Our very own Nancy Tartaglione was on hand this week as Bill Kramer, the new CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, set his sights on the world.
“I think our future lies as much with international cinema as it does with American cinema,” Kramer said, Tartaglione reported, during a discussion on “Values of cinema in a global society” at the Venice Film Festival.
Twenty-five percent of the Academy’s membership now comes from outside the United States. Half of the last group of new members consider themselves international (however you define, in the field of cinema, something without borders).
So the Hollywood Film Academy has officially gone global. If only the audience for the Oscars, and the corresponding TV revenues, would catch up.
The Academy has generally concealed the exact split between domestic and foreign broadcast revenue for its awards, which historically accounted for nearly all of the group’s non-investment revenue. It is not a statistic that appears in the annual financial report.
In 2003, when business reporter James Peltz and I tried to compile a comprehensive survey of Oscar economics for the Los Angeles Times, we couldn’t find a number for the Academy’s foreign television revenue. Lured by the hype that claimed “one billion viewers worldwide,” we vaguely assumed that foreign receipts must roughly equal domestic receipts, matching the 50-50 split that was common for blockbusters of the time.
But it wasn’t close.
Only with a series of museum bond offerings many years later did the Academy reveal the exact balance between national and international. In 2019, the last year for which a breakout is available, the Academy’s national television deal with ABC paid $107,069,000, while a side deal with Disney’s Buena Vista International unit brought in just $15,037,500.
In other words, international revenues represented just over 12 percent of the total.
That balance is said to have not changed radically in the last three years, except perhaps in 2021, when ABC cut its domestic pay in a one-time concession that arose from disruptions from the pandemic.
Indeed, according to a note in former Academy head Bruce Davis’s new book The Academy and the Prizeinternational revenue has never been a major factor, largely because international viewers mostly watch a day-delayed 90-minute version of the Oscar show, which is edited on the fly.
“Foreign distribution rights,” writes Davis, “were so little considered during the first thirty years of Awards television that they were an unpaid concession to the network that carried the American broadcast.” Only from the mid-1980s did they produce anything, and the figure hovered around 10 percent of total television revenue until recently.
Even lately, foreign income seems not to have been a priority. I know of a former Kramer Academy job applicant who suggested to executives that the surge in foreign membership, with the resulting changes in Oscar voting patterns, needed to somehow coincide with corresponding increases in viewers and income from abroad. The candidate was not hired.
Certainly, a window of opportunity is looming. The Academy’s current contract with Buena Vista International expires in 2024, four years before its deal with ABC for the national rights. A renewed focus on foreign television seems possible.
But another possible future is in the offing, one that may not find the Oscars spectacle a larger presence, either here or abroad, but could rebalance the Academy’s financial underpinnings.
One factor is the movie museum, which is bringing in some tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue from ticket and merchandise sales, some of that money from abroad. Linked to the museum is aggressive outreach for global brand alliances and sponsorships to match a Rolex alliance that is contributing nearly $15 million in annual revenue. Discussions of such sponsorships, including a possible deal with MasterCard International, have much to do with the Academy’s current (and supposedly recurring) trip to Venice and other festivals.
If “globalism” means rich corporate deals on the glamor circuit, the Academy may in a few years be financially stronger, possibly even strong enough to survive an eventual cut in its broadcast fee.
But the Oscars ceremony, an already faltering national spectacle, with movies and filmmakers increasingly coming from abroad, may shrink, regress and culturally mean less.