Michael Cieply: Suddenly, This Looks Like The Long-Awaited Oscar Comeback Year

The writers have settled. Actors and companies return to the table this week. The awards season is saved (almost, we hope).

This could finally be it. Do we dare even say it? The year of The Great Oscar Comeback.

Everyone with a stake in the Academy Awards has watched with chagrin as the Oscar audience began its long, slow slide from a 2014 peak, with 43.6 million viewers when 12 Years a Slave took top honors. It then crashed to a miserable Covid-low of 10.4 million in 2021, when Nomadland won, before struggling back to a still anemic audience of 18.7 million as Everything Everwhere All At Once prevailed last March.

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In all, it’s been a lousy decade for the movie awards game. Rare is the player who hasn’t worried that the fans are gone, just like beaver when the mountain men (see, e.g., Jeremiah Johnson, The Big Sky) trapped them out.

But unlike furry mammals, Oscar viewers can regenerate with surprising speed, as happened in 2004, when 43.5 million tuned in to see The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King win Best Picture, just one year after Chicago had reduced the audience to a worrisome low of 33 million.

With labor woes presumably clearing—the SAG-AFTRA strike still has planners in a holding pattern—signs at the moment point toward an audience rebound as big as that 10 million jump or bigger.

Go ahead, be optimistic. I certainly am.

After all, Pete Hammond, Deadline’s chief awards prognosticator, tells us that both Barbie, with over $631 million in domestic ticket sales, and Oppenheimer, with around $322 million at the box office, are a lock for Best Picture nominations. “Take it to the bank,” says Pete.

OK, gladly, I will. I’ll also happily buy Hammond’s notion that Killers of the Flower Moon, from Martin Scorsese, with a Native American theme, and both Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in leading roles, will be nominated for top honors.

Already, that sets up the kind water-cooler debates that drive a big year for the Oscars. Will Greta Gerwig and her Barbie beat the old bulls? Or will Scorsese or another of the those guys in the wings—Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, Alexander Payne, Bradley Cooper and such—steal the night’s last hurrah? Or, yet again, will the honors go to something esoteric and fresh, as has happened in the last four years,  with Parasite, Nomadland, CODA and Everything Everywhere All At Once?

There’s lots to root for, lots to discuss—so the pictures are already aligned for a big night.

Add to that the expected debut on Jan. 7 of the New, Improved, All-Cleaned-Up Golden Globes (presented by a partnership that includes Deadline’s owner, Penske Media). I’ve always believed that the Globes are actually good for the Oscars. They’re a welcome warm-up act, and their endemic silliness is a perfect foil for ever-so-serious Academy Awards. After years in the dog-house over ethical and diversity concerns, the Globes will do exactly what they do best—prime the audience for the main event.

More, enthusiasm among cinephiles is already up: Advance ticket sales for the New York Film Festival have been booming.

And still more, we’ve learned from some recent bond disclosure filings by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that the current Oscar audience isn’t—or needn’t be—quite as small as it looks. While only 18 million-plus watched the show earlier this year, 31.8 million “unique viewers” tuned in for six minutes or less.

In other words, almost 14 million people sampled the 2024 program, and decided it wasn’t for them.

But, with effort and luck, that audience can be had. In fact, with pictures like Barbie and Oppenheimer already baiting the trap, it’s there for the Academy to lose.

As long as no one does anything dumb. To veer into divisive politics and social sermonettes would be a turn-off: Many or most of the missing 14 million would disappear again at the six-minute mark. Likewise, it would be disastrous for the Oscar voters to return all-white lists in the major categories, especially given this year’s arrival of the much-heralded inclusion standards. Diverse presenters won’t be enough; the nominations will have to reflect an honest, natural diversity.

And, of course, we’ll have to pray that great calamities—Covid, Putin, asteroids, Will Smith—remain at bay. But force majeure is what it is. Barring an act of God, this suddenly looks like a very good year.

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