Movies - The Oscars postsSaturday March 23, 2019
The Oscars and Box Office: This Again, Again
If you‘re a best picture nominee that did well at the box office, you used to have a good shot at winning. No longer.
I’ve been busy since the Oscars—mostly being sick with the neverending crud—but I did want to post on this phenomenon since it's still holding true.
For the 20 years before 2009, when the Academy widened its best picture nominees from five to 10, the eventual Oscar winner was almost always the first- or second-biggest box-office draw among the nominees:
|1990||2||3||17||23||26||Dances with Wolves|
|1991||3||4||16||17||25||Silence of the Lambs|
|1996||4||19||41||67||108||The English Patient|
|1998||1||18||35||59||65||Shakespeare in Love|
|2001||2||11||43||59||68||A Beautiful Mind|
|2003||1||17||31||33||67||The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King|
|2004||22||24||37||40||61||Million Dollar Baby|
|2007||15||36||50||55||66||No Country for Old Men|
Since the Academy expanded to 10 nominees in 2009 (and then up to 10 starting in 2011), and implemented the preferential ballot in 2009, the winner is never from the top three box-office draws among the nominees. At best, it's fourth; it could be as low as eighth:
|2009||1||5||8||25||27||38||65||116||132||145||The Hurt Locker|
|2010||1||6||13||18||25||32||35||114||119||143||The King's Speech|
|2013||6||17||28||32||62||80||95||100||117||12 Years a Slave|
|2017||14||15||39||46||51||52||56||105||112||The Shape of Water|
What to make of this? Some guesses:
- Under the old rules, the top three nominees in terms of box office would never have been nominated in the first place: Movies like “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Get Out,” “The Martian,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inception,” etc. So they‘re certainly not going to win. You can dismiss those three columns entirely. It’s all a show.
- Follow up: Mostly true. But I think movies like “Avatar” (top draw in 2009) and “Gravity” (tops in 2013) would‘ve gotten nominated under the old rules; certainly “Lincoln” (top draw in 2012). All of those movies were also presumed to be best picture winners. They were frontrunners. Then poof.
- Merely nominating the boffo box office pictures frees Academy members to choose the picture they actually like rather than the one that’s popular. It's like [wiping hands], “Well, we‘ve done our duty.”
- In the past, once a movie won best picture, moviegoers flocked to it to see what the hubub was about; now they don’t. Now, at best, they wait for it to be available for home viewing.
- It's a fluke.
Not sure how the preferential ballot factors into all of this. It supposedly pushes concensus choices to the top, like “Green Book,” but this has been one of our artier decades in terms of best picture winners.
Speaking of: “Green Book” has been doing OK business since the Oscars but it still won't gross more than $100 million. This will be the sixth year in a row without a $100-million best picture winner. This used to be a regular thing (every bp winner between 1997 and 2004 grossed north of $100 mil) and now it's a nowhere thing. The 1980s had five best pictures that grossed more than $100 million—and that's unadjusted. This decade, with one year to go, has two: “The King's Speech” and “Argo.”
A quick tabulation of $100-million best picture winners, via Box Office Mojo:
- 1980s: 5
- 1990s: 7
- 2000s: 7
- 2010s: 2
Again: that's unadjusted.
I don't see how this trend will change, either. The Academy wants to be a distinguished body, honoring prestigious work, but they‘re living in a country that’s more and more infantilized—often, ironically, by the work of its own industry.
“Once you realize Green Book is really just Nick Vallelonga's attempt to make a film out of the nifty road-trip stories his dad shared with him as a kid, the movie's myopia is somehow harder to be mad at. It's boneheaded, perhaps, but it's not malicious.
”Rather, that's how I feel until I remember the sickening ways that the film fabricates Dr. Shirley's feelings towards other blacks, his lack of black cultural knowledge, his utter racial isolation—falsehoods, according to his brother. Then I'm taken aback. It's one thing to get historical facts wrong, or to massage them for the sake of dramatic coherence. It's another thing entirely to take something so essential as racial identity—as the inner life of a person of color—and revise it. And to bypass due diligence. And to think, as a white filmmaker, that questions of this sort are things you can blithely make up or change outright.“
from ”The Truth About Green Book" by K. Austin Collins, Vanity Fair, December 2018—or nearly three months before this movie won best picture at the 91st Annual Academy Awards. Obviously, not enough members of the Academy read this piece.
The Self-Loathing Oscars
The Academy, which only a few years ago was making bold strides to diversify its membership, now seems exhaustingly tone-deaf and indecisive, unsure how to grow its viewership without alienating its members or its core audience, who definitely want to see the Best Cinematography category in full. Putting aside how any of the proposed changes would have meaningfully attracted viewers (was anyone really avoiding the Oscars because she couldn't stand to watch Best Editing?), the string of panicked about-faces has had a numbing effect. At times, it has felt like watching the Oscars undergo an existential crisis, which the Times summed up in the headline “Are the Oscars Ashamed to Be the Oscars?” Typically, awards season is when Hollywood gets slammed for excessive self-congratulation. Self-loathing—that's a new one.
Michael Schulman, “A Fraught Oscars Season Limps to the Finish Line,” The New Yorker
No Rooting Interests for Hostless Oscars
I‘ve been making my Top 10 movies list for 10 years now, and this is the first year without a best picture nominee on it. None, zero, zilch.
I was vaguely aware of this as I was writing it. Or I was aware there was only one, “Roma,” but it didn’t make my final cut, for which my wife still hasn't forgiven me. I was pretty sure I'd never had zero before. Had I had only one before? Not even close. Turns out, before this year, I averaged about four:
- 2018: 0
- 2017: 5: Get Out, Phantom Thread, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name
- 2016: 3: La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester By the Sea
- 2015: 4: Brooklyn, Spotlight, The Big Short, The Revenant
- 2014: 3: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, Boyhood
- 2013: 3: Philomena, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street
- 2012: 3: Argo, Amour, Lincoln
- 2011: 4: The Artist, The Descendants, Moneyball, The Tree of Life
- 2010: 5: Black Swan, Toy Story 3, Inception, The Social Network, True Grit
- 2009: 5: Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, Avatar, Up
That's a lot of agreement with an institution I constantly bitch about.
At the same time, I admit I‘ve gotten too swept up in the discussions around end-of-the-year/Oscar nomination time and allowed that to sway me more than I should. I think. It feels like that anyway. This distant voice in my head: “Well, of course you have to have ’The Hurt Locker' in there.” No. No, you don‘t.
That said, what might I remove from the above? Not many. Probably “La La Land” and “Black Swan” and “The Hurt Locker.” Maybe “The Artist” or “Argo” or “Inglourious Basterds.” I’d have to see these movies again, of course. The main point is the Oscars do tend to nominate a lot of good movies. This year I just didn't think many good American movies were made. Studio or indie.
It also means tonight I don't any real rooting interests. Maybe Spike for director even though I didn't like “BlacKkKlansman” much. And even though it should really go to either Cuaron or Pawlikowski.
I do find myself amused by the passionate intensity with which #FilmTwitter is battling it out over very flawed movies. How their flawed movie should win out over this other very flawed movie. To me it's like hearing an angry, passionate debate over which brand-name peanut butter is the best. “Jif better win! I‘ve been hearing reports that Peter Pan is gaining ground, which I can’t believe. God, what's the matter with people!?!”
5 PM, PST. Hostless.
The officers of the Board of Governors for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences issued the following statement yesterday:
The Academy has heard the feedback from its membership regarding the Oscar presentation of four awards - Cinematography, Film Editing, Live Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling. All Academy Awards will be presented without edits, in our traditional format. We look forward to Oscar Sunday, February 24.
So once again the Academy has announced a bad idea (“most popular film,” not bringing back last year's acting winners, etc.), causing a huge outcry among its fans, and then recanted. At leat it had the sense to recant. But the fact that it had the non-sense to float these bad ideas in the first place makes me worried for Oscar's future. I think maybe they need a new Board of Governors. Or a better consigliere.
My vote, by the way, for Academy non-legal counsel would be author Mark Harris:
This stems from a conviction that the Oscars are forever “broken” and that the way to “fix” them is to make them appeal to those who hate themto say, yeah, we think they're kind of awful too. But the show can produce joy and idiosyncracy in the most unexpected moments... >— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) February 16, 2019
Kudos to everyone who objected.