Twenty years ago the Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards were an Animated family film, a tearjerker drama based on a best selling novel, a compelling drama based on one of the most significant moments of the 20th Century, and a period crime drama about the rise of a mobster. Those films went home empty-handed, losing to an intense serial killer procedural-thriller based on a popular best seller.
(For those too lazy to go to Wikipedia, the films were Beauty & The Beast, The Prince of Tides, JFK, Bugsy, and The Silence of the Lambs, respectively.)
Looking at the offerings in yesterday's nominations, I feel confident in saying that not only would the staid squares who comprise the voting members of the Academy not give The Silence of the Lambs the top prize, they'd probably never let it be nominated in the first place. For that matter, I'd be shocked if Beauty & The Beast would be nominated either.
The Silence of the Lambs basically invented the serial killer genre. Without it, there might not have been a Se7en, and without either of those films, there'd probably be far fewer serial killer thrillers made today. You can feel the influence of The Silence of the Lambs across many films and even TV shows such as Criminal Minds. It wasn't just a well-made film, it became a part of pop culture. You can toss off a Hannibal Lector one-liner and be pretty confidant that someone around you will recognize it.
Can you say that about any of the nominees this year?
This year's list of nominees is: The Help, Moneyball, War Horse, Midnight in Paris, Hugo, The Descendants, Tree of Life, The Artist, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Six of the nine are based on novels, but unlike the 1991 slate, the genres are significantly weighted towards drama. In 1991, The Descendants probably would have been a dark horse like The Prince of Tides was - today, it's the only one that can challenge the presumed front-runner of The Artist.
I don't get the feeling that any of those films will penetrate popular culture. There are some well-made films in there, but is there anything that's iconic or defining in the way that The Silence of the Lambs or JFK was? That list is about as un-mainstream as you can get. There's no Harry Potter, no Bridesmaids, no The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, no The Muppets - all well-reviewed films that were generally strong entries in their respective genres. The variety of 1991 has given way to a nomination slate that seems to scoff at anything popular.
To back that up, let's look at some domestic gross figures
Beauty & the Beast - $145 million domestic gross
The Prince of Tides - $74 million domestic gross
JFK - $70 million domestic gross
Bugsy - $49 million domestic gross
The Silence of the Lambs - $130 million
Five films that averaged $93 million - in 1991 dollars! Two of the five films (40% of the nominated slate) crossed the $100 million mark. If we adjusted for inflation, look at how that changes.
In 2012 dollars via BoxOfficeMojo.com:
Beauty & The Beast - $277 million
The Prince of Tides - $143 million
JFK - $134 million
Bugsy - $93 million
The Silence of the Lambs - $246 million
Average gross: $178 million in 2012 dollars
There are nine films that are nominated this year, and only one - ONE - made more than $75.5 million. (That's about 11% of the slate.) Their average gross comes out to $57 million. Only one of the five 1991 nominees took in less than that in 1991 dollars.
Something has to change with the way the Oscar nominees are selected. The films are significantly out of step with audience tastes. If anything, the choices are even more conservative than they were two decades ago. Granted, the Oscars have always had this problem, overlooking ground-breaking films like Citizen Kane and Star Wars in favor of more conventional choices. But at least those two films got nominated in their respective years. This year, some of the worthy mainstream choices didn't even get that far with almost twice as many slots available!
With results like this, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences membership comes off like a collection of film snobs more concerned with with rewarding what they see as "serious films" instead of recognizing that good film can encompass a wide spectrum of work. These nominees aren't a good representation of release year 2011 - but merely a small segment of that calendar.
Today's filmmakers deserve Oscar voters unafraid to cast a ballot for the modern equivalent of The Silence of the Lambs. The Academy Award is an honor that should be open to all films - not just the "important" and "safe" ones.
UPDATE: a since-deleted comment suggested that I was being unfair by not allowing for the possibility that the nominated films would see a bump in attendance due to their nominations. That's a point covered by this article.
Just earning an Oscar nom can mean big bucks for studios. Best picture nominees that did not win the award earned on average $17.7 million once they were nominated before the awards show, and then another $4 million after the show, according to IBISWorld.
And of course a box office win yields a bigger boost—an average of $27.5 million between nominations and the awards show, and another $15.4 million after winning an Oscar.
I should point out that 2010 Best Picture Winner The Hurt Locker only got a bump of about $4 million from the time of its nomination through the end of its theatrical run, while last year's The King's Speech pretty much doubled its $57 million gross during the six weeks leading up to the Oscars, and then left its run with $134 million.
Just for comparison, The Silence of the Lambs wasn't even IN theaters during or after the nominations, having opened the prior February. It spent its first five weeks at number one in the box office, taking in $68.8 million in that time frame alone!