Movies - The Oscars postsMonday August 13, 2018
Dear Academy: Lose ‘Popular Film’ for ‘Best Sequel’
When news broke last week that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was adding a new award, Achievement in Popular Film, this was my first reaction:
Does this mean Best Picture is now Best Unpopular Picture? #Oscars— Erik Lundegaard (@ErikLundegaard) August 8, 2018
OK, so my first reaction was probably to roll my eyes and think something along the lines of: “I guess expanding the best picture category to 10 pictures back in 2009, and then up to 10 a few years later, didn't work out so well.” Which I already knew. After nominating five top 10 box office hits in the first two years after the change, we‘ve had just three since: “Gravity,” “American Sniper” and “The Martian.” More people have been tuning out the broadcast. Last year had record low ratings. I wrote about all that last March and in the end threw up my hands. I didn’t know how to fix the problem.
This new category, by the way, is not a way to fix the problem.
To the Academy, and ABC-TV, which demanded the change, the problem is ratings and relevancy. To me it's deeper. The problem is that art and commerce used to mesh in our most popular storytelling form. Popular but hardly profound films like “Love Story” and “Airport” used to get nominated for best picture, while tough, profound films like “Five Easy Pieces” and “M*A*S*H” used to rake in the bucks at the box office. Now, rarely the twain meet. It comes closest with smart adventure films like “Lord or the Rings” and “Avatar,” or smart animated movies like “Toy Story 3” and “Up,” or rightwing movies that get Hollywood-hating conservatives off the couch like “American Sniper.” But otherwise, not much.
Recent box office hits that maybe should have gotten more consideration include “Beauty and the Beast” and some of the better superhero movies that now rule Hollywood. If the Academy could nominate “Airport,” why not “The Avengers”?
But of course it's more than the genre. Sequels rarely get nominated, too. In the entire history of the Academy, it's just been these:
- The Bells of St. Mary's
- The Godfather Part II *
- The Godfather Part III
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King *
- Toy Story 3
* Won best picture
But sequels, prequels and continuing-universe movies are what we go see now. Last year, the only original film in the top 10 was “It.” In 2016, it was “Deadpool” and three animated movies. In 2015, just “The Martian,” “Cinderella” and “Inside Out.”
In fact, rather than create a new category for “popular” film, which can lead to a host of problems—the least of which is the definition of “popular”—maybe the Academy should go with what I‘ve outlined above: Best sequel, prequel or continuing-universe movie.
Hey, is that the answer?
Look: The real problem with “Popular Film” is its mushiness. All 24 of Oscar’s current categories are definite; you don't have to wait and see if your movie will fit into one of them. Is it a feature-length film released in an American movie theater in 2018? OK, it can be considered. As can that actor, that actress, and that adapted screenplay. Your editor, production designer, sound editing and sound mixing, we know where they fit once the movie is done and released. “Popular Film” would be the only Oscar category where we'd have to wait and see which movies could even be considered. And that's after the parameters are figured out. Should it be the $100 million domestic threshold? Should it be top 10 or 20 or 30 for the year? And is the 30th-biggest hit of the year truly “popular”?
“Popular” is a constantly moving target. When Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper” was nominated for best picture in January 2015, it was sitting on about $3 million after a limited release. That's not popular by any parameters we can imagine. Then the movie went wide and raked in the bucks. It did so well it wound up as the No. 1 box office hit of 2014. Get that? If the No. 1 movie of 2014 wouldn't have qualified—by any sane measure—as “popular” in time for the Oscars, what good is the category?
But sequel, prequel or continuing-universe movie? It‘s specific.
I’m trying to figure out the downside of going this route and I can‘t. I’m also trying to figure out why the Academy didn't go this way in the first place. If you go sequel, you‘re going to get popular, since unpopular films rarely get sequels. Indeed, part of me is beginning to wonder if the Academy floated “Popular Film” to set the stage for “Best Sequel.” Float the horrendous idea to allow easier passage of the vaguely unpalatable one.
What might an “Achievement in Sequel, Prequel or Continuing Universe” look like? Here are films from 2018 that would fit that bill, along with their current box-office ranking:
|2||Avengers: Infinity War|
|4||Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom|
|6||Solo: A Star Wars Story|
|7||Ant-Man and the Wasp|
|9||Mission: Impossible - Fallout|
|10||Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation|
|15||Fifty Shades Freed|
|16||Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again|
|18||The Equalizer 2|
|22||The First Purge|
|23||Insidious: The Last Key|
|26||Pacific Rim Uprising|
|27||Maze Runner: The Death Cure|
|32||Sicario: Day of the Soldado|
|52||Super Troopers 2|
|84||God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness|
Is the Academy, and ABC/Disney, worried that more prestigious sequels like “Sicario” could upset or upend the Marvel/Disney blockbusters like “Avengers” and “Incredibles 2”? Well, that's a risk. You can't have a rigged game, ABC/Disney. People get a vote.
The bigger roll of the dice is the idea that “Best Sequel” or “Popular Film” will get people to watch. I assume either one will be seen as a secondary award, like animated film, and dismissed as such, and might not draw much of a crowd on Oscar night. It's sad. The Academy keeps doing what Major League Baseball does: It's trying to appeal to people who don't much like their product while ignoring the people who do. Time to stop that shit.
That said, if something needs to be done, “Sequel” is better than “Popular Film,” for all the reasons listed above.
Oscar Round-Up: Watching the Least-Watched
Last night we had the usual Oscar party with the usual folks and the usual results for the Oscar pool: my nephew Jordy, who is 16 going on 17, won. OK, he actually tied for first with his mom and dad and our friend Natalie. A four-way tie. Each got 19 of 24 correct.
That's a lot, and it leads to this question.
Are the Oscars too predictable now? Do we have too many experts telling us who will win so no one's surprised anymore? I'm not wishing “Crash”-worthy upsets on anyone, and this year best picture seemed a bit of a toss-up. Three of the nine, everyone said, had a shot on the preferential ballot: “Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards” and maybe “Get Out.” Wound up being, yeah, the most-nominated movie, which also won the PGA and DGA. So the least surprising.
Everything else played out as normal, too. DGA winner (del Toro) got the directing Oscar. The four SAG winners (McDormand, Oldman, Rockwell, Janney) got the four acting Oscars. The two WGA winners (Ivory, Peele) got the two writing Oscars. For the first time in Oscar history, an African-American won for screenplay and ... it wasn't much of a surprise. Maybe just to him.
You know what else isn't much of a surprise? The TV ratings dropped: from the 32s to 26.5 million. According to Hollywood Reporter, it's “easily the least-watched Oscars in history.”
Why? Everyone has theories. FOX News says it's because “liberal Hollywood,” and other says because the telecast is too long, but c‘mon. It’s the box office, stupid. In the last 40 years, Oscar's highest TV ratings have occurred for the ‘82 Oscars, when the hugely popular “E.T.” was nominated (53.2 million), and the ’97 Oscars, when the hugely popular “Titanic” was nominated and won best picture (55.2 million). The lows are reserved for years when little-seen films are nominated or battle it out. 2007, for example, was seen as a fight between “No Country for Old Men” ($74 mil, 36th for the year) and “There Will Be Blood” ($40 mil, 66th), while the highest-grossing best picture nominee that year, “Juno,” still only 15th, wasn't really seen as a contender for BP. Shocker: the broadcast wound up with its lowest ratings to that point: 32 mil.
Two years later, the Academy instituted its new BP nomination system: first 10 nominees, then up to 10. And along with nominating popular films for best picture, such as “Avatar” and “Toy Story 3,” the ratings went up. Then they dropped again as popular and Oscar tastes continue to diverge. Last year, the highest-grossing nominated BP was “Hidden Figures” at 14th, while “Moonllght” (92nd) won. This year, the highest-grossing nominated BP was “Dunkirk,” also at 14th, while “Shape” (48th) won.
But you can't really blame Academy voters. Which of 2017's top 10 in box office would you choose for best picture?
|1||Star Wars: The Last Jedi|
|2||Beauty and the Beast|
|4||Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle|
|5||Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2|
|9||Despicable Me 3|
Gun to my head? I go “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
Still, for those who watched and enjoy serious movies, it was a fun night. Lot of laughs, starting with Allison Janney's “I did it all by myself” to Sam Rockwell's “It's grandma” story to Jodie Foster blaming busted leg/crutches on Meryl Streep.
Meryl is the new Jack, isn't she? The front-and-center, life-of-the-party rep of Hollywood whom everyone tosses jokes at. She just does it without the shades.
One of my favorite moments was James Ivory's acceptance speech—90-year-old James Ivory, the oldest Oscar recipient ever, for his screenplay from my favorite movie of the year, “Call Me By Your Name.” He called it a story of first love, and everyone goes through first love, whether you‘re gay or straight, and it’s universal in that way. And that recalled Kumail Nanjiani, earlier in the evening, talking about how he identified with white guys on screen for so long, and if there's more diversity now, well, then there's other people to identify with. Find the universal in the specific or the personal; that's what artists do.
Nanjiani, star of my second-favorite film of 2017, is also one of three or four potential future hosts I saw at last night's ceremony:
- Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Tiffany Haddish/Maya Rudolph
Any of them would raise the roof; none of them, most likely, would raise the ratings.
The Oscars and Box Office: This Again
Last week, when my friend Mike asked me about the box office of the 2017 best picture nominees, my first thought was, “Actually some of them did OK. Right? 'Dunkirk' and 'Get Out.' So it won't be like in the bad old days when, you know, no best picture nominee was among the top 15 movies of the year.”
No, but close.
|MOVIE||BO (in millions)||2017 RANK|
|The Shape of Water*||$37||69|
|Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*||$37||70|
|Call Me By Your Name*||$11||123|
* Currently in release
** Currently in re-release
Indeed, this is comparable to the last three years before the big switch, 2006-08, when the biggest box office hit among the best picture nominees ranked 15th or 16th for its respective year.
The Academy's decision to expand to 10 nominees in 2009 was initially a boon for best picture/box office hits: three of the nominees that year were top 10 hits: “Avatar” (1), “Up” (5) and “The Blind Side” (8). The next year, two were top 10 hits: “Toy Story 3” (1) and “Inception” (6).
It's been iffier since.
ANNUAL BOX OFFICE RANKS OF BEST PICTURE NOMINEES
Then I noticed something interesting.
These are the annual box office rankings of the best picture nominees from the last 19 years before the switch, with the eventual winner highlighted in yellow:
|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|
The winner was almost always the first or second high-grossing movie among the nominees. And since the switch? Which, by the way, included a switch to instant-runoff voting, requiring a majority rather than a plurality?
|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|
The winner is never among the top 3. It's as if the top 3 are for show. Or for TV ratings. It's as if merely nominating the likes of “Avatar” and “Inception” and “The Martian” releases members of the Academy from having to vote for them.
Those TV ratings, by the way, haven't exactly gone through the roof since the Academy mucked with the system to curry its favor. In the eight years before the switch, the average rating (in millions) was 38.45. Since? 38.41. Last year's “La La Land” vs. “Moonlight” showdown garnered a 32.9 rating—similar to the 32.0 rating from 2007 when “No Country for Old Men” battled “There Will Be Blood.”
It's the same old divide that didn't used to be such a divide. The Academy used to nominate box-office smashes that weren't exactly “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” (ex: “Love Story” and “Star Wars”), while moviegoers would turn critical darlings, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” into box-office smashes (it was the No. 2 grosser of 1975, making the equivalent of $493 million).
I don't see any of that in the near future. The opposite.
Best Picture Release Months
I'm working on a post about Oscar and box office, but in the meantime here's a chart on the last time a best picture was released in each month. Yeah, January's not the way to go. That took some reasearch to get there. OK, not so much research but clicking. (I miss the days of research.)
|June||The Hurt Locker||2009|
|December||Million Dollar Baby||2004|
The Silence of the Lambs
|January||The Greatest Show on Earth||1952|
The big surprise is less that no one releases a prestige pic in January, but how long it's been since we've had a best picture winner released in December. That used to be the norm. Between 1997 and 2004, six of the eight BP winners were December releases: “Titanic,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Chicago,” “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” and Eastwood's “Million Dollar Baby.”
Since then we've had one May winner (“Crash”), one June winner (“The Hurt Locker”), five October winners (“Departed,” “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman” and “Moonlight”) and five November winners (“No Country for Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King's Speech,” “The Artist,” “Spotlight”). No Decembers.
I hope the trend continues. Maybe it will discourage studios from releasing their prestige movies in the last two weeks of the year on the obscure hope they'll be better remembered—rather than simply trampled.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Your (OK, Their) 2017 Oscar Nominations
Well, I guess have to see “Darkest Hour” now. Sigh.
Yes, the 2017 Oscar nominations are out! And yes, it's the 2017 Oscars. To quote the all-knowing Nathaniel Rogers, it's “not the 2018 Oscars, bitches. Oscars are for the film year, not the calendar year in which they take place.”
So one of my faves of the year, “The Big Sick,” got an original screenplay nod in a stacked category, but no best picture (I had fingers and toes crossed but wasn't expecting it) and, shockingly, horribly, no Holly Hunter in supporting! And yes, that's another stacked category, but I'd tap Hunter over, say, Octavia Spencer, whose work in “The Shape of Water” was fine but hardly memorable.
Speaking of: “Shape of Water” led the way with 13 nominations. 13! Guillermo del Toro, with his love of the dark, should like that unlucky total. It's just one off the record, which is shared by “All About Eve,” “Titanic” and “La La Land.” First two won best pic, the last, famously, didn't.
Meanwhile, these are the pics with 13 noms that “Shape” is now joining. Best picture winners highlighted:
- “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008)
- “Chicago” (2002)
- “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)
- “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)
- “Forrest Gump” (1994)
- “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
- “Mary Poppins” (1964)
- “From Here to Eternity” (1953)
- “Gone With The Wind” (1939)
So by no means a done deal. I mean, all that love for “Benjamin Button”? Talk about curious cases.
Should we just do a little category by category breakdown? Not Foggy Mountain but worth something:
PICTURE (# of total nominations in parentheses)
- “Call Me by Your Name” (4)
- “Darkest Hour” (6)
- “Dunkirk” (8)
- “Get Out” (4)
- “Lady Bird” (5)
- “Phantom Thread” (6)
- “The Post” (2)
- “The Shape of Water” (13)
- “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (7)
My tops in this category: 1) “Call Me By Your Name” 2) “Lady Bird” 3) “Three Billboards.” Don't get the “Dunkirk” love. I guess it's an old-fashioned spectacle war drama by a boffo box-office director, but the characters are nothing. “Get Out” is wholly original but its metaphor falters with its big reveal. “Phantom Thread” is a suffocating, beautiful story with the stench of murder in it, and as perplexing an ending as you'll find. “The Post” was straightforward but without much of an engine. What's missing? “The Big Sick.”
- Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
- Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
- Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
- Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
- Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”
I'd rather see Roman J. Israel get nominated for “Denzel Washington” but maybe that's me. Has anyone seen that movie? The only guys who now have more acting noms than Denzel (who now has 8) are: Jack Nicholson (12), Laurence Olivier (10), Paul Newman (10), and Spencer Tracy (9). We got some kids in the mix, too. Chalamet, at 22, is the third-youngest best actor nominee (after Mickey Rooney and Jackie Cooper), while Kaluuya, at 28,is the 20th-youngest. (See here.) I just saw “Phantom Thread” and in a perfect world, where no one had won anything, the Academy would be giving it to DDL. But this is apparently Oldman's to lose. Who's missing? Some say James Franco in “The Disaster Artist,” but I wouldn't have gone there. Same with Hanks in “The Post.” Both playing real people, btw. As is Oldman.
- Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
- Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
- Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
- Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”
- Meryl Streep, “The Post”
Interesting stat from Nathaniel: “This is Meryl's first time in a Best Picture nominee since Out of Africa (1985).” Sad, not shocking. Since WWII, the Academy has relegated women's pictures to “less than best.” Two real people in the mix (Graham and Harding), and a tough vote. Don't know who would get mine. Either Hawkins, McDormand or Ronan.
- Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
- Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
- Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”
- Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”
- Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Missing: Michael Stuhlbarg in either “Call Me” or “Shape of Water.” Rockwell is getting the love, which I love. I'd go him or Harrelson, whose work in “3B” was underrated.
- Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
- Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
- Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”
- Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
- Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”
One of my favorite cinematic moments this year was Holly Hunter's by-the-way smelling her daughter's jacket as they entered her apartment for the first time. We'll always have that, Holly. Also missing: Betty Gabriel from “Get Out.”
- “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan
- “Get Out,” Jordan Peele
- “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
- “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson
- “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro
Missing: Martin McDonagh for “Three Billboards.” Making it no longer a best picture threat? Once upon a time, yes, but “Argo” went there a few years ago. That said, I think del Toro will probably join his “Three Amigos” companions, Inarritu (2014, 2015) and Cuaron (2013), with a best director statuette. If so, it would mean best director has gone to someone from Mexico four of the last five years. And Taiwan the year before that. (Don't tell Donald.) Not bad for a category that always used to bet on white.
- “Call Me by Your Name,” James Ivory
- “The Disaster Artist,” Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
- “Logan,” Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
- “Molly's Game,” Aaron Sorkin
- “Mudbound,” Virgil Williams and Dee Rees
Future trivia buffs: Name the only superhero movie that won a best screenplay nomination. The answer is there, “Logan.” The lesson is apparently to go dark and dystopic. My vote is on Ivory all the way.
- “The Big Sick,” Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
- “Get Out,” Jordan Peele
- “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
- “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
- “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh
Another stacked category. I get the feeling Peele will get it as a sop for not getting director, but I'd go either Gerwig or Gordon/Nanjiani. Hey Academy! You can honor both women AND men of color if you vote “The Big Sick”! Just saying.
- “Blade Runner 2049,” Roger Deakins
- “Darkest Hour,” Bruno Delbonnel
- “Dunkirk,” Hoyte van Hoytema
- “Mudbound,” Rachel Morrison
- “The Shape of Water,” Dan Laustsen
No “Phantom Thread,” huh? Historic note: Rachel Morrison is the first woman nom'ed for DP. This will also be poor Roger Deakins 14th nom. Without a win.
The Oscars are Sunday, March 4. Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. Party at my place.