Waaa waaa waaa! Nobody cares about the Oscars

February 27, 2014


So the Oscars are Sunday night and the big news seems to be that no one gives a rat’s ass.

There was a story in the New York Times last week in which the writer and the people he interviewed seemed mystified by the fact that there wasn’t much obvious public enthusiasm – in the form of a boost in ticket sales for the nominees – for this year’s lineup.

Then a wire-service piece this week trumpeted the finding that the vast majority of Americans had not seen a single one of the nine films nominated for best picture. About 16 percent of those surveyed said they’d seen “Captain Phillips”; another 12 percent said they’d seen “Gravity.” It tailed off from there.

For some reason, critics and so-called Oscarologists (yeesh) find this perplexing. How can this be? How can what most critics agree was one of the best movie years in recent memory be of so little interest to the movie-going public?

Some years back, then-presidential candidate John Edwards advanced a theory of two Americas, the haves and the have-nots, and the huge gap between them. It is, if anything, even more relevant today than it was then (Edwards’ own peccadilloes aside).

So let me offer the notion that there are two Hollywoods.

There’s the Hollywood that operates a studio assembly line which regularly cranks out sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, TV-show-based movies, comic-book movies and everything else that falls into the tentpole-movie or event-movie category. These are the movies that dominate the box office week after week.

Then there’s the Hollywood that gives out awards – like the Golden Globes and the Oscars. And it’s very rare that the movies that dominate the awards are the same movies that blow up at the box office.

If anything, the disconnect between the studios and quality films is more pronounced now than it’s ever been. Hollywood’s solution? Open up more slots in the best-picture category, in hopes of tricking Oscar voters into nominating some box-office hits as well as the arthouse fare that seems to dominate the awards.

That idea had nothing to do with an idea that quality was somehow being overlooked. Rather, it was about the fear that the mass audience – the audience that doesn’t go to arthouse films – would have a rooting interest in the Oscars. More rooting interest means higher ratings, generating more money for the Academy. Which, of course, is the whole reason for the Oscars at this point: selling commercials between the awards.

mass audience

The NYT piece seemed to have just noticed that the speed of media has far outstripped awards season. There is no post-convention bounce, as it were, for Oscar nominees anymore because, by the time most of the award nominations come out, most of the nominees have long since left theaters. But box-office is still the gold standard. No one, apparently, cares about an awards-related spike in VOD rentals or DVD sales.

The environment has changed significantly in the last decade and even the last five years. Movies don’t stay in theaters very long anymore – even hit movies. Home video long ago replaced the idea of “second-run” theaters, once the place where films could nestle in for a good long run.

As for the strategy of a limited qualifying release for a film for a week in December, then a big roll-out in January or February after the nominations come out – well, again, the speed of media has overtaken it. Even the smaller films get reviewed during that initial limited release – not just by newspapers in New York and Los Angeles but by Internet critics, whose work penetrates to the tiniest hamlets of the world (theoretically).

By the time these movies actually reach the boondocks in wide release, the sizzle is off the steak; they’re yesterday’s news, overtaken by the next wave of new movies – big commercial non-award-oriented mass-market movies like “Ride Along.” So it’s hard to gin up any excitement about films that are yesterday’s news, even with newly minted award nominations.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but here’s one final bit of polarization that the blogosphere and the Oscar pundit industry don’t seem to get: No matter how loud they scream for this or that film, the average person – who may only go to the movies once or twice a month yet whose leisure dollar is crucial for building a film’s audience – generally doesn’t care.

They don’t care about the horse-race coverage, whether it’s about “12 Years a Slave” peaking too early or whether accusations about Woody Allen will tar the star of “Blue Jasmine.” They certainly don’t care about arthouse films, no matter how many hosannas the critics and pundits sing.

If they did, these titles wouldn’t be arthouse films.

But that, finally, is what wins awards. The studio films that do find their way into contention generally are generated elsewhere. I think it’s a rule enacted by the California State Legislature: The studios are only allowed to produce cookie-cutter, mainstream multiplex filler. That’s what draws the under-21 audience so crucial at the box office.

Anyone interested in serious film will find it: through critics, through websites, through on-demand services. They’ll form a small but cohesive little rooting section for those films, which have a better chance of being seen by a mass audience on one of those VOD services than they would if they were flung into theaters for a week in large cities.

The mass audience doesn’t care about the Oscars because mass-audience movies don’t figure in the Oscar equation in any meaningful way.

That should be obvious by now. Don’t make me say it again.

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