It’s never been easier to watch the Academy Award nominees: So why didn’t we?

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Ryder Mawby/Staff

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The 93rd Academy Awards are here at long last, capping off a tumultuous year in film largely defined by a complete shutdown of the theatrical industry. Now, with the ceremony just around the corner, we have an opportunity to reflect on how the pandemic has shaped our relationship to film and to the awards shows that celebrate it.

The Academy Awards have long been criticized for the lack of overlap between the films they reward and the films that attract the biggest audiences. This year, though, it seemed like that all might change. We were all stuck at home, and streaming subscriptions were at an all-time high. With the barrier of accessibility lowered beneath the level of effort, geographic proximity and hefty ticket fee required to see a movie in theaters, the 2021 Oscars could have been the year when the gap between critical acclaim and popularity finally shrank.

But it seems as though the opposite happened. According to a survey by Guts + Data, only about 30% of film consumers on average have heard of any of the Academy Award for Best Picture nominees. This bleak figure is supported by the even more bleak ratings at last month’s Golden Globes, where the viewership dropped by 2/3 from the previous year.

What does it say about the film landscape if even fewer people are engaged when it’s never been easier to see all the films up for major awards? Is it that Hollywood is just irredeemably out of touch with the average consumer? Or maybe the apparent improvements in accessibility were not as robust as they seemed — after all, films such as “Promising Young Woman” were only available for rental at a steep price when they were first released, and “Mulan” likewise required a $30 premium access fee, even for Disney+ subscribers. Maybe there weren’t enough blockbusters to draw eyes toward the release landscape, a result of major pictures such as “No Time to Die” and “Black Widow” being postponed until theaters could reopen.

But perhaps the most likely explanation is also the simplest: We missed going to the theaters. This year taught us that though at-home viewing has its perks, an experience beset by distractions and hindered by small screens and shoddy sound systems is a crude replacement for the way films were meant to be seen. The nominees this year were beautiful, moving works of art, but a significant element of the viewing experience is lost when they can’t be seen in theaters.

This isn’t to say that film can’t be enjoyed or appreciated at home — if you connected with a movie this past year in any way, hold on to that. It’s a testament to the power and resilience of the art form and the strength of this year’s contenders that film’s emotional and spiritual impact can transcend distraction and technical difficulties. But the Oscars are meant to celebrate the medium to its fullest, and we simply haven’t had anything close to a full experience this year.

We shouldn’t take it as an indictment of the industry that most consumers haven’t heard of the nominees or that many of those who did watch had a hard time truly engaging. We should take it as a happy indication that what we love most about movies is the event of seeing them; of learning about other people; learning about ourselves; being inspired, moved, enraged; and above all, sharing these experiences with friends and strangers together in the same room. The ease of access brought about by the pandemic can’t make up for what we lost in the communal experience, but now that there’s light at the end of the tunnel: Maybe these Oscars are an auspicious sign of a moviegoing renaissance in the months to come.

So although this year’s Oscars may feel like a pyrrhic celebration of 2020 in film, they’re also a chance to take stock and remind ourselves of what film gives us and what it adds to our lives. The Oscars may be about movies, but movies aren’t about the Oscars — they’re about us.

I saw “Parasite” for the first time with a friend at a Regal Cinemas in November 2019. Before it started, the usher came to the front of the room and said, “I saw this movie the other night, and I left the theater feeling completely electrified. I haven’t let go of that feeling, even days later. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.”

Five years from now, I likely won’t remember that I correctly picked “Parasite” to win on my Oscars ballot. But I will remember seeing it with my friend, what the usher told us before the picture started and how the theater did indeed feel electric after it ended.

It doesn’t matter how many people see the nominees every year. It only matters how we saw them and how we loved them.

Matthew DuMont is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].