Oscars 2024 aiming for a bigger audience, but that may be beyond Ken

On Sunday night in Los Angeles at the Dolby theatre one name from Hollywood’s recent past will ring out louder than any other: not Cillian or Emma but Ken.

There will be 65 of them to be precise, joining Ryan Gosling on stage as he performs I’m Just a Ken from Barbie whose cast has been all over the Oscars’ pastel pink promotional videos alongside fourth time host Jimmy Kimmel.

Despite the fact Barbie isn’t expected to win beyond Billie Eilish for best original song and another for best costume design (Gosling is an outside bet for best supporting male), Greta Gerwig’s film has been placed at the centre of an award’s show that is desperately trying to reconnect with its audience.

The Oscars’ executive producers Raj Kapoor, Katy Mullan, and Molly McNearney have pledged they are “going big” this year and in truth, their event sorely needs some of Barbie’s star wattage.

Ratings for the Oscars have been unimpressive since the turn of the decade. Last year 18.7 million viewers tuned in to watch Jimmy Kimmel host, the third worst performance ever, after 2022’s dismal 15.4 million and 2021’s nadir of 10.4 million viewers.

That trend has forced the Academy and ABC (the American broadcaster with rights to the Oscars) to change tack in a bid to revive an event, which at its peak commanded an audience of more than 50 million.

Part of the solution has been practical – the producers have brought the start time forward an hour to try and make it more primetime. But they are relying heavily on the appeal of Barbie to create an evening refocused on a broad, family audience.

Arguably part of the downturn in fortunes and viewing figures has been because fewer people are interested in films the Oscars has embraced and championed.

Parasite, 2020’s surprise best picture winner took $262m at the global box office, while 2021’s best picture Nomadland, took just shy of $40m. Last year’s best picture, the all-action genre-defining Everything Everywhere All at Once, hauled in $143m, an amount dwarfed by Barbie’s $1.5bn and Oppenheimer’s global box office, which stands just shy of $1bn.

Oscars assemble in Hollywood. Photograph: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/REX/Shutterstock

The cultural phenomenon of Barbieheimer gives producers a gift as they attempt to reinvigorate Hollywood’s biggest night: a chance to embrace both the low and high culture of cinema, which millions of people have actually seen.

Christopher Nolan’s awards season juggernaut Oppenheimer looks nailed on to dominate the evening awards-wise, while Barbie can provide the softer cultural cut-through to a younger audience. The other thing Gosling’s performance could engineer is the holy grail for producers: viral moments that travel way beyond the boundaries of the broadcast into the wider culture and give them the much coveted social media “reach”.

This year producers say they’re moving away from the “big, pre-produced, celebrity-heavy comedy bits” involving Kimmel and a cast of guests. “We can only plant the seeds and hope things will happen naturally and spontaneously,” pledged Kapoor. It’s safe to say last year’s laboured exchanges between Kimmel and the donkey from The Banshees of Inisherin won’t be repeated.

In their place will come starry celebrity hosts announcing the winners. Bad Bunny, Chris Hemsworth, Dwayne Johnson, Michael Keaton, Regina King, Jennifer Lawrence, Kate McKinnon, Rita Moreno, John Mulaney, Catherine O’Hara, Octavia Spencer, Ramy Youssef, Mahershala Ali, Nicolas Cage, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brendan Fraser, Jessica Lange, Matthew McConaughey, Lupita Nyong’o, Ke Huy Quan, Sam Rockwell, Michelle Yeoh and Zendaya are all confirmed. Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino will also both appear, leading to speculation of a Scarface reunion.

The other question hanging over the awards is will anyone mention the Israel-Gaza war? Historically, Hollywood has had no problem ignoring geopolitical events on its biggest night, but the scale of protest in the US and around the world, plus the subject matter of the films, might make that difficult on Sunday.

There have been protests such as the ones which disturbed the Independent Spirit awards and there could be more on Sunday that could force a conversation that few in Hollywood seem to want to have. “It’s too fraught,” one studio executive told the New York Times after the Independent Spirit protest. “People are worried about their careers.”

The Zone of Interest producer James Wilson is one of the few nominees who has drawn attention to the conflict during awards season, while picking up an award at the Baftas. If Jonathan Glazer’s Holocaust drama is successful again will Wilson repeat his speech? And if he does, will others follow?