I can think of one reason the Golden Globe Awards show might get a low Nielsen rating this year: it won't be on TV. That's a real possibility, since the Writers Guild, on strike since Nov. 5, has announced it will picket the Jan. 13 ceremony if it's aired on NBC or even as a webcast. (Especially as a webcast: the income that studios derive from the Internet, and don't share with writers, is one of the sticking points of the strike.) And if the writers haul their placards to the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the glamorous stars in their fabulous frocks might stay home. A Globes show without George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Pia Zadora is no show at all. So the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has had to consider making its big party a strictly private affair. The stars will be there, but you can't watch.
Even if the strike is settled and the show is broadcast--even if Clooney and Jolie are there and Steven Spielberg's lifetime-achievement award is presented by J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon in Fendi gowns--there's another reason that viewership may be slack for the Globes, and also for the Academy Awards six weeks later: because the prizes will go to films that relatively few people have seen.
Every year, after the nation drags itself through the four to eight hours of an Oscar ordeal, critics offer suggestions for spiffing up the show. Cut the production numbers. Cut the technical awards. How about if the nominated actors perform scenes from their movies, and the viewers vote by phone, American Idol-style? Maybe Clooney and Daniel Day-Lewis, this year's front runners for Best Actor, could be put in a cage and have an ultimate fight-off.
But the movie award shows won't increase their numbers by becoming like other TV programming. They should do it by returning to their original mandate: to nominate the year's best popular films. In the old days, the Best Picture prize went to box-office hits like Casablanca, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Sound of Music. The mass audience had seen these movies, and they paid attention to the Oscars. Now when the nominations come out, people try to catch up with the finalists, but it's almost like homework.
You might think the highest-rated Oscar telecasts are in years when there's a close contest in the major categories, as with Crash and Brokeback Mountain in 2006. Uh-uh. It's the runaway years, when billion-dollar blockbusters like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King get what is essentially People's Choice awards. Moviegoers who are TV viewers don't want horse races; they want coronations--validation that Hollywood is ready to honor the movies they love.
There aren't likely to be any honorable blockbusters this year. Instead, the nominees for the Best Picture Oscar are almost sure to include No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, two ultraviolent dramas much loved by critics but too weird to be crowd pleasers. Atonement could fill the period-film slot; Sweeney Todd might get a nod for its crimson passion. With all this caviar on offer Oscar night (if there is an Oscar night), the beer-and-nachos audience will stay away, and the ratings will suffer VDD--viewer deficit disorder.
What's funny is that Hollywood has never been less interested in making the big serious movie: the star-laden, noble-themed, grownup film, of medium budget or higher, that the Oscars used to shower with statuettes. The big studios leave financing of prestige product to their "indie" subsidiaries; hence the proliferation of family dramas that can be made on the cheap, and the near extinction of the Out of Africas. The films Hollywood gives awards to in January and February are precisely the kind it avoids making for most of the year. The Oscars are largely an affirmative-action program where the industry scratches its niche.
So let the Spirit Awards for independent films (which the Writers Guild is not picketing) honor the indie films that critics love. And let Hollywood be Hollywood.