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This year's Oscars facing uphill battle for ratings and relevance

Selden's Robert Tarango has already made history as

Selden's Robert Tarango has already made history as the first deaf-blind actor to play a leading role in a film.  That movie, "Feeling Through," is vying for best live-action short at Sunday's Academy Awards. Newsday film critic Rafer Guzmán and Newsday's Marissa Sarbak discuss Tarango's movie, and Guzmán predicts the winners in the top Oscar categories. Credit: Newsday studio; File footage

Loni Barocas, a longtime movie lover, thought there might be one upside to the COVID-19 pandemic: more time to watch movies. Instead, when she wasn’t trying to drum up business for her marketing and advertising business in Great Neck, Barocas found herself watching the news or pursuing projects around the house. As a result, she has seen barely any of the year’s Oscar contenders and had no idea the ceremony was taking place Sunday.

"My opinion is, nobody cares anymore," said Barocas, 75. "You’re watching everything on TV, and the extravaganza that used to be the Oscars is no more. It’s not quite as interesting."

The Oscars (Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC/7) this year are facing a battle for not only ratings but relevance. With cinemas mostly closed during 2020, the activity called "going to the movies" was all but canceled. Many films were postponed and still have not been released. Others were made available via streaming platforms but lost a little of their luster in the process. As a result, the Oscars will be celebrating a roster of critically acclaimed movies — from "Nomadland" to "The Trial of the Chicago 7" to "Judas and the Black Messiah" — that many people have not seen.

"I’m kind of hoping that the producers just push the ratings issue aside this year. I think it’s a lost cause," Perri Nemiroff, producer and host of the podcast For Your Consideration, said of the Oscars broadcast. "Instead, just put the focus on creating a show that respects and celebrates the work that was created and delivered over this really tough year."

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out the Oscars, is doing its best to avoid a repeat of February's mostly virtual and slightly stilted Golden Globes ceremony, which was watched by a scant 6.9 million viewers — a record low for the NBC show. The Oscars are being coproduced by Steven Soderbergh, the man behind the flashy "Ocean’s 11" films. There will be no host for the third consecutive time. Nor will there be Zoomed-in acceptance speeches; those who want to thank God and their agent will have to show up in person. Some material will be pretaped.

What’s more, in a major departure from tradition, the show’s home base will be Union Station, the famous Art Deco train hub in Los Angeles, rather than the traditional Dolby Theatre (though that venue will still figure into the show). Attendees will be limited to 170. The presenters will include Halle Berry, Laura Dern, Harrison Ford, Regina King, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt and Zendaya, among others.

"There’s so much wattage here, sunglasses may be required," Soderbergh and his co-producers said last week in a hopeful statement.

All of it may not be enough to overcome the public’s tuned-out attitude. That disconnect is the result of a sort of pandemic paradox, according to Nemiroff. "These movies are more accessible than they’ve ever been. You can sit home and press play and watch any of the Oscar-nominated films," she said. "I thought that was the way people would spend their time during lockdown. But in the conversations I’ve had, it seems to be the opposite."

And what were people watching instead? "Television," Nemiroff said. "I think we were on this path already. The pandemic just pushed us way closer and faster than we would have been."

There’s another irony here: After years of striving for diversity and inclusion across race and gender, the Oscars finally seem to be making headway. For the first time, the directing category includes two female nominees: Chloe Zhao for "Nomadland" and Emerald Fennell for "Promising Young Woman." The best acting category includes its first Asian American nominee (Steven Yuen, of "Minari") and its first Muslim nominee (Riz Ahmed, of "Sound of Metal"). The acclaimed drama "Judas and the Black Messiah" is the first best picture nominee to come from all-Black producers.

Wins for any of these nominees would mark historic firsts — yet it seems few moviegoers are likely to witness them.

So, is this the end of the movies? Not yet, according to Dylan Skolnick, co-director of Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre. Low ratings for the Oscars are to be expected after a year of a pandemic. "People should not panic," Skolnick said. "If they’re down again next year, then we can all go, ‘Uh-oh.’"

Barocas, the disillusioned moviegoer in Great Neck, sounds less gung-ho. If and when the pandemic subsides and the movies are back in full swing, she said, it might not make much difference to her. "I’m sure they’re going to go back to normal," Barocas said, but she added: "It’s a love-hate relationship. You love to go out because it’s a social event, but it’s not so bad seeing anything you want on TV."

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