Fixing the Oscars: What Event Producers Think of the Future Ceremony Changes
Overall, event pros applaud the breaks in tradition but suggest going further by integrating social media, changing the stage design, and other ideas for the Academy Awards.
In the wake of the lowest rated Oscars telecast in history this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last week announced major changes to future ceremonies to lure viewers back—changes that will reverberate through the event industry.
The most notable changes involved the ceremony’s runtime: Beginning with the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019, the telecast will be shortened to three hours and certain technical categories will be awarded during commercial breaks. Footage from the unaired categories will then be edited and aired toward the end of the broadcast.
Along with introducing a new category recognizing "popular films," the Academy also announced that beginning in 2020, the ceremony will be moved up from the previously announced February 23 airdate to February 9. The two-week date change was most likely made to counter the idea that the Oscars are an anti-climax to an award season that lasts for months. But the earlier date will have event producers juggling a much quicker turnaround, as the ceremony will take place much closer to other film industry award ceremonies such as the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards.
BizBash asked event producers and industry experts to give their thoughts on the new directions as well as to offer changes they think the Academy should consider for future ceremonies.
On the ceremony’s reduced runtime and telecast changes:
Priscila Martinez: “Although it will hurt its popularity within the movie-making community—and even anger a few below-the-line artists in the categories that will be eventually snubbed—it will ultimately help its attractiveness amongst the larger ‘attention-span-of-an-Instagram story’ audience that has been conditioned to consume media in tiny morsels. An eMarketer survey from 2016 estimated that in 2018, almost 92 percent of TV viewers would surf the web and watch TV at the same time. Our small attention spans require a shorter show with more action, and the Academy’s change may be good for viewership in the long run.”
Martinez is the vice president of the Los Angeles-based Element Brand Group and the founder of the Brand Agency, a Los Angeles-based entertainment marketing firm and public relations agency with clients including Macy’s, Samsung, Amazon, and Elle.
Matt Stoelt: “Breaking tradition and reducing the runtime to three hours should eventually help the ceremony’s popularity. Much has changed since the inception of the Oscars and how we consume media at large. I think future generations have grown accustomed to selecting what they want to view and how they want to view it. Focusing on the categories that carry the most interest and popularity—while still recognizing and airing the technical categories—should help strengthen the ratings and rebuild a dwindling audience as the producers have struggled to keep the audience engaged with musical numbers and irrelevant content.”
Stoelt is the C.E.O. and creative director of Stoelt Productions, a Los-Angeles based event production company with clients including MAC Cosmetics, Pandora, and Lyft, and events including the I.C.A. Imagine Awards and the Clio Awards.
Gabrielle Kessler: “I don’t anticipate this tactic alone will drive traditional tune-in. The real viewership problems stem from the shift away from broadcast appointment viewing toward online and mobile viewing experiences, as well as the over-saturation of similar award shows. However, delivering a tighter show could help prevent additional drop-off this year.”
Kessler is the creative director for the Visionary Group, a Los Angeles- and New York-based experiential marketing agency. Clients have included Essence, Nickelodeon, Nerdist, and Old Navy and PopSugar.
Jeremy Hilborn: “The Oscars are a time-honored tradition, but we know the ways people engage with live television are constantly evolving. Adapting to what will resonate most with your audience is a smart move. As long as the show-runners can find a way for honorees, nominees, and winners to still have their moment to shine, the pared-down telecast will be a welcome change for viewers.”
Hilborn is the senior manager of production development for AgencyEA, a Chicago-based brand experience agency. Clients have included MillerCoors, Hilton, Target, McDonald’s, and TopShop.
Cara Kleinhaut: “As an audience’s attention is so split between monitoring social media during live events, it seems the Oscars has to find a way to involve both advertisers and audiences into following the telecast as they monitor social for winners. Focusing on the main categories viewers and consumers are interested in will help with the ratings, and keep their advertisers happy.”
Kleinhaut is the C.E.O. of Agenc, a Los Angeles- and New York-based experiential and digital marketing agency. Clients have included L’Oréal, Vanity Fair, Dior, and Hulu.
On how the future date change will affect the Los Angeles event scene during award season:
Martinez: “Pushing up the event date will throw event producers and publicists all over town in a tizzy. L.A. had gotten used to the cadence and actually enjoyed a bit of a break. We used the time in between the other shows and Oscars to catch our breath and recalibrate strategy when needed. Marquee events will also be thrown for a loop as there will be more competition for talent attendance. There are only so many events a nominee can realistically attend during a span of a few days.”
Hilborn: “Pushing the ceremony two weeks earlier will require an accelerated planning schedule for scripting, rehearsals, designs, the print and fabrication processes, and more. The proximity to other comparable events further complicates matters—as any reputable florist, caterer, AV company, limo rental, and makeup artist will be in high demand during peak awards season. Vendors may turn down other opportunities as a result, forcing surrounding events to get more creative with their vendor selection. Despite all of this, the city of Los Angeles is no stranger to high-brow, red-carpet events. The shifted timeline could even give previously untapped vendors a seat at the table–many of which will jump at the chance to adapt to this accelerated schedule.”
Stoelt: “Much the same with the reduced runtime, moving the Oscars up on the calendar and closer to the other award ceremonies should help to bolster ratings and the show at large. While there does seem to be perceived distinction with the Oscars at the end of the awards season, I think that the gap is too great. To that end, however, I think there will be a shakeup in the L.A. event scene as pre and post events and activations surrounding the Oscars will overlap with other award ceremony events, and resources will become stretched. I think that this is a much-needed change and should help to diversify the portfolio of events that take place during the awards season.”
Kessler: “The reasoning is sound—grabbing the audience’s attention before award show fatigue sets in. But this is just another band-aid on a much larger problem, which is the programming. Additionally, now the Oscars’ promotional flights will take place at the same time as other shows are engaging in their digital content pushes, which makes it potentially more difficult to grab the share of the voice they’re looking for, to drive interest and tune-in across the ‘social watercolor.’”
Kleinhaut: “In my view, the Oscars were always the grand finale of awards season, and this feels rather anti-climactic. The season had a natural crescendo and pacing with the most prestigious, old-school, and glamorous event saved for last. It will be interesting to see how this new placement works, but something about saving the best for last just feels right.”
On changes the Academy should consider for future ceremonies:
Kleinhaut: “The biggest change I personally think needs to be made is the integration of the social media story into the live event, and the live event more woven into social media—just as our branded experiences are today. As we know, audiences are monitoring social during the live event, why not utilize where the eyeballs are? That’s where the whole leakage of ratings has gone. So use it, don’t fight it.”
Stoelt: “Without question, the producers have done an amazing job from an industry perspective of putting together a fantastic event and show over the years, despite the downturn in ratings. I think it’s time to rethink the set design to be more consistent with current times. They should make a departure from the whimsical ‘award show’ set and create something more forward with integrated technology and a modern design.”
Kessler: “I’d love to see the Academy completely rethink how they’re marketing the show. This is an awards event all about the big screen that takes place exclusively on little screens. Technology now exists to beam live programming into movie theaters around the country. Why not create a series of hosted viewings at theaters across the country and create smaller red-carpet experiences where sponsorship can be sold to brands? Additionally, the Academy needs to embrace the fact that viewers don’t care about appointment TV and adjust the format to better suit online viewing. Why not incorporate the myriad of tools that streamers on platforms like Twitch have been using for years? These include live chat and interaction with fans, and giving audiences the opportunity to drive what comes next in the program order.”
Hilborn: “I’m very excited about the change the Academy has already instituted with the addition of the ‘popular’ category and I think there is a lot of opportunity to further engage audiences. By integrating more crowdsourced content, the Academy has an opportunity to add an element of personalization to the show. I’m not suggesting an American Idol-style text-to-vote per se, but it could be interesting if viewers were able to help crowdsource nominees while members of the Academy decide on the final winner. This notion of pre-Oscars voting could be a great opportunity to increase viewership and I think that same audience will be more excited to tune in and see these outcomes as a result.”
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