In the age of streaming, how much does an Oscar still mean?

The Oscars have seen slumping ratings for nearly a decade now, as streaming continually supplants theatre-going. There are few ways forward for the awards to maintain relevancy, experts say.  (Kevin Winter/Getty Images - image credit)
The Oscars have seen slumping ratings for nearly a decade now, as streaming continually supplants theatre-going. There are few ways forward for the awards to maintain relevancy, experts say. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images - image credit)

The Oscars' place as both taste- and hit-maker has likely never been more threatened than the past few years.

The award show's ratings have been in almost unbelievable decline in the past decade, falling by nearly half from 43 million viewers in 2014 to 23 million in 2020. Then, the very next year, they dropped again by more than half — to 10.4 million.

And while viewership ticked up last year (at least partially due to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, one of the most unhinged moments in Oscars history) its audience of 16 million still counted as the Academy Awards' second-lowest figure ever.

It's all part of an accelerating trend both the awards themselves and the industry they serve are scrambling to reverse.

"We're trying to find out what is it that will bring people to the ceremony and watch the ceremony," said Clayton Davis, senior awards editor for the industry magazine Variety.

WATCH | Has streaming hurt or helped the film industry? 

Because, Davis says, film fans appear to care less about what rarefied Oscar voters deem worth seeing, how movies can find big audiences is less clear than ever.

As movie-watching has shifted from theatres to at-home streaming, the big question has been whether films that succeed in the former are all that matter to the Oscars — and, if so, what effect that will have on the industry.

That question became more difficult to answer during the pandemic, when theatre closures coincided with already-declining ticket sales to push the in-person film experience to the brink. According to Brandon Katz, an entertainment industry strategist at Parrot Analytics, that, paired with the explosive growth of Netflix, convinced investors and distributors alike that streaming was the sole future for movies.

Because of that, the once-immutable theatrical window — how long films were kept in theatres, away from home viewing — shrank dramatically.

From 2016 to roughly before the pandemic, Netflix enjoyed "unfettered growth" and rivers of money from Wall Street, Katz said.

The other distributors — traditional giants such as Paramount and Warner Bros. — wanted to be treated the same way; and quickly focused more on developing their own streaming platforms and less on pure theatrical releases, he said.

Warner Bros dropped all its movies simultaneously in theatres and online during the early days of the pandemic, while Disney's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Free Guy dropped from the usually three-month window to 45 days, in what CEO Bob Chapek described as the pandemic's "recovery" phase — further diminishing the supremacy of theatres and the box office.

You can see that shift among this year's best picture nominees. In Canada, five of the 10 contenders are currently available on subscription-based streaming, with four others on streaming pay-per-view.

The streaming age

Production designer and Oscar-winner Paul Austerberry (The Shape of Water) says growing streaming accessibility has affected which movies got nominated this year.

"Everything Everywhere, All at Once for instance came out in March and usually that might be forgotten by the time voting season comes," he said. "But because it went on streaming and was very popular on streaming, I think it brought a lot more people."

But both Austerberry and Katz argue theatre-going still matters to both the industry and the Oscars.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

According to Variety, the performance of all nominees available on subscription streaming "has been comparatively paltry" compared to prior years, and none of the nominated films appeared to be particularly bolstered by having landed on the short list.

Pointing to Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans, Variety media analyst Tyler Aquilina wrote it was at the top of iTunes's VOD chart prior to its nomination. But shortly after it received seven Oscar nods, it dropped out of the top 10.

It raises doubts that streaming could boost the financial success of the "prestige films" that so often see Academy nominations, but less and less box office return.

"If anything is apparent, it's that the audience for the core of awards fare has grown difficult to sustain outside of the industry itself," Variety media analyst Kaare Eriksen was quoted as saying.

Theatrical release as advertising

If there's any way for the Oscars to shore up their relevance, Katz says, it's to follow what the streaming and theatrical worlds have already realized.

Because, despite streaming's success, he argues that because of the saturation of streaming services — along with a poor return on investment despite increased eyeballs — Wall Street has decided that streaming alone is not a profitable business. Massive box office success (such as best picture nominees Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick and Everything Everywhere All at Once) will always be preferable.

"[Distributors] are treating theatrical as an advertisement for the eventual streaming launch of their movie," Katz said, "and that means they're going to continue putting more movies back into theatres."

Christopher Jue/Getty Images
Christopher Jue/Getty Images

For the Academy, that means putting more stock in films that premiered exclusively on streaming services — and in more big-budget popcorn fare — as well as making the show available for the ballooning number of people without cable.

But even as pundits debate the relevancy of streaming, Katz says the Oscars' influence isn't dead yet — when they actually pick up on what we're watching.

"That audience may be a little bit smaller than it once was, but still potent when galvanized by the right collection of titles," he said. "So it is a balancing act."