THB #336: Once In Love With Oscar
I will be very happy to see The Academy find its way out of the devaluation of Oscar. Some changes this year, I am hopeful about. Others seem like the same old mistakes.
But as we head into The Sunday, what I have found missing is the most basic conversation… why do any of us care?
The machine, including some of the best intended and the worst, feeds on its own planetary atmosphere. I’m not talking about what keeps the machine moving today.
I’m talking about love.
I’m talking about gathering in rooms with people you like - some you don’t - and watching and eating and arguing in a heartfelt way about a singular moment every year in which actors are exposed as real people and films we are passionate about, high art and low, get answers from a slightly mysterious voting booth with the switch being pulled by people who are definitively inside The Bubble of working and highly established members of the industry.
This, which was a reality for me for the first 40 years of my life has changed rather dramatically.
Actors are no longer very surprising on Oscar night. The entire night plays like a performance because the stakes are too high for people to relax and just be. We are inundated in social media with the “real lives” of many of these actors all year long. There is endless conversation about the text and the sub-text of so much of what they say and do.
Films, high and low, are not creating a consistent level of passion in anything other than the hard core of committed film fans. Five million? Ten million?
The Academy has doubled membership in just 7 years in the honorable chase of greater cultural equality within the organization. A large chunk of that expansion - since the industry’s structural racism is too long established to be flipped overnight (or over a decade, even) - has been film industry people, outside of the United States. So somewhere around 25% (or more) of The Academy voters are not working inside The Bubble anymore.
We also have to seriously consider what this expansion means to what The Oscar is. And it’s not a reductive or misguided conversation. It’s not the same as being against inclusion.
I actually think this all started long before #OscarSoWhite and A2020 (The Academy’s expansion scheme). There is no denying that multiple things have happened all at once in the last 14 years at The Academy. In 2009, there was the expansion to 10 or as-many-as 10 Best Picture nominees. In 2011, Dawn Hudson got the job as CEO.
In 2014, the Oscar ratings “peaked” at 43.7 million domestic viewers and has never seen 40 million viewers since (the mark was over-40 million for 12 of 17 shows between 1997 and 2014, never below 33 million). The last 5 shows marked the 5 lowest ratings in Oscar history. #OscarSoWhite happened in the midst of the 2015/16 season, back when the viewer numbers were lingering in the 30 millions for 3 years.
The stat that remains consistent and, I think, deeply relevant, is a very simple one. In the 20 Oscar seasons before the 2009 expansion to 10 or as-many-as 10 Best Picture nominees (1989 - 2008), there were 5 nominees and only in one year was the winner not the #1 or #2 box office grosser. (American Beauty was #3 in 1999… Shakespeare in Love was #2 to Saving Private Ryan the year before).
It’s been 13 seasons under The Expansion. The last 2 are problematic stats to include, as Nomadland was mid-COVID and faced 3 competitors with no box office and the rest skewed by COVID, for instance Jesus & The Black Messiah, which was released day-n-date on HBO Max and did just $5.5m in theaters, which was still more than Nomadland. But neither film performed the way they surely would have under “normal” circumstances. Then CODA became the first film without any box office to win Best Picture.
The average gross per Oscar Best Picture winner in the 20 years pre-Expansion was $147 million and the average rank amongst the 5 nominees, by box office, was 1.5 of the 5 nominees.
Post-Expansion, the average gross per Best Picture winner has been $59 million and the rank amongst the 10 nominees is 4.6 out of 10, with only one winner in the Top 3 (The King’s Speech, which was #3 in 2010).
For perspective, even with ticket prices increasing, the lowest grossing winner in the 20 seasons pre-Expansion was Crash with $55 million domestic. And the average since expansion is, as noted before, $59 million per nominee. Only 3 of the last 13 Best Picture winners grossed more than that average (The King’s Speech, Argo, and Green Book).
The Academy is voting on a different kind of Oscar field now, with more options than before. But there is an illusion that The Academy has lost interest in nominating high-grossing films.
People have made a big deal out of there being 3 $100 million domestic grossers nominated this season… and yes, an improvement on the last 2 COVID years. But since The Expansion, only 1 non-COVID season has had just 1 $100 million domestic grossing Best Picture nominated and just 1 more had only 2. The high was 6 such nominees in 2012, and 3 times there were 4 $100 million films nominated and 3 more times in which 3 were nominated. So, having high grossers is much more the norm than not.
But the voters have voted for the smaller films to win. We haven’t had a Best Picture winner that grossed over $85 million domestic since 2012… that’s 10 Oscars given out and that started pre-#OscarSoWhite or the membership changes.
Dancing over the 3rd rail of The Academy, only 3 of the last 10 Best Picture winners have been directed by “white” men. The last 2 were directed by women, 2 have been directed by Black men, 2 have been directed by men of Mexican origin, and 1 was directed by an Asian man.
Further, only 1 white male director has won Best Director in the last 10 Oscar seasons (Damien Chazelle for La La Land). There have been 3 female winners, 5 winners of Mexican descent (3 men), Ang Lee, and Chazelle.
My point is not to claim reverse-racism, though no one can accurately claim that being a white male director in Hollywood right now enhances your chance of winning Best Director or your Film winning Best Picture. That said, the odds that you will get a film made, period, are significantly enhanced. 100 years of industry racism have not been corrected, but at the same time, a decade of Oscar statistics don’t lie.
America is, as a film industry, still way behind on inclusion. I know that saying this pisses some people off, as they feel the pressure that is being brought to bear, but it’s undeniable if you look at the films that reach theaters. It’s gotten better. There are more films FUBU (For Us By Us) for people of color and women than 5 years ago, much less 10 or 20. But it is not enough.
Oscar is doing much better than the industry on inclusion. I know that saying this pisses some people off, as they feel like the results with Oscar wins and nominations are not there. But they are, mostly, cherry-picking stats when it comes to the last decade. Inclusion by demand is a double-edged sword and very few people are willing to discuss it and allow for “the other side” to have its legitimate facts without accusations flying, in both directions. Even writing about engaging on the issues is dangerous for a journalist like myself.
The argument about who and what was nominated this year around The Woman King and Till isn’t important in detail, so much as the fact that there were only 2 “black” dramas from which the industry was choosing, from the start of the season to the end. Blaming the Oscar and its voters is just myopic crap (not to put too fine a point on it)… or if you will, focusing on 2 films is the easiest thing to make a public fuss about because no one is really set up to press all year long about what is actually going to be on offer come the fall. Awards are the caboose of the movie business, not the engine.
A white man will win Best Director this year - for just the 2nd time in a decade - but it is most likely going to be one who is partnered with an Asian America. Take that as you will.
But I have digressed, far from the opening thought…
Can we all love the new Oscars? Can a wide audience of more casual movie fans?
I think the first step is focusing on the show as a TV show that is there to celebrate and please people who love movies. And they are doing that in giving the reins over to television pros for a number of years.
Next, with due respect, movies are not 2-hour films made for your television. The Academy should declare itself as an event for theatrical movies and not cut out the streamers, but just make the rules of qualifying more stringent when it comes to theatrical release. Riding the fence has not been successful for Oscar. We are seeing the frustration of all audiences with being asked, endless, to chase content for themselves, figuring out where it is and why they should watch. Put the flag down… somewhere… firmly.
The Academy has fallen into the trap of making it incredibly easy to watch everything on TV and more difficult to watch it in theaters. Do what you can to flip that. And stop making it easy to sell your movie in Phase I and really difficult in Phase II. It should be the opposite. In what should be a 2 or 3 week window of Phase II, before final voting, every voter in LA or NY should be out and engaging every night. Make that 2 week window an annual industry holiday of sorts. Give every one of the 10 movies a day that is theirs to do any damned thing they want, worldwide, to sell thier wares. Dump “The Contenders” and all that media-centric crap. Stop letting media that is buying its way into revenue, first and last, create ways for distributors to get around the rules. The movies should be enough again.
Phase I, watch movies. Phase II, go in for the kill.
As I keep screaming, make the show earlier. January or early February. If you can’t produce the show in one month for whatever reason, rethink what you are doing. This is a show about handing out awards to people. It can’t be that complex, especially with the entire industry bending over backwards to make it work.
And have some damned fun. Not a projection of what might be fun for the audience. The entire “cast” of the show is, what, 300 people? Let’s see a show about 300 people. Let’s see nominees hand out awards. Let’s eliminate clip packages that look like the ads we have seen for months. Let’s not ruin every surprise by selling it before hand like there is no reason to see the show live instead of wait for it in pieces on Tik Tok the next day. Let’s stop being snarky about the films that haven’t been widely seen and instead let the world know why they should see them.
Finally… change the carpet color back to red. Seriously… WTF?!?!
I love movies. And I love The Oscars… or I have. I’m tired of being tired of it.
When I think about all this, I think the best approach is to step away from the past as much as one can. What do you really want to see? Forget about what can and cannot be done… what is too hard. What would make you happy? What is the story of the night you want to be telling the best day? It’s not just about the specific nominees. It’s about… anything… everything… about movies and all that we love about them. Then start making rules.
We can have nice things.
Freebie today, in the name of Oscar love.
While I agree with most of what you said, your argument is still a critique of inclusion. The word sounds like we're kids in sleep away camp. Inclusion has accelerated exclusion. Or shall I say, segregation. Ever see, for example, how white characters are portrayed in black films? Or men in women's films? History is turned into myth and romance. And what about the griping about Jamie Lee Curtis? Every Oscar now will see demands for fixed outcomes, as with Angela Basset and Viola Davis. Great performers, silly films. And making these distinctions is one of the purposes of judging.
We're headed toward what the old IFP had with the Gordon Parks Award for black people, as if they can't compete with white people. Also another for Latinos, ensuring that everyone comes home with gold. Inclusion? Under the present terms, you can have it.
My sentiment exactly. I fear the Academy is hopeless lost in its purpose.