The Oscars vs. the public

Although it’s still one of the highest rated shows on television, last week’s Academy Awards garnered its lowest ratings in six years, down about 16% from last year alone. Some (including myself) see this as a reflection of how terrible the show is — with monotonous acceptance speeches for little-understood categories (like Best Sound Mixing), tacky musical numbers that seem to have arrived via a time warp from another century and an emcee whose attempts at humor fall embarrassingly flat.

But hey, the Oscars (with few exceptions) have always been like that — even when they got much higher ratings. We watched anyway — because we wanted to gawk at the stars, learn the winners of the “big” awards as soon as they were announced and perhaps get to savor an unexpected memorable moment or two.

Lastly, we hoped to see our favorite films get rewarded with a statuette. And herein lies a critical “problem” with the Oscars, at least as cited by many pundits. As noted by Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes in a New York Times article, the Best Picture winner, Birdman, collected only about $11 million in ticket sales between the time it was nominated and the day of the awards. In contrast, American Sniper, another Best Picture nominee, took in $317 million over the same period — equalling almost as much as the combined total of the other seven nominees. Yet Sniper went home with only one award — a minor one for sound-editing.

The Oscars vs. movie-goers disparity is actually worse than the Sniper example. If you look at the top eight highest grossing movies of 2014, American Sniper is the only film on the list to have gotten a Best Picture nomination. This is not a new phenomenon. It is a trend that has been developing for years. Indeed, it is precisely what led the Academy to expand the potential list of nominees beyond its prior five movie limit. The goal was to increase the number of popular films that got nominated. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Chances are most viewers won’t see their favorite films win any awards — because their favorite films aren’t even nominated.

Cieply and Barnes’ explanation is that the Oscars “have become hopelessly detached from movie viewers…Both the Academy and the echo chamber of Hollywood’s awards-system machinery have nearly broken their connection with the movies that many millions of people buy tickets to watch.” The Academy voters have become “elitist” and “not in step with anything that is actually popular. No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time.”

I beg to to differ.

If the Academy is “elitist,” then so is almost every other institution that gives out film awards. According to IMDB, Birdman received 170 wins and 152 nominations, including several Best Picture wins and a spot on almost every critic’s Top Ten list. The only other movie with comparable credentials was Boyhood, another low-grossing Best Picture nominee. In contrast, The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay – Part 1, the highest grossing film of the year, received only 1 win and 9 nominations — none of which were for Best Picture. Even American Sniper had only 8 wins and 25 nominations overall.

As I see it, the reason for this is that the Oscars, as well as most of the other awards cited by IMDB, are not based on popularity, at least not as measured by box office success. Ideally, they are determined primarily by artistic merit. These two criteria show very little overlap, especially these days. This disconnect is by no means unique to movies. You see the same thing in literature. The winners of the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer prize or Nobel prize are rarely given to books that topped the New York Times Best Sellers list.

I’m not naive. I know that politics, among other non-quality factors, contribute to an Oscar win. But it’s still fair to say that sheer popularity is not the determining factor — probably less determining now than ever before. And this is as it should be. I view the trend of recent years as a positive one. Would we rather return to a time when movies like Oliver! or Driving Miss Daisy wins Best Picture? I hope not.

Birdman may or may not be your choice for Best Picture. But it is undeniably a great film. It had terrific acting by the entire cast, creative cinematography, an inventive percussive soundtrack, topped off by an original thought-provoking screenplay. I contend that this is a film that will “last over time” — certainly much more so that most of the films that make up the top box-office winners — populated with big budget, special-effects-laden sequels and franchises like The Hunger Games, Captain America, The Hobbit and Transformers. Which film do you consider more likely to join Citizen Kane, The Godfather, or Casablanca on the AFI’s list of 100 greatest films of all timeBirdman or Transformers?

Despite all of this, I do concede there is an uncomfortable disconnect between the awards and the public — one that has grown larger over the years.

The disconnect is partly attributable to the rise of the blockbuster movie — which has divided the year into summer action movies vs. fall “serious” movies. The result is that the most popular films come out in the summer and the most Oscar-nominated films in the fall.

This is assisted by the fact that, as has always been true, money talks loudest in Hollywood. Ask a studio head if would he rather produce a crappy film that makes huge amounts of money or a great film that barely ekes out a profit. Almost always (maybe always), the answer will be the former. So action movie crap too often gets a green light.

The disconnect is also partly attributable to a change in viewing habits. More and more, people are content to view movies at home on their large screen televisions (or even their small mobile devices), rather than in theaters. This especially hurts theater ticket sales of smaller independent character-driven films — ones that skew toward an older less-theater-going audience and do not benefit much from being seen in a theater anyway.

There was a time when some of the best most memorable movies of the year were also among the most popular. The peak for this was probably the 1970’s — when movies like The Godfather, The French Connection, The Sting and Annie Hall won Best Picture. No more. We live in a time when, with few exceptions, the most popular and money-making films are the ones that most appeal to teenagers seeking the film equivalent of a comic book or young-adult novel. This is not the best criterion for a great film. And these films rarely get many award nominations.

So, yes, the Academy Awards are detached from the mainstream of movie-goers these days. While there is still the potential to make movies (such as American Sniper) that achieve both box office and critical success, it has become increasingly difficult to do so. But the solution is not to turn the Oscars into the People’s Choice Awards. Hollywood should continue to strive to give Oscars to what it perceives as the best films, regardless of box office receipts. If that means a decline in the popularity of the Oscar telecast, so be it.

However, I believe Hollywood should be able to figure out how to make the Oscar ceremony a much more entertaining event. That could go a long way to improving the ratings. I have ideas about this, starting with focusing on movies rather than dumb musical numbers…but that’s a subject for another column.

Addendum: I just finished reading Richard Corliss’ Time magazine article [subscription required] covering this same territory. I agree with his contention that a couple of the top grossing movies were well-received and could have qualified for a Best Picture nomination (especially “The Lego Movie” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy”) — although I can’t see any of them winning. However, I would point out that equal Rotten Tomatoes ratings are not all equivalent; two movies could both get a 90% approval from critics yet these same critics could agree that only one of the movies deserves consideration for Best Picture. Corliss also makes a good point that the subject matter of most of the nominated movies appeals more to an older audience — which likely reflects the 60-ish average age of Academy members. This could use some fixing. Beyond that, the Time column did not lead me to modify the views I expressed here.

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