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By Thomas Gessner
Okay, I’ll admit it. I watch the Oscars.
Okay, not only do I watch the Oscars, I go through the whole embarrassing process. I print out a sheet where I fill out my predicted winners and force people around me to do the same so I can beat them, and the reason I beat them is pretty simple. I watch most or all of the Best Picture nominated films each year, and that can be quite difficult, since the Oscars are hit-or-miss when nominating the movies that are supposed to be the “best” of each year.
That point brings up a problem with the Academy Awards: They are often wrong, even at the nomination level. Now, the Oscars can’t technically be “wrong”, their decisions are not facts of life that everyone must live by, but they are undoubtedly important to the careers of many people in the film industry, and they have a significant impact on popular culture. But, as time passes, that impact and influence on popular culture has waned greatly.
Viewership continues to decline, hitting its lowest point ever this past Sunday when less than ten million households watched the 93rd Academy Awards. The previous low was a bit under twenty-four million households, a number significantly larger than ten million.
Movies are not as popular as they once were, but does that mean this awards show that is a staple of film and television should decline so rapidly? A lot of people are blaming COVID-19 for the underwhelming viewership, but streaming numbers have still been excellent during the pandemic, and most of the nominated films were readily available to stream for a long period before the awards show.
Not only that, five of the eight films nominated for Best Picture were included free with subscription-based services. Four of those films took home Oscars, and Nomadland, which is available on Hulu, won Best Picture.
The films nominated were more accessible to viewers than ever before, but for some reason, people chose not to watch them, which leads to my next question: why is no one watching the Oscar-nominated movies?
When I look at the Best Picture winners of years past, I see dollar signs. A lot of these movies were certified hits, and they had long-term control over the public consciousness.
Ben-Hur made almost two billion dollars (adjusted for inflation), The Godfather is considered one of the greatest movies ever and is endlessly referenced, Rocky basically invented sports movies, Titanic turned a historical tragedy into the most famous romance films of all time, and Gladiator quotes are played over the speakers during Lakers games. I can only imagine how many finals the Lakers would have lost if scenes from The Artist were used instead.
Briefly disregarding the quality of the films nominated for the major Oscars, the box office does not lie; it represents interest in movies, and that translates to Oscar viewership. Of the twenty highest grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation), eleven were nominated for best picture. Only one of those twenty movies is from the 21st century.
This is a bad sign, and it signifies the Oscars’ problems. The academy no longer nominates movies that are popular, the kind of movies that casual fans and diehard kinophiles alike can root for. But maybe the problem is not that the academy isn’t nominating the right films, but that the right films no longer exist.
It’s well known that franchise films are the bedrock of blockbuster cinema, but of those eleven movies I mentioned earlier, ten are original movies, not sequels and not remakes. Return of The King is technically the exception, but the two prior films were nominated for Best Picture, so there is a case of a continuation of quality.
Original films aren’t made at the same level that they used to be, and that’s because they don’t make the same money as movies like Avengers: Endgame, which is the 22nd installment in Marvel’s superhero franchise.
At some point, people decided they wanted to watch a 22nd movie in a series, and I’ve decided that I'm complicit too in this matter. Look, the Marvel movies are fine, and one was even nominated for Best Picture (Black Panther in 2019), but they are not films that should be reasonably considered for the biggest Oscar awards.
They are the type of movies that are creating the academy’s big dilemma, because people will choose to watch them over original, mid-to-high budget studio films. Because of this, movie studios are not willing to spend money on original films that they think people won’t want to see.
I’m at a crossroads on who to truly blame for the downturn in the Oscars. It’s either Hollywood’s fault for not making expensive films with artistic integrity that can appeal to a wide range of moviegoers (while also pleasing critics and members of the old guard), or the viewers’ fault for not choosing to see those movies and forcing Hollywood’s hand.
It doesn’t really matter, because whichever one is the case, the Oscars’ problem is the same. The only thing they can really do to try to increase their numbers is to nominate lower quality movies, and for that to happen, over 9,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must agree to make that decision, the same academy members that chose lesser-seen films like Birdman and Moonlight for Best Picture.
At the end of the day, there is not much the Academy can really do to save their award show if they are not going to change their artistic habits. The quality of films is declining and the academy won’t stoop to the level of recognizing them, so the Academy Awards are not as much of a litmus test of popular culture and art as they used to be, and that’s alright.
People no longer need the Oscars to tell them what movies to see. We live in an age where movies are at everyone’s fingertips constantly, and if someone wants to find out if a movie is “good”, there’s sites like Rottentomatoes, IMDB, and Letterboxd to sort through hundreds of amateur film reviews. Now, I don’t necessarily think this is a great method of gaging the quality of a movie, but like I’ve already established, neither are the Oscars, so it doesn’t make much of a difference, at least to me. ●
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