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The Pressure’s on at the Oscars – Can They Turn Barbenheimer Into Big Ratings?

They gave you “Barbie.” They gave you “Oppenheimer.” They gave you one of the strongest Best Picture lineups in many years.

Is that enough?

They’re giving you Billie Eilish and Ryan Gosling and Jon Batiste, performances of songs written and sung by people with almost 40 Grammys between them.

Are you interested?

They gave you a new start time, 4 p.m. PDT, that pretty much guarantees the show will be over long before midnight on the East Coast.

Does it help? Are you going to watch the 96th annual Academy Awards on Sunday evening?

At a time when awards shows are reeling and the theatrical moviegoing the Oscars are designed to celebrate is on shaky ground, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has two big awards-worthy blockbusters to celebrate at its big show. At the end of a year in which Hollywood suffered through two lengthy strikes, the actors and writers are back and some awards shows have seen their ratings get a significant boost: The embattled Golden Globes in particular went from 6.3 million in 2023 to 10 million in 2024, while the Grammy Awards went from 12.4 million to 16.9 million.

None of those figures would have been considered good only a few years ago, and none would be acceptable for the Oscars, which rallied from some miserable COVID-era years to hit 18.75 million last year. This year, the Academy and the show’s producers really need to show that if the Golden Globes can take a significant jump, so can the Oscars. Anything less than 20 million viewers will be bad news for AMPAS and for ABC; anything above, say, 22 million will bring a sigh of relief, even though we’re only a decade removed from the days when the Oscars would often as not top 40 million viewers.

Those viewers won’t be drawn by the lure of a tense, nail-biting race for Best Picture, because to all appearances the night will be a long-expected coronation for Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” But if that film wins, it’ll be the top-grossing Oscar winner since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2004, with its $958 million worldwide gross being about as much as the last six Best Picture winners combined.

Ryan Gosling rehearsing “I’m Just Ken” at the Dolby Theatre (Richard Harbaugh/AMPAS)
Ryan Gosling rehearsing “I’m Just Ken” at the Dolby Theatre (Richard Harbaugh/AMPAS)

And whatever happens with the favorite on Oscar night, it’s worth noting, as Jason Clark did after the nominations, “this could be the most inclusive, exciting, unconventional, big-and-small-budgeted Best Picture lineup in the Oscars’ 96-year history.” Two of the nominees are from writer-directors who’d never before made movies, one of them a Black former journalist and TV writer (Cord Jefferson, “American Fiction”) and the other a South Korea-born playwright who came to North America as a child and reflected some of that experience in her film (Celine Song, “Past Lives”).

On the other end of the spectrum, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is Martin Scorsese’s 10th Best Picture nominee, while “The Holdovers” is Alexander Payne’s fourth, “Barbie” is Greta Gerwig’s third and “Oppenheimer” is Nolan’s third.

Fully half the Best Picture nominees are from directors born outside the U.S., and a record three of them (“Anatomy of a Fall,” “Past Lives” and “The Zone of Interest”) are largely or entirely in languages other than English.

The international bent is largely because the Academy itself is now about 25% international, with its post #OscarsSoWhite membership drive resulting in a huge influx in women, people of color and film professionals who live outside the U.S. And as a result, the last few years have seen increasingly unusual results on Oscar night.

In 2020, a South Korean movie, “Parasite,” won Best Picture even though no previous Korean film had ever been nominated for anything. The following year, a movie that was barely on the awards radar in January, “CODA,” beat Jane Campion and Steven Spielberg to win Best Picture in March. Last year, a wacky and surreal indie from two guys whose last film starred Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse won seven Oscars, the most for any film in 14 years.

And into that new Oscar landscape, here comes “Oppenheimer,” looking to dominate at an awards show that hasn’t let many movies dominate in recent years. That’ll be part of the story, and presumably part of the lure for voters; the Oscar fate of the movie that dominated popular culture in 2024, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” will be another part. And the potential for disruption could be real as well, with pro-Palestinian and pro-cease-fire demonstrations planned in Hollywood on the heels of an Independent Spirit Awards that was audibly interrupted by recordings blasted from loudspeakers near the ceremony.

All of that has the potential to whip up interest in the show, but no movie-biz kudos-fest is an automatic draw in this fractured, stormy post-pandemic and post-strike era. The entertainment industry has changed dramatically and perhaps irrevocably, to the point where the only guarantee of boffo ratings would be if the Academy could persuade Taylor Swift to host (or at least show up to cheer on her pal Emma Stone).

But we won’t be getting that on Sunday night. Instead, on a night when the Academy and the industry desperately needs a big audience, we’ll get good movies, Barbenheimer, a little bit of intrigue and an earlier bedtime.

Will that be good enough?

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