The 2022 Oscars and that Will Smith Slap
Just read the whole thing, you don't have to like it or me
Welcome to my freemium newsletter by me, King Williams. A documentary filmmaker, journalist, podcast host, and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. This is a newsletter covering the hidden connections of Atlanta to everything else.
Today’s newsletter is about the Oscars
Today’s newsletter is about the Oscars, so let’s get this out the way now—yes, Will Smith slapping Chris Rock happened. We don’t need to get into it, no one needs a thinkpiece from me on the merits of that. At this point, there is nothing beneficial in tackling it, people have their opinions, keep it there or your group chat.
But if you want to know a non-culture critique (I’m not weighing in on justified/unjustified) on the impact of Will Smith, hang until the very end. It’s a culmination of everything that will be mentioned below.
Written by King Williams
Edited by Alicia Bruce
Why do the Oscars exist?
In short: Anti-unionization, seriously.
Medium: A second life for films and a buffer to films that matter to the people who make them.
Long: The Oscars exist to do help create a third season of box office that didn’t exist prior to the streaming era. It also allows for smaller, lesser-known ideas to have the same level of acclaim and notoriety as typical blockbusters. But often this divulges into whoever is the savviest producers, biggest budgeted studios, and long-overdue creatives who are overdue a critical celebration of their work.
Okay, so why is it called an Oscar? It’s kind of fuzzy but the most recognized urban legend is that before the first ceremony, Academy librarian Margaret Herrick thought the award looked like her uncle Oscar. The name stuck ever since.
2. The 2022 Academy Awards
The 2022 Academy Awards were a tough sell from the beginning. The last decade has seen a precipitous dive in ratings, notoriety, and detractors. The Oscars have become a punching bag of critiques on liberalism, celebrity, award shows themselves, and the business model of television + streaming. This year was always going to be a doozy as theaters and their audiences mostly stayed at home, unless you’re a superhero or horror movie. This year’s award ceremony had a couple of huge problems including:
A large group of films that were largely not seen by the public.
A lack of star power especially amongst Millenials and Gen Z.
A society that has seen gaming, social media, streaming video, and other activities take off more than movies over the last decade.
The ongoing ‘wokelash’ to Hollywood’s purported liberalism.
A ‘star’ power system that is influx on its relevancy and not sure how to pivot.
3. Winners and Losers
Smaller films, since the 2009 expansion of the Best Picture nominees (due to the exclusion of The Dark Knight and Wall-E) have been the biggest winners. Smaller films have been winning a lot, since 2000, but since 2009, almost every winner has been an indie-to-mid level film.
The Sundance Film Festival has been a haven for bigger acquisitions of indie films, films that are finding higher prices due to the rise of streaming services.
“Keep out the (liberal) politics”, “Traditional TV is dead”, and “The Oscars aren’t relevant” naysayers
America loves conservative stories/conservative talking points, they feel as if liberals are talking/punching down. Anything about racism/classism/police tunes out.
American moviegoers’ interests often overlap with the general public. Meaning more machismo, i.e. Rambo 10 or another WWII film.
Or a movie where they ‘tell it like it is’. Expect more Clint Eastwood type, white conservative male gaze films American Sniper or Grand Torino. Or the old man vs modern/liberal society i.e., As Good As Its Gets.
Or more centering on white protagonists in historic events i.e., Green Book.
Or back to old Hollywood, i.e., The Artist, to be nominated again among the pack of Oscar-nominated films.
Expect more direct and indirect appeals to ‘avoid’ (liberal) politics. Appealing to more popular films to bring back the ‘average American’ euphemism of conservative (white-centered ideological America).
Streaming Services and on-Demand platforms
Apple is the biggest winner, as its pick up of Sundance Film Festival’s darling Coda, won three awards including Best Picture.
Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and Hulu had almost all of the nominated films on one of their streaming services at the time of the awards show. Expect this to continue.
Despite maintaining ad revenue, ABC, a division of Disney, the world’s largest traditional media company is at a crossroads. The ratings for the Oscars this year and rapid decline overall will likely lead to conversations with the Academy on their long-standing partnership in producing the Oscars. This partnership could be focused on exploring new ideas for the show, including more Gen Z and expanding to its streaming service Hulu.
The Audience’s time
Despite having three hosts, very few clips of films, and a few musical numbers, the show was still 3+ hours.
It’s been a thing for the last decade, it’s only going to get louder after this year unless something changes.
Streaming Services and on-Demand platforms
Despite most of the films being more widely available on streaming services, digital service providers, and on-demand cable platforms, audiences still haven’t watched most of these films.
4. Let’s talk audience
The 2022 Academy Awards were up 56% this year to 15.0m viewers, compared to the audience for the 2021 Oscars was down to an abysmal 9.85m viewers. This is still down from an already pre-pandemic 2020 ceremony which drew 23.6m viewers in 2020, a decline from the 29.6million in 2019.
This decline represents a decline 40 years in the making but has hit hyper-drive over the 2010s. And the two biggest reasons for this decline, are new technology, and less popular films have aided in the decline.
This decline in the audience has been more prominent for the Oscars because of its political history and the national trends towards anti-liberalism/Democrat-leaning endeavors by conservatives. But the Oscars aren’t alone as 2020 saw a rapid decline in the traditional cable and broadcasting ecosystem.
4b. Popular films with critical appeal have changed
Since 2000, the chances of a film that has critical + commercial appeal have plummeted. Some of that is due to the expansion of Oscar voters, some of it has been the over-indexing of Boomers, and the other is, what’s a popular film has changed. Exactly 20 years ago, the 2002 Oscars, celebrating the films of 2001 included a mix of films-of varying tastes + box office success. Those films included The Lord of the Rings ($313m), Training Day ($76m), A Beautiful Mind ($171m), Moulin Rouge ($57m), Shrek ($268m), and Monster’s Inc. ($256m) to name a few. Each of these films had relative success in their mainstream niches + critical support.
That awards show garnered an overall 72.2 million viewers including 42.9 million who watched the show concurrently. Even then, that awards show was considered a bit of a disappointment from the 2001 telecast which had 46.3 million concurrent viewers. Some of which was attributed to the then-white hot competition show Survivor.
By 2022, the most popular film on the Best Picture films list, Dune, was by traditional box office standards just so-so for would-be blockbusters at $131million. While the most well-known film, Spider-Man: No Way Home, the third highest-grossing film ever in the US and fifth-highest of all time was only nominated for VFX, which is fine. But there was no integration of any of the stars, Zendaya, Tom Holland, or Benedict Cumberpatch in the ceremony.
4c. Box office still matters
Despite what streaming supporters say, box office matters. The box office is how a film actually makes money for the studios and its investors.
Box office performance has an effect on award nominations. It is also synonymous with overall audience awareness, translating to direct dollars, plus a stronger secondary market of streaming + television syndication. Even when factoring in day and date releases, such as Warner Bros./HBO Max’s 2021 strategy.
When looking at this year’s films, they were not strong anywhere, for the most part, reflecting in this year’s ratings, which were still better than last year’s. As more films at the Oscars are less aware to general audiences, they are also not as successful at the box office, causing studios to cut back on releasing these films in theaters. This is a trend that has some questioning if any non-popcorn film will get made in the future.
Over the last decade, the box office performance of the films nominated for Best Picture has gone down. From 2000-to-2004, the Best Picture list was a mix of films also in the top-20 of films released that year + some midrange and smaller films. A decade later in the 2010s, it was comprised of films in the top-40 + more indies. A decade after that in 2020-present, it would include some films that were in the top-100 or never released in theaters at all. The films became more niche, the subjects less known by the general public, overlapping with a rise in other entertainment options—social media, streaming, gaming, and a decline in the audience at theaters.
5. The Typical Oscar Voter
One reason for the decline in the films presented and seen by audiences has been the makeup of the average Academy voter. The films selected by the Academy are well, not reflective of the US as a whole. As the country is soon to be majority-minority, the Academy, even with more recent initiatives is far from that level of diversity.
From Vox: The 2021 Oscar nominees set diversity records. The Academy’s massive growth is a key reason - 3/16/2021
The Academy has undergone a very significant transformation over the past five to 10 years, and it basically changed the entire outlook of the organization.
For years, in the 1990s through the early 2010s, there were approximately 6,000 members. Then Cheryl Boone Isaacs took charge of the organization [in 2013], and early in her term, she announced plans to expand the organization a bit. Then, in 2015, #OscarsSoWhite happened, which really motivated them.
But this is the first year in which there are more post-2012 invitees in the Academy than there are people who were in the Academy in 2012 or earlier. And folks have also retired from the organization, or passed away. The change within the organization is a bit more significant than people realize. As of this year, there are 9,362 voting members. At the end of 2011, there were 5,783 members.
5b. The profile of the average Oscar voter is similar to…
The average Oscar voter is a white, over 60, upper-middle-class boomer. The average Oscar voter in many ways is reflective of the declining political system that’s been under threat of change over the last decade. The choices of movies that are nominated historically have followed a pattern. But since the rise in the number of films that can be nominated plus the trickle of new members each year, the film slates have changed.
It should be more surprising that the Academy has managed to mostly entrench itself in white-centered films for this long. But considering the makeup of the Academy, it’s likely to continue in the future. Since this criticism emerged from the 2015-16 ‘Oscars So White’ media campaign has emerged a purposeful diversity quota system, which has each year introduced more women, young people, and people of color. Which included supporters of a boycott of the Oscars, like Jada Pinkett Smith.
It’s not surprising that a movie like Nomadland, a film about a woman in the fly-over country that used heavy auteurist filmmaking won Best Picture last year. Or that Coda, a semi-silent art-house film with no stars, no marketing, with nearly zero audience awareness but high award show voter awareness won. Not to mention Coda was thrown on Apple Tv+ this year to little wide release fanfare, while last year’s Nomadland was on Hulu after a limited theatrical release during the pandemic.
6. What movies have historically won?
Historically, the films that win Best Picture at the Academy Awards can be considered those which reflect the national standards of white-centered heroism. So what films win? In a nutshell, dramas that are two hours plus long, feature a ‘star’, an easily understood struggle, difficulty of performance, and a degree of prestige pedigree of the filmmaker. Even better if it’s based on a person, a true story, an event, or a book. Add in a disability or an acceptable form of discrimination and voila, Oscar bait.
The Oscars often award the most ‘important’ film versus the ‘best’ film. This is often how some movies can win, see: Green Book in 2018 over Roma.
6b. The Oscars have changed…kind of
Movies since 2000 the films presented at the Academy Awards have gone into three areas, 1) popcorn movies, 2) art house films, and 3) middlebrow films.
Popcorn movies like Star Wars, Fast and Furious often are relegated to just competing in sound and visual effects regardless of critic and audience praise, ex: Mad Max While sometimes-popular films can break out into the general categories, typically if they have a unique angle or a poplar director, ex: Mad Max: Fury Road.
Art-house films can also be included with foreign films, but these are films typical are auteur-driven, ex: Some art-house director mainstays, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, often have films that the general public has never seen or heard of until Oscar night. While other art-house directors, ex: Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino have managed to become household names, often guaranteeing a spot in the ceremony to solidify ratings, ex: Lee’s 2018 Blackkklansman and Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained.
Middlebrow films are often adult-oriented dramas, biopics, war films, crime films, films about disabilities, political dramas, musicals, or anything else not involving CGI, capes, or explosions. These films are often those that range in overall audience awareness but also anchor the awards between arthouse and popcorn films.
What’s nearly always outside of these award nominations are animation and comedy. But some years, a sci-fi film (Dune), thriller (Get Out), comic book (Black Panther, Joker), animated (Toy Story 3), and foreign films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) can enter the mix, even win (see: Parasite, 2019).
7. How Oscar voting actually works
Despite all of the criticism, the Oscars are one of the most prominent examples in the states of ranked-choice voting. In a rank-choice system, the film with the most general support rises to the top while the more polarizing choices, typically more commercial films, falter. Resulting in the most generally appealing films winning.
Because of this system, typically not the #1 choice film is selected but rather the aggregate film is. This system often rewards 2nd-5th ranked films likelier to win instead of everyone’s top choice. Often the first choice doesn’t win, which is also part of the problem, the favorite film, especially the most viewed film in the bunch.
8. The Future is in Streaming (but not in how you’re thinking)
The future of film is streaming but that doesn’t mean movie theaters are done. In fact, it will be quite the opposite. The future of movies is going to be a more diverse means of accessing films, with the audience choosing what is worthy of going to a theater. The pandemic theater-going has already started to show this trend emerging.
8b. Movie theaters are good, they need to be great
The future of film is streaming but that doesn’t mean movie theaters are done. In fact, it will be quite the opposite. Movie theaters since the start of the pandemic have become more reliant on blockbusters (Superheroes, Fast and Furious, Disney) and event films (Horror) to keep the doors open. Everything else has been doa at the box office.
Movie theaters are reliant on hits now more than ever, and December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home has performed better than every film at both the domestic and international box office.
The future of the theater is likely going to be similar to the music industry as fewer large-scale venues exist, but only for proven performers, leading to fewer shows, but bigger acts at a bigger price. AMC is already tinkering with this idea on the recent The Batman release as some tickets were more expensive than a typical ticket. Movie theaters will be fine-ish—but for those who want to watch more than latex outfits and have a way to honor films that are more than popcorn fare, the days may be numbered.
For events like the Oscars and the Grammys, the reliance on having stars of old and stars of new show up for these events is the difference between future relevancy and future existence. And for a star the likes of Will Smith, one of the last remaining true Hollywood stars and a social media powerhouse, there was no way that he wasn’t going to be at the Oscars. The Oscars need Will Smith, which is now a problem.
Now, here’s where we will talk about the incident on Sunday. I am not going to attempt to convince you on anything or give you a thinkpiece. There are plenty of them already.
Will Smith hit Chris Rock. Will Smith’s career and any consequential actions that follow will affect Will Smith. It will not affect you.
9. The Will Smith incident and how we perceive events
On Sunday night, Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock after a 10-second remark regarding his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Initially laughing, Smith within a few seconds after Rock’s ‘GI Jane 2’ remark walked up to the stage and open hand slapped Rock, stunning him. What was initially perceived to be a standard award show prank turned awkward as Smith cursed at Rock. Rock proceeded stunned and stayed to announce the Best Documentary feature to Roots bandmember Questlove for Summer of Soul.
Smith’s initial slap and the 40 minutes that transpired until he won Best Actor for King Richard, saw a surge in viewers. Everything else online and in the general consciousness reflects a real change in how social media, our own points of view, and bias are changing how we perceive the world, in this case for the worse.
9b. The Mandela Effect
Everything else about the event has become the culmination of the last decade of social media becoming a real-time Mandela effect, false or misinterpreted memories shared by a group of people. The Mandela effect refers to a pseudoscientific study regarding the real phenomenon of false memories, which can occur amongst a large group of people. The slap has gone so far off the rails now that QAnon is involved.
The best example is people falsely believing comedian Sinbad was in a movie called Shazam, he did not but NBA star Shaq did star in a movie called Kazaam. Despite Sinbad stating this never happened, to this day people still believe this Sinbad movie happened, when in reality, it’s a misreading of an appearance of Sinbad in a Disney Channel commercial from the 1990s.
So question…did you actually watch the Oscars in real-time when it happened? I did. I also recorded it. Or did you watch the many edited clips of the slap that emanated online?—Don’t worry millions more did. When the incident happened did you get that info from a friend, a random account, a celebrity, or a verified reporter who was there, to give the actual account of what happened? Like Matt Belloni, who was there.
9c. Information Bias and perception
Depending on how, when, and from whom you received the information—verbal, written, and visual, you will have your opinion mostly shaped for you. A big part of the visceral reactions from everyone is based on what media has been consumed alongside where it’s from. In addition to everyone’s own personal anecdotes.
No, the incident wasn’t staged, nor is there any way to assess whether Rock knew or remembers whether or not Jada Pinkett Smith had alopecia. That also is not an excuse.
9d. Projection of personal emotions and anecdotes
Did Chris Rock know about her alopecia?—who knows. Was Smith ‘defending’ his wife?—it’s a perspective, not the ‘truth’—especially in the eyes of the law. Was this a Black issue?—maybe. Was this an issue of toxic masculinity?—maybe. Did what Rock said matter more than Amy Schumer’s, who called Kirsten Dunst a seat filler?—it depends.
There is no winning this situation, there is no need to go further. Your opinion is just that, an opinion. But the visceral reactions of the now millions of online posts regarding the incident in the vein of ‘if I was…’ or any other issue to which a personal interjection was made is called is projection—the process of displacing one’s feelings onto a different person, animal, or object. Like the Mandela effect, the sheer number of people projecting their own anecdotes, wedge issues, and political talking points is removing the incident from its original context. The truth of the event is second to the emotion.
It can also be narcissism—a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. (Mayo Clinic)
Narcissism exists on a spectrum, and no because you commented on this incident does not make you a narcissist. But the fervor in needing feedback, immediate response, and like-minded validation is aiding in that aspect of all of our human behavior. Another symptom of the amplification of narcissism via social media and proliferation of narcissistic content on the internet. Fwiw, here are a few of the takes.
10. The Smiths are a brand, that was building a successful business prior to Sunday
Prior to the Oscars incident, the entire Smith family had pivoted into music, television, streaming, lifestyle influencers, relationship experts, and talk show hosts.
The Smiths became the anti-Kardashians. The Smiths have become an all-encompassing media brand that thrives on public comment. Social media marketing is an art, the Smiths have found themselves to be a family of Picassos.
From Trapital: How Will and Jada Pinkett Smith Built a Content and Commerce Powerhouse - 8/5/2021
For years, Will avoided social media because movie stars “needed mystery and separation.” In 2015, one of Will’s only social posts was to confirm that he and Jada Pinkett Smith were still together! But eventually, he studied how Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson used social media to become a modern-day box office draw.
The former WWE wrestler has a team who helps him post inspirational videos and entertaining content to engage followers. When it’s time to sell his movies, the Fast & Furious franchise star has a ready customer base. The studios pay him to spread the word too.
And for the better part of 5 years, a well-crafted Pivot into becoming social media influencers has worked. Then 2020 happened, including a public airing involving romantic ‘entanglements’ with an R&B singer outside of their relationship. Coinciding with a very viral interview. Bringing a new set of online ridicule, memes, and thinkpieces to the Smiths.
But like all things the Smiths, the damage control effort was so successful that a little over a year later, the release of Will’s autobiography of the same name had become the focal point of Will Smith’s career, not entanglements. Combined with an HBO/HBO Max release for the movie King Richard, an overt Oscar play on the real-life story of Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams. Team Smith was in Oscar mode, plus sale mode as the production company, Westbrook Inc., was looking to cash in on the recent content spree that saw Reese Witherspoon’s production company sell for a rumored $900 million to private equity firm Blackstone.
For more on the Smith’s media northstar via Reese Witherspoon please read my August 20201 newsletter Reese Witherspoon secured a BAG.
11. What happens to Will Smith next?
Chris Rock isn’t pressing charges. This shouldn’t be a surprise, he’s Black, from Bedstuy, and will likely see Smith again. The Academy has said they are investigating the situation, with rumors of him losing his Best Actor award. An award that was decided by the voting members weeks ago. Will Smith’s penalties could range from a suspension from the academy and all related events for a minimum of one year. Or even harsher including expulsion and an outright ban, in addition to rescinding the Oscar. It’s unlikely he will have his Oscar rescinded due to Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski all still being able to keep theirs, but all have been banned.
Will Smith is too big to cancel
Will Smith’s career is not likely over, but depending on his next moves it could be dampened. Prior to the incident, Smith enjoyed a rare relatively blemish-free career in the larger public. Becoming one of the most successful music, television, and movie stars over the last 30 years. While over the last 5 has seen him pivot into a global social media influencer. Smith last fall also added being a successful author to his name, with his autobiography Will. Smith will now face a controversy of his own doing for the first time in a career on the biggest stage, at the biggest moment of his career.
Smith will have to realize that even if Rock and the Academy forgive him, his public image may never fully recover. He will also now have to walk directly into celebrity controversy in addition to an ongoing culture war. Something he’s avoided since the earliest days of his career. But if anyone can pivot, it’s Smith, but this time he either will have to be completely vulnerable and transparent or put on the best performance of his life.