A previous generation asked, what if they gave a war and nobody came? Today we reframe that existential query for the current young generation: what if MTV gave a party and nobody came? This year’s MTV Movie Awards ratings were down 27%. Why? Eight reasons:

  1. Scheduling. I mean, when you can choose, why schedule a basic-cable awards show against the season premiere of Mad Men and the rather eventful second episode of this season of Game of Thrones? It’s too easy to say that those are entirely different demographics. Just because someone is a teenager doesn’t mean they don’t like great TV, period (y’know, great period TV).
  2. Paramount in a crouch. Weirdly, MTV might have actually wanted low ratings. I’ve never really understood the incentive for Paramount, MTV’s parent company, to provide a lot of free publicity for all these non-Paramount films. This is especially true regarding Summer 2014, where Paramount has exactly three summer films coming, none before June 27: Hercules, another Transformers, and another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s likely that none of these are even edited enough for a trailer (there’s little online). Perhaps, in the past, you could have made the case that the MTV Movie Awards were a place for celebrities to directly court (and cavort with) the youth demographic in a manner that they couldn’t otherwise do. MTV got endlessly recyclable footage of A-listers to add to its brand, and A-listers added MTV to their brand in a synergistic orgy of cross-promotion. Certainly, in the past, the MTV Movie Awards was littered with SNL cast members and mega-A-listers like Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr., and Ben Stiller. Not this year.
  3. Big opening, big letdown. The show almost sabotaged itself with an opening pre-taped bit of host Conan O’Brien finding 50 celebrities…because then the show proceeded to feature just about none of those celebrities. (Note: some of that opener was preposterous. Conan supposedly delivered a pizza to the cast of The Big Bang Theory, scooping up 7 of his 50 Easter eggs, but if you check it again you can see they were never in the same place at the same time. Paramount, you own CBS: you can’t even get the BBT cast to play ball?) Onstage, Conan made multiple references to Nick Lachey sitting in the third row. If Family Guy was doing a satire of a failing MTV Award Show, they’d probably have Nick Lachey in the third row. You don’t want your pseudo-event to become a pseudo-satire of itself.
  4. Conan the Pentagenarian I don’t put all this on Conan O’Brien, and no I don’t think MTV pulled a Producers and tried to go with talent that had the least demographic appeal. However, after the last two months of Fallon on top! Kimmel still great! Letterman retires! Colbert ascends! it was a little strange not to see Conan address any of that at all. Oh, the late-night musical-chairs game is too old-white-guy for today’s teenagers, is that it? Really? I would have preferred that MTV let Conan be Conan. But yeah, for a show that used to have Aziz Ansari hosting, the 51-year-old Conan is a little more 1994 than he is 2014.
  5. The Miley factor. There’s another theory about the absence of celebrities in the show’s audience, and her name is Miley Cyrus. The last time MTV staged an awards show, namely its more music-oriented Video Music Awards, as you may have heard, Miley Cyrus objectified black people and “twerked” her way to renewed fame and fortune as some A-list celebrities looked on, mortified. Perhaps the word was out that Rhianna and Eminem would be doing a number. Why bother to show up? It could only go badly. Better to put yourself on one of Conan’s pre-taped segments – like the litany of those first 50 celebs or a silly bit for the new Spider-Man film – than risk a viral vine of “Clip of (your name) reacting to latest MTV racist outrage.” (For the record: Rhianna and Eminem were fine.) Yes, I know Mila Kunis was there and pregnant enough to happily sit in her seat before accepting an award. Yes I know Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum were in the audience, gamely promoting 22 Jump Street and accepting awards they knew they’d get. (Raise your hand if you think MTV award winners don’t know they’re winning well in advance of the show taping. Oh. Okay. You’re the one then.) Yes, I know Jared Leto, Mark Wahlberg, Zac Efron and a few others managed to get onstage in time for their awards. Yes, I know Cameron Diaz, Kate Upton, Seth Rogen, Ellen Page, and even Johnny Depp (uh, is he still A-list?) popped out of the shadows long enough for quick presentations. But the absence of honorees like Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Vin Diesel was at least as noticeable. Which leads to…
  6. A-listers don’t need MTV to connect to kids anymore. You could blame Jennifer Lawrence for making it clear that you don’t need MTV to be a young star. Before the current era of social media really took off, Kristen Stewart seemed resigned (boy, did she ever) to appearing on MTV to promote Twilight, though every year that kiss with Robert Pattison seemed more reluctant. Incredibly, this year was the first non-Twilight year since 2008, and while the torch has obviously passed to Hunger Games, it’s just as obvious that most of the cast of Hunger Games doesn’t care about MTV. Did most A-list celebrities peek at their twitter accounts and other online presences, and realize there wasn’t much reason to bother with this particular awards show?
  7. The wrong 2013 movies? The 2013 Awards, which celebrated the 2012 movies, featured not only another Twilight but the phenomenon that was The Avengers (which won Best Movie) as well as the immediate afterglow of 7 of 9 Academy Award Best Picture nominees each earning $100 million. This year? Besides the winning Hunger Games, the other MTV Best Movie nominees were American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit, and Wolf of Wall Street. In other words, MTV oriented its show around two bow-and-arrow sequels and three original films that, however brilliant, were not exactly runaway successes with teens or general audiences. (And I hate to keep harping on this point, but outside of household name Josh Hutcherson, they didn’t get any of the leads of those films to show up.) What about Gravity? For Anna’s sake, what about Frozen? MTV doesn’t care about cartoons, perhaps because Paramount doesn’t have an animated division, perhaps because they don’t want to seem any more cartoony than they already are. But this was the year of Frozen, and their demographic knew that, even loved that. (If teaching 19-year-olds has taught me anything, it’s that for them, cartoons are better than any old black-and-white films.) That’s a slip on the ice, MTV.
  8. Summer 2014: meh? Outside of the X-Men, is anyone really looking forward to any of this summer’s films? Or maybe you just don’t know what they are, because Hollywood is tightening its belt and waiting until two weeks out to pique your awareness? Ah, in that case, how come you already know about Star Wars 7, Avengers 2, and Batman vs. Superman? Well, because those are kind of exciting! The problem is that they’re not coming out until 2015. The blockbuster mentality generally means more more better better faster faster boom boom. Maybe that’s not so easy for Hollywood to maintain every year. Maybe that’s not so easy even for a fluffy awards show like the MTV Movie Awards.

Tom Shone has an interesting anecdote in his book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer about the test screenings of Jaws, almost 40 years ago. Apparently Spielberg wasn’t happy that audiences didn’t have a big scream until about 80 minutes in, when Roy Scheider is chumming and the shark pops his head out of the water. Spielberg went back and re-edited Richard Dreyfuss’s dark dive so that the dead man’s head appeared in such a way as to make the audience jump. The newer cut survives, and sure enough audiences all that summer (and since) screamed at both the dead head and the chummy reveal. But Spielberg told Shone almost wistfully that after the head, audiences didn’t trust him anymore, and that the two reliable screams are never quite as big as that one had been when it was left to stand alone. For Shone, this was a telling anecdote about Hollywood’s penchant for unnecessary replication. Perhaps we might apply a similar lesson to MTV. You could keep having two scream-heavy award shows every year, but do you really want to?

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