Let Oscar be Oscar

Every year, it’s the same lament: The Oscar telecast ratings are down. What should we do to prop them up?

Enough already. Let’s be clear: The purpose of the Academy Awards (Oscar) is not primarily to garner ratings (although television executives may dispute this). It is to give out awards.

Ideally, it is to give out awards to the most deserving films. Admittedly, it is not an ideal process. For one thing, many in Hollywood view everything about films, including the Oscars, only as a way to generate money. Artistic value be damned. Movies that don’t make a lot of money are, by definition in this view, not good and should not get Oscars. Another problem is that some of the people that vote don’t take the process all that seriously and may not even have seen many of the films in contention. Or they vote based on which film ran the best “campaign” or which actor has the most sentimental appeal. And don’t even get me started on the screwy way that the nominations work for Best Foreign Film (so that a superb picture such as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and and 2 Days doesn’t even get a nomination). Or the fact that the last time the Best Song category had more than one memorable song (if that many) was several decades ago.

Even so, the Academy Awards is still, even in a bad year, one of the most watched shows on television. So enough complaining.

Instead, revel in the fact that this year’s nominees somehow managed to include a bunch of great films, even though they were not blockbusters. Major nominations, for example, went to No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Atonement, The Savages, La Vie en Rose, Away From Her, and The Valley of Elah.

Yet I keep reading how the solution to the Oscar ratings “problem” is to ensure that awards should go to more popular films. The theory is that if nominations mainly go to pictures that most people actually saw, more people would watch the telecast. A Time magazine column by Richard Corliss expressed this view in its most extreme and despicable form.

I spit on this solution.

The five most popular films this past year were: Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Now some of these films were enjoyable. No doubt about it. But I’d like to believe that even people who went to these films and enjoyed them can recognize the difference between an enjoyable and popular film vs. a great and award-worthy film. These are not mutually-exclusive categories. But it is far from a sure thing that they will overlap. Does anyone truly want to argue that the 5 pictures at the start of this paragraph should have been the Best Picture nominees? I hope not.

There’s only so much you can do to improve the ratings the Academy Awards. Giving awards to popular but otherwise crappy films should not be one of them. Doing so, in my view, is equivalent to saying that we could improve the ratings of the Super Bowl if we gave the underdog team a 10 point lead before the start of the game, so that the score would likely remain close throughout the 4 quarters. Sound crazy? Sure. But it’s no more crazy than the phony solutions to the Oscar ratings non-problem.

My one suggestion to increase Oscar ratings is to focus more on the films themselves. Creative segments that include clips from great films of previous years, for example, are always one of the highlights for me. Beyond that, leave it alone. Let Oscar be Oscar. Don’t sell him out to the highest bidder.

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