The Academy Awards is self-destructing under the weight of a fractured media environment and an industry at war with its own best interests.

February 21, 2019 | Hollywood


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Hollywood's Real Oscars Fiasco


The Big Picture: The Academy Awards, which has historically served as the biggest marketing vehicle for the film industry, is self destructing under the weight of a fractured media environment and an industry at war with its own best interests — which could have severe long-term consequences for Hollywood.


• This year's catastrophic run-up to the Oscars — often referred to as a "sh*t show" in Tinseltown, and not just because it's hostless — has been well documented. But the biopsies overlook the bigger picture, which is that the collapse of Hollywood's biggest night and its best chance to captivate consumers is being hastened by Hollywood itself.


Where We're At:


• Last year's Oscars audience (26.5 million) was down 19% from the year before. ...


• ... down 39% from five years ago.


• ... and down more than 50% from 20 years ago.


There are several factors for the decline including the fragmentation of media and the diversification of consumer interests. The Hollywood A List, the people who walk the Red Carpet, no longer command the unanimous attention of a nation increasingly engaged with Fortnite, the Kardashians and 9GAG.


All that said, if any other business saw a 19% year-over-year audience decline it would take immediate and drastic steps to revamp the product. It would ask itself why people were tuning out and try to better tailor itself to consumer demand.


The Academy tried to do just that by trying to create a "popular film" category (to recognize the movies that most people actually saw), then by moving to reduce the number of awards given out during the broadcast (to stop the masses from tuning out).


• But the Hollywood A-List mobilized so aggressively against those proposals — in the name of honoring the art and the craft of filmmaking — that the Academy decided to reverse course and uphold the (increasingly unpopular) status quo.


• In lieu of the Academy's proposals, the A List offered nothing. Its priority was only to ensure that awards for cinematography, film editing, etc., would be broadcast; not that there would be an audience for the winners when it was.


What's Next: Hollywood may wake up on Monday morning and learn that this year's Oscars were once again the lowest rated in history, and that their overall audience is now closer to that of the SAG Awards than to that of the Oscars audience of two decades ago.


At that point, the A List that revolted against the Academy's proposed changes may ask itself whether the art and craft of filmmaking is really being honored if no one is watching.

Market Caveat ...


One thing that could staunch the Oscars decline (for at least a year) is that the slate of films nominated for Best Picture includes box office powerhouses like "Black Panther."

Variety's Rebecca Rubin:


• "The crop of movies vying to take home the top prize represents the highest-grossing group of best picture nominees in nearly a decade."


• "The eight films in the category have earned a combined $1.3 billion at the domestic box office — a figure that could continue to grow as buzz builds leading up to the awards show on Feb. 24."


Mark Ralston/Getty

Reed Hastings makes moves in Asia


Big in Los Gatos, big on Sunset Blvd: Netflix has acquired the rights to "The Wandering Earth," the Chinese sci-fi film that has grossed $610 million at the box office and is on track to be the highest-grossing movie in the nation's history.


What's Next: The film, which Netflix plans to market across Asia and beyond, could be a big selling point to would-be international subscribers who are essential to the company's overall growth.


The Big Picture: Netflix has 139 million global subscribers. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that it needs to hit somewhere between 250 million and 300 million — that is, roughly double what it has now — to become a viable business that isn't built on debt.

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Big back East, for the record: President Trump is back at war with the New York Times ... Sarah Isgur Flores is still freaking out Blue Check Twitter ... Norah O'Donnell may soon be the new anchor of the CBS Evening News. ... and Sean Spicer is now an "Extra" correspondent

I'm not even going to begin to wade into the Tucker Carlson thing.


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Mark Zuckerberg hosts U.K. reg


What's Next: Mark Zuckerberg will meet privately today with Jeremy Wright, the U.K. secretary for digital, culture, media and sport who has called for imposing regulations on Facebook.


The Big Picture: The meeting comes on the heels of Zuckerberg's decision to embrace regulation, a move that could have the effect of shifting the blame for Silicon Valley's problems onto lawmakers. 


Wright talks to CNN's Hadas Gold:


• "In an interview ... Wright said he plans to tell Zuckerberg that he should show up to testify in front of the U.K. parliament in order to explain Facebook's approach to data privacy and efforts to stem the spread of misinformation."


• "'I think it would be an opportunity for him to make the case,' Wright said ... 'And if he doesn't do that, there will be a suspicion — and indeed there is — that he doesn't have a good case to make.'"


Bonus: My colleague Michael Cappetta has highlights from Zuckerberg's conversation with Harvard University law professor Jonathan Zittrain, the first in the series of public discussions he committed to in 2019.

Market Links 


Bob Bakish inks a distribution deal with FuboTV (Variety)


Tom Rutledge launches a Charter OTT service (Deadline)


Ev Williams moves Medium into subscriptions (Digiday)


Guru Gowrappan encroaches on The Athletic (NYPost)


Nick Bilton goes inside the final days at Theranos (Vanity Fair)


Richard Bord/Getty

Susan Wojcicki faces ad flight


The New Boycott: Disney, Nestle and Epic Games are among several brands that have pulled their advertising from YouTube amid revelations that pedophiles are abusing the comments section.


The Details, via NYT's Daisuke Wakabayashi: "For the most part, the videos targeted by pedophiles did not violate YouTube’s rules and were innocent enough — young girls doing gymnastics, playing Twister or stretching — but the videos became overrun with suggestive remarks directed at the children."


Been Here Before:


• "About two years ago, hundreds of companies pulled money from YouTube over concerns about ads showing up next to problematic content from terror or hate groups and videos that seemed to endanger or exploit children."


• "Over the last year, many major advertisers have returned to the site after they were reassured that YouTube had made progress in flagging and dealing with problematic content more quickly."


What's Next: Google spokeswoman Chi Hea Cho says YouTube has deleted the accounts and the comments and reported all illegal activity to the authorities:


• "Any content — including comments — that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube. There’s more to be done, and we continue to work to improve and catch abuse more quickly."


Josh Edelson/Getty

Silicon Valley's New Purgatory


The Big Picture: Silicon Valley's social media giants have entered into a new, post-Techlash phase where they will constantly be working to fight bad content — hate speech, pornography, fake news, conspiracy theories, etc. — while constantly being called out (and occasionally ridiculed) by critics and media organizations over their failure to prevent problems, even if they are not 100% preventable.


This is the new status quo. If the first decade of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter was characterized by heavenly reverence for the new technology, and the post-2016 world was characterized by a hellish backlash against those companies, the new era is a sort of purgatory: Never-ending course correction, never-ending criticism.


What's Next: Mark Zuckerberg and other CEOs have been trying to explain the "whack-a-mole" thesis for years — remember when he called the fight against Russian interference an "arms race" that will never end? — but now that logic is being embraced by some tech industry chroniclers who have tired of the mainstream media's recurring outrage.


1. Wired's Antonio García Martínez, via Twitter:


• "Half of tech journalism seems to be chancing upon ... some Facebook photo or YouTube video that violates the [terms of service] and then constructing an indignant, over-expansive narrative about it."


• "Every time I see such a story I want to grab the author, sit them down in front of a whiteboard and write two things: 1,000,000,000s of videos, posts, photos .001% false negative rate (assuming miraculous AI) and say, 'You realize this is never going to be 'fixed', right?'"


• "A more constructive way to do this would be to examine the precision ... see if they're improving over time, and set realistic expectations around the how many failures the average user will actually see."


2. Online commentator Philip DeFranco on YouTube's latest fiasco (see the above item), via YouTube:


• "The narrative that YouTube doesn't care or that YouTube is not doing anything — that is stupid and wrong."


• "We've seen YouTube fighting this problem, trying to advance technologies, doing mass hires, mass deletions of video."


• "You have a lot of people fear-mongering to brands that advertise on the YouTube platform, so we've now seen advertisers pulling back."


The Upshot: Those who believe that Big Tech is making a good faith effort to clean up bad content will be be a minority among those who wish a pox on all of Silicon Valley's houses, but they carry an important message: Bad content is a treatable but incurable disease of social media.


• That obviously doesn't mean we should tolerate it (we shouldn't). But it does mean we should rethink how we measure corporate responsibility at social media companies — because they are never, ever going to prevent all bad content from appearing on their platforms.

What Next: My colleague Claire Atkinson talks to new WSJ editor-in-chief Matt Murray about China, big tech and the struggle to cover President Trump.


See you tomorrow.


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