Wednesday, January 25, 2012

You're not imagining it - the Oscars have gotten lamer and more out of step

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
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!


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  2. I wouldn't have betted on Moneyball being nominated. I'm surprised the voters liked a movie about a baseball gm using statistics to gain an upper hand on the competition. I liked it, though not as much as the book. But it wasn't a great movie. And I almost hate saying that as a big fan of Aaron Sorkin.

    I agree that the voters seem to value seriousness. Though I'm not sure how The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo misses out. It was plenty serious and better than Moneyball, at least on a dramatic and serious level. And they also seem to value not so deep attempts at making social statements. How else do we describe Crash and now The Help?

  3. "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."

    Been saying this for years! So nice to hear someone in the film community feels the same. Which is not to say these movies don't deserve their nominations or aren't excellent films, but the Academy definitely needs to revamp its voting a long shot. Maybe if films most of the viewing public have actually SEEN were given a fair shot and also represented, the long-dwindiling audience watching the Oscars might get a boost, too.

  4. here's my take-away from looking at the list of nominees from 1992: wow, that was not a great year for films.
    Lambs is a very good film, but it wasn't then- and isn't now- deserving of the Best Picture it received.

    Beauty and the Beast is also fine. Hell, so is Bugsy! Prince of Tides is crap and so is JFK.

    I'd take The Artist over all of those films any day.

  5. "This year, some of the worthy mainstream choices didn't even get that far with almost twice as many slots available!"

    I'm having a hard time thinking of any mainstream choices from this year that are worthy of the nomination. "Harry Potter", "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", and "Bridesmaids" are the only ones that come to mind. Otherwise, I think this has been an unusually crumby year for movies, and this year's crop of Best Picture nominees reflect that. I don't think we can blame the Academy for that.

  6. Eh, far as I'm concerned, The Silence Of The Lambs was the last time the Academy was right about anything anyway. Ever since they seem to be picking more and more pretentious crap trying to make themselves look like high faluting intellectuals. Like someone who carries around but never reads War And Peace.

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  8. It's kind of unfair to judge it solely against one year. Oscar always goes through cycles where it feels more in-touch then out of touch then in touch again. Last year you had a fair amount of movies that made a ton of money and were big hits, like Toy Story 3, and 2009 was even better where you had both Avatar and The (shouldn't have been nominated) Blind Side, that made more money combined than any other nominated films in years. I think this year is an example where the big budget blockbuster movies (save for HP7, which i think the acad was just biased against) just weren't really good enough to be considered. It's not like there was a Dark Knight comparison this year. And based on this assessment, you're taking a Grammy view. The Grammy's have sucked for years because they pandered to sales numbers and popularity contest, rather than what was actually GOOD music in a given year. I mean really, will anyone in Ten years be talking about Taylor Swift's Album of the Year winning Album? The Box Office (and in music's case, music sales) speak for themselves, so why do they need "awards" to back up already proven historically sealed money facts? There's no real correlation that just because a movie or album does well financially that it's actually a good movie. By that standard Transformers 3 should have been nominated.

    I just feel that it was just a bad year for movies in general. Like 2005. We just have to deal with what the best that was offered.

    1. My point in bringing up box office was not to state that the highest grossing film should be the Best Picture. But we CAN use gross as an indicator of how many eyeballs have been on a film. If you look at the numbers, the average gross for last year was indeed twice what the average nominee gross is this year.

      And if you look at the list of films, last years had a few more mainstream titles than this year - but there is still a trend towards "important/indie"-type films. Toy Story 3 and Inception are really the only two straight-up crowd-pleaser types.

      The difference with this year is that one don't even have the one or two token mega-hits. Most of that list reads like a film snob's Netflix queue. If the Academy could nominate all three Lord of the Rings films and hand Return of the King a win, there's ZERO reason that Harry Potter isn't on the list other than snobbery.

      And many seem to think that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has no business being on there. I've not seen it, but those who have suggest that's another instance of the Academy choosing what they see as an "important" film.

      I just think the Oscars need to get overthemselves and learn what John Sullivan discovered in "Sullivan's Travels" - that fun movies are just as valuable as the "important" elitist fare.

  9. Eh, I'm just at this point going with what everyone on Tumblr is saying -

    Alan Rickman for ALL the awards. Screw the rest.

  10. I have always been big on the Oscars... but this year they got it WRONG. I mean... Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close... are you kidding me. No one liked that movie, especially critics. So what, just because Tom Hanks put on a decent performance it gets nominated for best picture? Pathetic.

  11. It would help if they had one dark horse inclusion of which would make people want to see the award show just for the entertainment/suspense value.
    To try and see how the nominated movies can appear to an average viewer aka Joe the Plumber:

    The Help – unlike Color Purple, it is appears heavily handed in regards to characters (the help people – innocent; Southern ladies – evil and shrill); only viewers who fit Skeeter profile will see it
    Moneyball – despite the presence of Brat Pitt, not a movie to take a girl to (will be popular as a rerun on cable)
    War Horse – one of the most mainstream movies; I personally did not got to see it because it appeared too dark/and I actually do not like horses
    Midnight in Paris - too elitist; literary references not everyone will get; especially now Paris is an equivalent of Dubai in SATC 2
    Hugo – would be more popular if not set in Paris
    The Descendants – trails and tribulation of a well to do middle age white guy;
    Tree of Life – blockbuster in Idaho, Sarah Palin’s favorite (sarcasm)
    The Artist – both title and the high concept alienates anyone who does not work in office
    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – too much talk about the boy being autistic and not enough about the UNIVERSAL theme of son-father bond; on the other end of spectrum critics do not seem to like it

    Full disclosure: the only nominated movie I saw this year was Puss in the Boots

  12. the fallacy of this argument is assuming that the kind of movies the studios are interested in making today are the same as 1991. whereas JFK, Bugsy, and Prince of Tides were more typical of a diverse slate of studio offerings (Silence of the Lambs was Orion as I recall), can you picture them being anything but the toughest of sells at their budgets adjusted for inflation today?

    the majors want to do CGI crapfests that can sell 70% of their tickets overseas. Spielberg, Eastwood, and Scorsese still have cachet to their names to get a War Horse, J. Edgar, or Hugo greenlit by a studio but otherwise they don't seem to particularly care if they're in the prestige business anymore. Moneyball barely got made itself, and only after the budget was substantially reworked to make the numbers fit for Sony.

    if they're not going to bother with good stories, why should junk like Harry Potter or Super 8 or Larry Crowne get nominated just to pander to the masses? They're not even in the same class as predecessors like Lord of the Rings, E.T. or As Good As It Gets