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When We Stopped Seeing Best Pictures

In 1944, the year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences settled on five best picture nominees (replacing 10, which replaced 12, which replaced seven, which replaced five), the year’s biggest box office hit, “Going My Way,” starring Bing Crosby, won the Oscar for best picture. The Academy’s picture was also the people’s picture.

That perfect storm has happened roughly 14 times since—most recently in 2003 with “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”—but overall there’s been a divide between what the Academy nominates and what Americans watch. This divide has been sudden more than gradual. In fact, you can point to two cultural moments when the chasm between the Academy and box office suddenly widened.

First, let’s check out the stats. The following is a decade-by-decade listing of no. 1 annual box office hits that were also nominated best picture:

1950s: 7
1960s: 8
1970s: 9
1980s: 3
1990s: 3
2000s: 1

From 1950 to 1979, in other words, the most popular film of the year was almost always nominated best picture. In the three decades since? The reverse. Since 1983, it’s only happened five times: “Rain Man” in 1988, “Forrest Gump” in 1994, “Titanic” in 1997, “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998, and “Rings” in 2003.

Most of us are familiar with the first cultural moment: How, in the late 1970s, “Jaws” and “Star Wars” ushered in the era of the blockbuster and their never-ending sequels; how the major studios were bought by conglomerates who didn’t care from quality; how independents took up the slack until most best picture nominees today are produced outside the studio system, and distributed, by the studios, in parsimonious fashion.

What isn’t so familiar is how bad it’s gotten this decade. Let’s widen the parameters. How rare is it when at least one of the best picture nominees isn’t among the year’s top 10 box office hits? Since 1944, it’s happened only five times: 1947, 1984...and the last three years in a row: 2004, 2005 and 2006. What was once a fluke has now become routine.

These recent nominees aren’t even close. In 2000, every best picture nominee landed in the top 50: “Gladiator” (4), “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (12), “Erin Brockovich” (13), “Traffic” (15) and “Chocolat” (32). Now more than half finish out of the top 50. Some finish out of the top 100.

Best picture, far from reflecting our national cinema, has become a smaller niche market than even horror or urban comedy. It’s what we don’t go to see.

***

The question is why. And why have best picture nominees gotten so unpopular in this particular decade?

In the past, the Academy and box office often worked together. A film got nominated and people went to see it. It won and more people went to see it. The Academy mattered; word-of-mouth mattered; quality, such as it was, mattered.

In 1975, for example, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” became the first film since “It Happened One Night” in 1934 to be awarded the big five: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. According to Susan Sackett in The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits, “This shot in the arm saw the take at the box office increase by 70 percent as moviegoers came to see what all the fuss was about.” In the era before cable and VCRs, there was no other way to see it, and by the end of its run, “Cuckoo’s Nest,” a dark film about mental patients—that today would probably get a limited release in art houses—finished second only to “Jaws” in annual box office.

Sixteen years later, “Silence of the Lambs” became the third picture to win the big five, and in the ensuing hubbub its box office shot up, well, zero percent. It had already been released on video and the studio didn’t see the need to put it back into theaters.

So is this the problem? Is the buzz from Oscar nominations winding up in video rentals and sales?

Not really. Let’s look at the 2004 nominees. According to Rentrak, an information management company that services Variety among others, only three of that year’s best picture nominees cracked the top 20 in video rentals: “The Aviator” at 17, “Million Dollar Baby” at 12 and “Ray” at 11. And when it came to video sales, which are more lucrative, these movies fell back again: “Ray” to no. 15, “Aviator” to 45, “Baby” to 46.

The 2005 nominees fared worse. With the exception of “Crash” and “Munich,” the best picture nominees’ video rentals actually ranked lower than their already low box office rankings—with both “Capote” and “Good Night and Good Luck” finishing out of the top 100. Sales? With the exception of “Brokeback Mountain,” every movie dropped even further—with both “Capote” and “Good Night and Good Luck” now finishing out of the top 200.

So if it’s not DVDs what is it? Distribution?

To an extent. The theater counts for the five nominees reached their high point in 2000: Add each film’s widest release and you wind up with 11,968 theaters. This is what they’ve done since:

2001: 9,935
2002: 10,515
2003: 11,840
2004: 10,576
2005: 7,660
2006: 8,501

They’ve floundered, mostly heading down. During a time when distribution for individual films has generally gone up.

But these numbers don’t answer the larger question: Are distribution numbers down because we won’t see these films? Or are they down because distributors assume we won’t see these films? What’s propelling the system? Us or them?

Or is the problem the Academy?

Once upon a time, its voting members nominated some pretty fluffy stuff for best picture. In the 1970s alone they tapped romance (“Love Story”), horror (“The Exorcist”), disaster flicks (“The Towering Inferno”), and sci-fi (“Star Wars”). If a massive amount of people went to see it, and it wasn’t a cartoon (“The Jungle Book”) or cartoonish (“Grease”), they’d nominate it.

Apparently they’ve stopped doing this. Last year, when the Brits nominated “Casino Royale” for their best picture, the Academy went after smaller, more uneven efforts, such as “Babel.”

Par for the course. Generally, this decade, the Academy Award’s nominees feel small, timid and dry, the lesser descendants of Europe’s New Wave, while the box office smashes feel big, bold and dopey, the lesser descendants of “Star Wars.” There’s got to be a middle ground. We used to find it. Even a decade ago we found it. Every year in the 1990s at least one of the best picture nominees was among the top five box office hits of the year:

1990: “Ghost” and “Dances with Wolves”
1991: “Beauty and the Beast” and “Silence of the Lambs”
1992: “A Few Good Men”
1993: “The Fugitive”
1994: “Forrest Gump”
1995: “Apollo 13”
1996: “Jerry Maguire”
1997: “Titanic”
1998: “Saving Private Ryan”
1999: “The Sixth Sense”

Hell, in 1970 the top four box office films were all nominated best picture. And what a motley crew! It included both the respectful World War II film “Patton” and the disrespectful Korean War film “M*A*S*H.” It included both young people in love (“Love Story”), in aimless rebellion (“Five Easy Pieces”), and old people on a plane (“Airport”).

Sure, it’s surprising that two of these films (“Love Story” and “Airport”) were nominated for best picture but that’s exactly the point. Sure, it’s shocking that two of these films (“M*A*S*H” and “Five Easy Pieces”) did so well at the box office, but that’s exactly the point. We used to be able to do this, people.

Now? Of the movies bandied about for best picture, “American Gangster” is currently at no. 18 in box office grosses, “Juno” is at 45, “No Country for Old Men” at 54, “Michael Clayton” at 63, “Sweeny Todd” at 64, “Atonement” 106, “Into the Wild” 115, and “Kite Runner” 149. And “There Will Be Blood” has yet to open wide enough to land in the top 150.

—Originally appeared, in slightly different form, on Huffington Post, January 2008