Why the Oscars Are Losing Millennials

And what the Academy really needs to change to win them back.

Do the Oscars Matter
Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

The film I watched the most last year was not particularly highbrow or indie: It was To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which was about as mainstream as it gets. And when I say I watched it more than any other film last year, I mean I watched it three times before it debuted, thanks to a screening link, and dozens of times after that. On a Friday night in Miami after a hellish eight-day trip, over Christmas, after I got laid off from a job, when the news was particularly heinous, and on random tough days all year. I found comfort in its adolescent love story, pop-culture references, and indie soundtrack. It was soothing to watch Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) fall in love over and over and over again, to know that people cared about each other, and that happy endings were possible.

It’s a good old-fashioned rom-com, perfect and pure, but it will never win an Oscar. Whether or not it should (it should) might seem debatable to you, but any pros and cons are rendered moot considering it wasn’t even eligible for nomination. It did not screen for a week at a Los Angeles-area theater, which is a requirement for any film to be considered by the Academy. This one came out on Netflix.

Roma, another Netflix original, had a limited run in theaters to qualify for awards consideration, but I watched it at home, like we do. Rules like the Academy’s Los Angeles screening clause suggest that viewers who haven’t gone to a theater and spent ever-increasing sums of money on tickets don’t “count.” Never mind that the members of the Academy themselves review films by watching them on DVD or, you guessed it, logging in to private screening accounts.

Streaming services aren’t exactly unified in their response to the outdated rule. This year, Hulu’s documentary Minding the Gap is nominated, after it showed at independent theaters across the country. Netflix’s Roma nomination represents the culmination of years of drama between Netflix and the Hollywood movie theater machine; the streaming giant begrudgingly showed the obvious Oscar contender for a short time in LA just to give it its due. Meanwhile, Amazon has generally played along. It released noteworthy films like Manchester by the Sea (which took home two statues last year) and The Big Sick (nominated for one) in theaters in 2017. But, as Collider reports, it’s now saying goodbye to all that and dropping new films exclusively on Prime — any Oscars dreams be damned.

I’d hazard a guess that the way we stream films these days has something to do with the fact that last year’s Oscars ratings were at an all-time low. While Roma was released on Netflix, and Black Panther hit the service before 2018 was through, many of the prestige films the Academy favors are harder to hunt down. U.S. movie theater attendance hit a 23-year low in 2017, but people generally want to see a movie before they’re invested in whether it wins awards or not.

Sticking to this old model is only hurting the awards shows themselves. Streaming allows audiences to work out, in real time, what makes a film special or revolutionary or downright bad. We can discuss amongst ourselves and decide, and watch it or not, and then move on. But just as the streaming model brings premium TV shows and movies directly into our homes, it has also adjusted our appetites for consumption to such an extent that we can barely remember movies we saw last month, much less half a year ago. Was it only last summer that we all took our sojourns to support Crazy Rich Asians?

Awards shows need to be celebrating the films we are watching right now. Or, in the case of To All The Boys, the films we are watching nonstop. (Can they create an Oscar for best use of Noah Centineo? Can this be a recurring award? Can I give it out?) It doesn’t help, either, that the Academy itself seems unsure what the Oscars should achieve in 2019.

First, it announced and then “postponed” the introduction of a new award to celebrate “outstanding achievement in popular film.” Then, there was the matter of would-be host Kevin Hart’s homophobic tweets, and the Academy’s decision to not book a host at all. (As Variety notes, the one hostless show, 1989, was disastrous). Next they tried to shorten the program by jettisoning certain awards to the commercial breaks, a decision that was reversed after a major public outcry.

Meanwhile, there’s been no pivoting away from scandal-ridden films, like Green Book (with five Oscar noms), the story of the late black pianist Don Shirley, whose family wasn’t consulted by the film’s mostly white production team. The Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is up for five, too, in spite of sexual assault allegations against director Bryan Singer, and complaints about the way it depicted Mercury’s sexual identity.

Keeping up with the times doesn’t only mean acknowledging at-home viewing. It also means addressing problematic art and artists, and perhaps not showering them with praise.

The Oscars will at least acknowledge a number of movies that have moved conversations forward. Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Roma highlighted the lives of characters we rarely get to see onscreen, and we’ll feel Black Panther’s impact on movie-making for years. The Favourite and A Star Is Born had as resounding a fan reception as any. Yes, the Academy is celebrating a number of films that deserve that shiny gold man, but so many others that actually dominated 2018 won’t be represented on Oscars night.

As the Academy continues the much-needed push to evolve into a younger, more diverse group, we’ll likely begin to see more films that actually reflect audiences’ broader tastes — perhaps even how they watch movies — but that will mean more waiting. It was 2015 when April Reign created #OscarsSoWhite, the impact of which has been undeniable. Four years later, she’s finally been invited to attend. Progress is slow, in other words; it may not make it in time for this Sunday.

In the meanwhile, streaming services will continue to make movies that people turn to as the ultimate form of escapism. Audiences’ hunger for this escape is underscored by the fact that many studios are rushing to build out their own streaming capabilities. Disney is set to launch one later this year, as will the Criterion Collection. (You can even stream the Oscars.) This is how we watch now; it’s how we come to love one film so much we treat it like a security blanket and return to it whenever we’re feeling low. It’s only too bad there isn’t an award for movies like that.

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