Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Are the Oscars Out of Touch with Movie Goers?

In the wake of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony there have appeared the usual articles proclaiming that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is out of touch with movie audiences. Many have pointed out that the winner of Best Picture, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, was seen by fewer than 5 million people in the United States. There have been not a few who have accused the Academy of snubbing popular movies.

Speaking for myself, I don't think the idea that the Academy is out of touch with movie goers is a particularly new idea. In fact, it seems to me that people have been saying this for as long as I have been alive. What is more, I think they may have been saying it for as long as the Academy has given out awards. Consider the year 1933. The highest grossing films for the year were Queen Christina, I'm No Angel, and King Kong. Not only did all three films do well at the box office, but they are also now regarded as classic films. As hard as it is to believe, not a one of them was nominated for Best Picture that year. Instead the Oscar for Outstanding Production (pretty much the "Best Picture" award of today) that year went to Cavalcade, a film that did well enough at the box office, but nonetheless did not rank in the ten highest grossing films for the year. And while  Queen Christina, I'm No Angel, and King Kong are widely regarded as classics, Cavalcade is now remembered only by classic film buffs and film historians.

Fifteen years later, in 1948, the three highest grossing films for the year were The Red Shoes, The Three Musketeers, and Red River. While The Red Shoes was nominated for Best Picture, neither The Three Musketeers nor Red River were. What is more, the winner of Best Picture that year was Lord Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Hamlet. While Lord Olivier's Hamlet is regarded today as a classic, it was hardly a winner at the box office--it was the seventeenth highest grossing film for the year.

Over the years, particularly since the Eighties, there have been several times in which films that did not do particularly well at the box office have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is not something that just began in the past few years. And while it is true that there have been many times in the past that big box office films have walked away with the award (Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, The Sound of Music, and so on), at no point in the history of the Academy do I think it can be said that it was the norm.

Of course, here I have to say that I don't think the fact that top grossing films are sometimes shut out of the Best Picture category can be used as evidence that the Academy is somehow out of touch with the movie going public. Instead I think it is more likely the case that the Academy uses other criteria than box office gross or popularity in determining whether a film is worthy of a nomination. Let's face it, if the Oscar for Best Picture had gone to the top grossing film for 2014, the producers of Transformers: Age of Extinction would have been on the stage accepting the award this past Sunday. Given I know of no one who thinks Transformers: Age of Extinction is a good movie, let alone a great one, I think we can agree that how well a film does at the box office should not play a role in being nominated for Best Picture.

That is not to say that I do not think the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences does not have a problem when it comes to nominating films for Best Picture at times. I still remember 2008 when The Dark Knight was not nominated for Best Picture. Not only was it the highest grossing film of the year worldwide, but it also received overwhelmingly positive reviews and was on many critics' best lists. Despite this, The Dark Knight was not nominated for Best Picture. Christopher Nolan was not even nominated for Best Director. Instead the award for Best Picture went to Slumdog Millionaire, a very good film in my humble opinion but nowhere as good as The Dark Knight. While I can understand why the Academy would not nominate a high grossing but critically despised film like Transformers: Age of Extinction (and I would not want them to either), I cannot understand why there are times the Oscars will not nominate high grossing but critically acclaimed films either.

Ultimately, I think the problem may not be so much that the Academy is purposely snubbing popular films, as it is biased against certain types of films. King Kong, Red River, and The Dark Knight all have one thing in common--they all belong to genres that the Academy has traditionally overlooked when nominating films for Best Picture. Indeed, if one looks at a list of the Best Picture winners, one will see very few horror movies, science fiction movies, fantasy movies, superhero movies, Westerns, or even comedies among them It is rare that they are even nominated. Given that the past several years many of the critically acclaimed, but popular films have belonged to genres the Academy tends to overlook, it should be no surprise that there should be a gap between what the Academy nominates for Best Picture and what audiences actually pay to see.

Unfortunately, the only solution to the Academy's consistent snubbing of certain genres of film and thus closing the gap between the Academy and movie goers would seem to be to change the Academy membership. The average Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member is 63 years old, male, and of European American descent. Many of the Academy members no longer make movies. The average Academy member is then among the least likely people to appreciate superhero movies, science fiction movies, horror movies, or any of the various other genres that at one time were regarded as "kid's stuff" or simply not taken very seriously. It would seem the only way to change the sort of films that are nominated for Best Picture, then, is for more young people, more women, and more people of various ethnicities to join the Academy.

In the end, I think to some degree the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always been out of touch with the movie going public. Certainly in some years the Academy has given Best Picture to what movie goers apparently liked best, but in many other years they did not. It is quite possible that if the membership of the Academy changed dramatically we would still see certain types of films nominated for Best Picture over other types. Regardless, the idea that the Academy is out of touch with movie goers is hardly a new one.


John Hitchcock said...

I think I can agree on some level, speaking as someone who has done several posts highlighting my distrust of the Academy's snobbery. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the greatest cinematic achievement of its day (and for that matter, one of the greatest in general), and it wasn't even nominated for Best Picture. It was nominated for Best Director, which it lost to Oliver. Of Kubrick's three films that were nominated for Best Picture (and also failed to win), one was a comedy, and the other was a science fiction film.

To add to your list, I'd also have to include action movies as something that generally gets overlooked by the Oscars. Ironically, the one exception I'm aware of is The Towering Inferno, a movie I personally found to be excruciatingly boring and failed to deliver on the exciting action or inferno that was promised.

One pattern I've started to notice this year is that the most popular films at the Academy, an in just about every case, the winner for Best Picture, always seem to end up being a film I missed for one reason or another, either because I never really found out much about it or because its subject matter didn't really interest me. That's happened just about every year since I started watching the Oscars: The Hurt Locker (which admittedly turned out to deserve the award when I finally did see it), The King's Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, and now Birdman. Then usually I end up having to watch it at some point for no other reason than because it won Best Picture.

Hal said...

Quite possibly out of touch, but I think the bigger problem is the one that all annual awards shows have: you simply cannot judge any work of art after only a few months. Just about every Best Picture would change it you could review the choice even a decade later, for example.

For that reason I agree with George C. Scott's sentiment: he said that competition between actors should not go past the nomination stage. But, of course, you have to have a winner, otherwise you don't have a big glitzy awards show.

Full disclosure, I haven't watched the Oscars in well over a decade for these reasons.

Terence Towles Canote said...

You're right, John. Action movies are another genre that the Academy tends to overlook. In fact, I can only think of one straight forward action movie that won Best Picture (although I am thinking there were more): The French Connection.

Hal, I do think that is a problem with the Oscars. It kind of goes hand in hand with my idea that a film is a classic only if it has stood the test of time--the phrase "modern classic" is an oxymoron to me. And looking back there have been only a few times when what was truly the Best Picture in any given year won the award. Of course, there is also a whole slough of other problems that go into the wrong movies winning or even being nominated for Best Picture--industry politics, extensive campaigning for nominations, et. al. Often films are nominated when no one, not even the Academy, necessarily thinks they are deserving (prime example--Dr. Doolittle). It is a lot of why I have a love/hate relationship with the Oscars. On the one hand, I do think it is important for artists to be recognised by their peers for exceptional work. On the other hand, it seems many times such artists are not recognised for their work and for all the wrong reasons.

JohnJ said...

The exception that proves the rule is the third Lord of the Rings movie sweeping all 11 awards it was nominated for. It seemed like it was to acknowledge the complete trilogy and also to admit it was "art"? But then The Hobbit went mostly ignored by the Academy.
For me, the majority of Oscar winners fall into the category of serious movies that you will never watch more than once. How often would you want to watch Gandhi, Schindler's List or 12 Years a Slave?