Posted by: Jeff | March 5, 2010

The Academy And The Public Aren’t So Far Apart Afterall

As much as he’d like The Hurt Locker to take the gold for Best Picture at the Oscars, Christopher Orr predicts the big tamale will go to Avatar, and in the process elaborates on a subject we brought up in our last podcast.

The problem for The Hurt Locker—and any other non-billion-dollar earner this year—is that much as the Academy was criticized after Brokeback for being afraid to reward a “gay” film, following last year’s awards it was chastised for being biased against commercially successful films. Indeed, the Academy took the complaint so much to heart that it tossed aside 65 years of practice and expanded the Best Picture field to ten specifically to ensure that some crowd-pleasers made the cut. Alas, the evidence for the whole the-Academy-hates-blockbusters complaint derived entirely from 2008, when critically acclaimed megahits Wall-E and The Dark Knight were passed over for more modest, high-minded fare. And, as theories based on small sample sizes so often are, the claim was, on its face, completely ludicrous.

The truth is that the Academy loves blockbusters, and always has: Three of the top six all-time box-office-grossers adjusted for ticket price (Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, and Titanic) won Best Picture, and the other three (Star Wars, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and The Ten Commandments) were nominated. Indeed, you have to drop all the way down to number ten to find a film that wasn’t nominated—1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—and that omission is hardly one that looks wise in hindsight.

Nor has that trend abated, 2008 notwithstanding. The Lord of the Rings movies each grossed more than $300 million domestically, and that didn’t stop all three from being nominated for Best Picture, nor the final one from winning it. Likewise, it seems unlikely that the (generally unanticipated) commercial success of such Best Picture winners as Slumdog Millionaire ($141 million), Chicago ($171 million), A Beautiful Mind ($171 million), Gladiator ($188 million), Forrest Gump ($330 million!), Dances with Wolves ($184 million), and Rain Man ($173 million) acted as rein rather than spur on their victory laps. And anyone who imagines that The Blind Side would have a Best Picture nomination—and that Sandra Bullock would be a narrow, terrifying favorite for Best Actress—if the movie hadn’t earned $249 million and counting, well, that’s some imagination you’ve got there.

I’m sure that last paragraph was like Oscar-buff crack for Joe.

Now, I thought that in the podcast the two of us leaned pretty heavily on the notion that the Hollywood establishment has become progressively more alienated form general American audiences in recent years vis-a-vis its nominees for Best Picture. And I’d say Orr’s argument complicates that narrative substantially. (And also reiterates how silly and short-sighted this whole business of expanding the Best Pic nominees to ten has been.)

So, was the 2008’s snubbing of Wall-E and The Dark Knight just an ill-advised fluke on the Academy’s part? Have the Oscars’ declining ratings really been due to the show’s bloated and epic length after all? I haven’t the slightest idea. Comments please.

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Responses

  1. Slumdog Millionaire was the 16th highest grossing film of 2008, and it had just barely grossed $100M by Oscar night. Chicago was the 10th highest grossing film of 2002. A Beautiful Mind the 11th of 2001. No, none were flops, but still less seen than the highest grossing film of those years.

    But those are just the winners. The collective group of Best Picture nominees (on average) have on trend recently been smaller grossing than the biggest films of the year.


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