The results follow:

QUESTION: Did your editors and readers show less interest in this year’s Oscars?

The majority of members said yes, indicating a drop ranging from slight to vast. As Carrie Rickey puts it: “The Screenwriters’ strike, the cancellation of the Golden Globes and the iffiness of the Oscars sucked the enthusiasm–and oxygen–out of what Variety calls “kudocasts.”

Susan Wloszczyna indicates that while “the (WGA) strike and the shrunken Globes put a bit of a damper on the party atmosphere, the main problem was the movies themselves. “Clayton” and “Country” were mostly played out coverage wise by December. “Juno” was fun until the backlash took hold. Then it was no longer about the film but the ever metamorphisizing career of the world’s most famous former stripper (screenwriter Diablo Cody) before that Idol reject. So few people saw “Blood” it wasn’t even fun to make milkshake jokes. And “Atonement” never quite gripped the public imagination’s either. Odd year, considering that quality wise, it was one of the best.”

Sara Voorhees thinks viewers lost interest because “most moviegoers hadn’t seen the nominated films. “Atonement” was a big sweeping epic, but it didn’t go wide until mid-January. “Juno” ultimately made the most money but it went wide at the end of December, and it felt too slight to be taken seriously. “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood” were suicidally depressing. George Clooney is a huge star but he’s not a box office draw and nobody thought “Michael Clayton” would win anything . Then there were the actors. Critics and journalists love all those marvelous actors (most of them foreigners like Julie Christie and Marian Cotillard and Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem and Tilda Swinton, etc., but the average Academy Awards ceremony watcher doesn’t know who they are.

Susan Granger thinks the nominated films were too violent to attract a passionate fan base, while Nell Minow thinks “everyone feels that there are just too many awards shows.”

QUESTION: Has the format and all the hype about the Oscars eclipsed the significance of the actual awards?

The members split 50-50 in their responses, with opinions ranging from Moira Macdonald’s comment that the “awards have no real significance,” Marcy Dermansky’s thought that “the awards are anticlimactic” and Minow’s notion that the awards “seem to result from an insider popularity contest rather than merit” to Kim Voynar’s belief that “audiences are always the most interested in knowing who the winners are.”

Voorhees comments, “Format and hype are what the Oscars are all about. By the time Oscar night arrives, most hard-core moviegoers have read enough Oscar predictions and seen enough other awards shows to know who’s likely to win. What the ceremonies are really about is watching beautiful people, funny people and famous people reading the prompter and wearing expensive clothes. This year there was no hype, because no one was sure the ceremonies were going to happen.”

Wloszczyna points out that “eclipsed is not quite the right word. I still believe the Oscars are the most coveted and respected entertainment honors. But it seems that someone has to do a drastic overhaul of the ceremony, which gets more self serving and pompous every year. The trouble is, there’s no Johnny Carson or Bob Hope anymore. The art of hosting is dead. I loved the year Steve Martin emceed because he was part of that Hollywood community and his knowing jabs had some punch. Guys like Jon Stewart and Chris Rock feel too awed by the job. The hype, on the other hand, is only to sell the TV show. Just as sports fans got emotional over the Giants’ win despite the excessive promotion of Superbowl, film fans, too, get choked up or pleased when folks like the Coens or Tilda Swinton or the “Once” composers get their due. You can’t fake that emotion, although the show’s format does seem to diminish the importance of such moments year after year.”

Joanna Langfield says the format needs to be tweaked, and Rickey recommends “there should be fewer awards given on air, more fun with film clips, and more of stars being stars. The Golden Globes has it right: have a dinner and lubricate the honorees with champagne. When everyone is sitting in an auditorium seat for three hours-plus, it’s like being at a senior assembly where the vice-principal reads the honor roll.”

QUESTION: What’s more important to today’s audience: the pre-Oscar show or the awards ceremony?

Again, the split was 50-50, with opinions ranging from Granger’s assertion that she doesn’t know anyone who watches the pre-show and Minow’s comment that viewers are most interested in the winners’ responses to Wloszczyna’s pointing out that “To my fashion-crazed colleagues, especially those under 40–and they probably represent a goodly portion of the audience out there–the dresses are the show. To me, these supposed humans are so preened and overplucked, I find I can’t even comprehend I share their species. Plus this whole culture of stylists has totally ruined the chance that anyone will go out there in a historically awful garment ever again.”

Dermansky says it’s “all about the dresses.” Karen Martin concurs, saying “it’s the clothes that count, both on the red carpet and at the podium.” Maitland McDonagh says “they watch the pre-show for all the fashion stuff, but they watch the show to see whether their predictions were correct.”

QUESTION: Does the pre-show weekend’s wave of Oscars leads and teases stimulate interest in the show or are audiences drowning in it?

Several members feel that the buildup stimulates interest, but the majority say it’s “over the top,“ “too commercial,” “overkill.”

QUESTION: Did your editors and readers or listeners show interest in the Spirit Awards?

Most members indicate there’s little interest in the Spirit Awards–even, as McDonagh points out, with Rainn Wilson hosting this year. Rickey opines that the Spirit Awards’ proximity to the Oscars hurts them, while Voorhees indicates she’s seen no interest other than an occasional inquiry about what they are. According to Wloszczyna, “It helps when something like “Juno” takes top honors. Which also represents a problem: how independent are they when their big winner makes near blockbuster bucks?” And, Macdonald says, “The Spirit Awards seem to be rapidly becoming about as “indie” as the Oscars. The ceremony seems like fun, but there’s a holier-than-thou attitude to it that’s increasingly annoying.”

QUESTION: Have the Spirit Awards kept their independent spirit, or become mini-Oscars?

The majority of members feel that the Independent Spirit Awards have strayed from their roots. While Voynar and Minow think they still serve as an important way to recognize and honor independent films, Dermansky comments that she‘s “disappointed that studio-backed films always win. “Juno,“ independent? That’s a good joke. The idea of the Spirit Awards makes fine sense. What actually happens, however. does not. The casual atmosphere on the beach is nice. All the cursing at this year’s ceremony, however, wasn’t funny–it came off as juvenile.”

Erin Trahan thinks “they’re just a PR tool,” and McDonagh points out that the awards seemed more mini-Oscars than ever this year “because the majority of the Oscar nominees in the major categories were indie-ish films.”

QUESTION: Should the Oscars broadcast return to its former Monday night time slot?

The majority said keep it on Sunday night. Martin says it should be moved to Monday “so as not to compete with HBO’s Sunday blockbuster programming.” McDonagh suggests that Friday or Saturday night would be best “so people could party without having to consider their Monday schedule.”

QUESTION: Does the elaborate staging of musical numbers work, or should nominated songs simply be sung so we can concentrate on their musical and lyrical merit?

Musical numbers, it turns out, are generally disliked by AWFJ members. Langfield says she “hates them,” Martin opines that “the staging detracts from the songs.“ Trahan thinks their “crap, and would rather see a video of the song in the film.“ Granger remarks, “Since the songs are generally so wretched, the musical numbers become more and more ludicrous. For the most part, the days of melody and lyrics are gone. It turns into a rap or R&B concert – and, for that, tune into the Grammys.”

Dermansky comments “I wish they’d do away with the music numbers, altogether. We don’t need to see an entire performance to give an acting award. Why hear the whole song? It’s the most boring part of the telecast.”

Wloszczyna thinks they should “do a mix. That production number for “Hard Out There for a Pimp” was the sort of tasteless what-were-they-thinking moment everyone lives for. What the show needs more than anything else is a sense of spontaneity again. Kill those clip reels. Show real people interacting.”

With regard to this year’s musical presentations, Rickey comments, “Well, if you can get artists like Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova–or Isaac Hayes–that certainly is enough. Minow says, “It wasn’t very elaborate this year and I thought it worked well. But the selection of songs was poor. While I was delighted with the winner from “Once,” three nominations for “Enchanted” and none for Eddie Vedder or “Music and Lyrics” was absurd.

According to Macdonald, “The simple presentation of “Falling Slowly,” though a lovely song, was lost in that enormous hall, and poor Amy Adams badly needed a chorus of rats and pigeons for “Happy Working Song.” Then again, some of the large-scale production numbers just look silly. Oscar has never really gotten the songs right. They need to look to the Tony Awards for inspiration.”

Voynar comments, “Falling Slowly” worked best, because Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova sang so honestly and passionately, and they kept it simple. Amy Adams “Working Song” would have worked better if they’d done it recorded and added in animated animals. Kristin Chenoweth completely mangled “That’s How You Know” — if anything, her performance underscored the magic Adams brought to that role. I like keeping the songs in some sort of context related to the movies they came from. This isn’t the Grammys–these songs are supposed to enhance the film, be about the story, in some way.”

QUESTION: Should some of the lesser awards categories be presented with voiceover, as are some of the technical achievement awards?

The AWFJ consensus was to keep them as part of the show. Most members concur with Macdonald that these artists “deserve their moment in the spotlight.” McDonagh opines that “none of these awards is minor,” while Langfield suggests that audiences be “shown why they’re important” and Minow comments that the presentation could be made more interesting “with a better display of what the awards are for and an up-close-and-personal look at the people involved.”

QUESTION: Should scripted celebrity presenter banter be truncated?

Most AWFJ members think they should keep the banter, but cut the scripting, which is “banal crap“. “The bloopers are always the most entertaining element,” says Langfield. Wloszczyna comments, “Sometimes it’s awful, especially when Cameron Diaz can’t even pronounce cinematographer. But it can be kind of cool when it’s people like Will Ferrell and the gang.” Voynar concurs: “Most of the time, the writing is just so BAD, and the presenters are nervous. If they’re going to have banter, they need performers who’re good at improv, who can present without looking like they’re reading badly written lines off a teleprompter. This year, interestingly enough, Miley Cyrus, the youngest presenter, was more composed than most of the adults.”

QUESTION: Do you think this year’s Oscars slump was influenced by the writers’ strike?

By an overwhelming majority, the members say yes, commenting that the strike was a “downer,” “created a no-Oscars mindset,” “bored audiences so they lost interest,” but were still “no excuse for wretched writing and tedious pacing of this year’s show.”

QUESTION: Do the Oscars need a makeover?

The members responded with a unanimous yes, backed with a wide variety of reasons and suggestion ranging from simply dropping the musical numbers and taking themselves less seriously (Trahan jokingly suggests having Ryan Seacrest doing eliminations, like on a reality TV show).

McDonagh thinks returning to the old format with seats at tables, Golden Globe-style is a good idea and Rickey suggests they “schedule an appointment with “Nip/Tuck.”

Other members express concerns about the list of nominated films: Voynar comments, “They need to be more fresh and relevant, less predictable. Not a lot of surprises this year, and a lot of the nominees were more critically acclaimed than audience faves (“Juno” being the exception). I think part of it is that the studios behind the nominated films didn’t get them out there in front of audiences or do huge marketing pushes to promote them leading up to the Oscars. How many people who aren’t critics had even seen “Diving Bell,” or TWBB, or even “No Country,” before the Oscars? Not a lot. Which is not to say I think the Oscars should be about the most popular films–they need to stay about the art of filmmaking, and the critical favorites. But the studios have to find a better way to market those films to the average person. The foreign and documentary categories need a serious makeover. The foreign films became irrelevant the minute “4 Months 3 Weeks” wasn’t included. As to the docs, for “Operation Homecoming”–a thoroughly mediocre film–to be in the final cut while “Lake of Fire” was not, made no sense to me at all.”

Voorhees, too, is concerned about the nature of the Academy’s selections: “It may not be a realistic wish, but I’d like to see more validation of movies that weren’t necessarily about the darkest corners of the human soul. I’m weary of Oscars for “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Departed” and “No Country For Old Men”–all magnificent movies, and all about the in worst us. Is it because there are fewer women in the Academy that those movies always win? Is it superficial and girlie to long for a future Oscar ceremony in which films would be celebrated that show us a path from the dark side to some position of hope?”

QUESTION: What do you think? Please share your thoughts.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).