Oscars vs. Box Office

A reported 36.6 million people watched the Oscars last weekend, less than previous years but still more than the entire population of many countries. Even so, I can count on one hand the number of my students who say they bother to watch the ceremony.

Have the Oscars lost their relevance?

That seems to be the takeaway of many commentators after last weekend's awards. Even beyond the much-publicized controversy concerning the overwhelming "whiteness" of this year's nominees, and despite the time-honored politics-tinged acceptance speeches, pundits have spent a surprising amount of energy post-gala wringing their hands over another curiosity of this year's awards.

To many it seemed odd, and symptomatic of much larger problems, that "American Sniper," which alone accounted for more than half the total ticket sales at US theaters of all eight of the best picture nominees combined, was not the night's biggest winner.

The Clint Eastwood film in fact went home with just one technical award for sound editing, while Mexico-born director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu's "Birdman" walked away with four coveted top prizes for best film, director, original script and cinematography -- all despite the fact that it hadn't grossed even $40 million at the domestic box office.​

The New York Times suggested the discrepancy between the tastes of the Academy and those of American moviegoers was an indication "that 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 Times article called "Birdman" a "brainy" movie and quoted a film scholar accusing the Oscars of being "elitist." Are these meant to be insults? Regardless of which Oscar nominated film you or I or anyone else might personally prefer, and irrespective of the relevance we give the Oscars themselves, the idea that ticket sales determines quality in cinema willfully ignores the realities of the modern-day film industry and stakes the dubious claim that "popular" means the same as "award-worthy" in an art form like filmmaking.

Backers of indie and foreign films -- those who generally can't afford a Hollywood-sized marketing campaign and don't have the corporate muscle to command hundreds of screens across the country -- will tell you that conquering the US marketplace has precious little to do with just making a good movie. If only it were that simple!

Don't take my word for it. Look at the numbers, courtesy of Box Office Mojo: at its widest release, "American Sniper" was playing in 3,885 theaters across the country, while "Birdman" peaked at 976 and generally has been available in fewer than 500 theaters a week. "Whiplash," the dark horse in the best film Oscar category this year and last year's top Sundance prize-winner, never made it over the 600-theater barrier.

And that must look like a luxury to even smaller players. Consider this year's foreign-language Academy Award-winner, the Polish film "Ida," which averaged 50 theaters during its short run at the US box office. That's one movie theater per state!

I personally think the pundits have it backwards. Wouldn't it be a more worthy goal to get people into theaters to see the movies that win the prizes rather than vice versa?

On Fox News, commentators took the argument further, calling Hollywood a "lefty town" and accusing the Academy of snubbing Eastwood for his Republican Party connections (they must have forgotten his previous wins?).

A talking head on PBS suggested the contradiction between ticket sales and Oscar awards illustrated how, "even in our films, we're polarized" as a country. According to her thesis, red states preferred "American Sniper" and blue states "Birdman."

All this pining for an era in the movies when there was consensus across the country and a more direct relationship between popularity and Oscarization may actually be a longing for a bygone era of a single, shared culture. A time when we all loved the same movies because we all saw the same movies because the options were so few.

It's a time beautifully personified by Julie Andrews, of "The Sound of Music" fame, who also made an appearance at last weekend's Oscar show and who, as Anthony Lane alluded in his satirical review of the gala in the New Yorker magazine, forms part of our collective memory.

This must be why we can all love that nun named Maria equally, without feeling elitist or brainy, red or blue.

 

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