With An Eye Toward 2028, Film Awards Face The Future

In the year 2525. No, that’s the lyric of a cheesy pop song about, as it were, Armageddon Time.

It’s 2028, a much closer reckoning, that should be on the mind of everyone who depends on the shiny, mixed up business of film awards for diversion or a living.

The smart people who run the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are certainly thinking about it. In a little-noticed addendum to their recently released financial report for fiscal 2022, Academy officials disclosed that they had exercised an option to truncate their agreement to hold the annual Oscar show in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, shifting the final Dolby show from 2032 to 2028.

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The move cost the financially stressed Academy $10 million in expected revenue, but was deemed worth it. Now, the awards ceremony can face its second century—that begins with the 2029 Oscars, God willing—in a fresh venue. Bigger, smaller, indoor, outdoor, its own museum, Disneyland, who knows?

Tellingly, the new Dolby contract termination date matches a scheduled expiration of the Academy’s domestic broadcast contract with Disney’s ABC. There it is again, 2028. Just around the corner. Quietly, the Academy also has been discussing an extension of its foreign broadcast arrangement with another Disney entity, Buena Vista International, from an end date in 2024 to, of course, 2028.

The alignment isn’t casual. Since April 26, 2021, when overnight television ratings showed that the Oscar audience had collapsed by more than half to 10.4 million, it has been clear to any thinking person—and Academy leaders do a lot of thinking—that something’s got to give. Even last year’s audience rebound, to about 16.6 million viewers, didn’t return the Oscars to their accustomed scale. It’s a smaller event now, and—the possible Best Picture nomination of an Avatar: The Way Of Water or Top Gun: Maverick notwithstanding—nothing in the current season is likely to change that. Just over a week ago, The New York Times used Page One space to remind us that few are buying tickets to the insider favorites, up to and including Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (or James Gray’s Armageddon Time).

Barring a miracle, the next ABC contract is bound to reflect the audience shrinkage. A current whisper says that a 40 percent cut in the annual Oscar broadcast fee isn’t out of the question.  Looking toward 2028, the Academy is obviously preparing for a reboot. With the contracts in line, the institution and its awards show can presumably adjust to their new reality: A different sort of show, new dates, global real time streaming? Again, who knows?

It’s a good bet that the new alignment will involve new funding, whether from donors or branding deals or refinanced debt, well in advance of a pair of hundred million-dollar bond principle payments that come due in 2030 and 2031.

With an eye toward 2028, the film Academy is getting its house in order.  Shouldn’t everyone in the awards game be doing the same?

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