The Winter of Our Oscar Discontent
I have only seen one of the Best Picture nominees this year. That film would be Black Panther which I saw because I like the MCU, not because I was scrambling to see Best Picture nominees. Last year, when the Academy Awards rolled around, I had seen zero of the nominees (I’ve seen them all since). The year before, zero before the Awards, all afterward. The year before that, I’d only seen The Martian and Fury Road.
At one time, that would have been unusual for me. Twenty years ago in 1999, I had seen three of the Best Picture nominees by awards time, two in the theater (including the film that should have won, Saving Private Ryan. Not that I’m bitter or anything). Thirty years ago in 1989, I’d seen two of them. I’ve been fascinated enough by the Oscars to write a series of posts going through the Oscar selections year-by-year to see how well they did at picking the actual best films. But the last few years … nada.
Part of that is just my lifestyle — I have a job and two kids and my trips to the theater are limited. If it’s not something I have to see immediately or on the big screen, I don’t.
But it seems that I’m not that unusual in my declining enthusiasm. Last year, the Oscars hit an all-time low in television ratings. An event that used to draw 40 million or more pairs of eyes suddenly plunged to 27 million. Apologists for the Academy Awards have pointed out that television ratings are declining all over the place, mainly due to cord-cutting. But while cord-cutting is very real and I’m sure that’s part of what’s going on here, it doesn’t really explain the drop in the Academy Awards ratings. Contrast the Oscars against Super Bowl ratings. For all the controversy surrounding the NFL and the drop in viewership the last two years, it has consistently pulled in around 100 million or more viewers every year since 2007 with ratings (percentage of people watching the game) in the mid-to-high 40’s and share (percentage of TVs tuned to the game) in the high-60’s to low-70’s. The Oscars hit their lowest level in 44 years last year; the Super Bowl currently pulls in twice the viewers it did 44 years ago; albeit with a similar rating and share. While people are cutting the cord to their cable companies, event TV does tend to still draw viewers.
The alternative explanation, favored by Trump and various conservatives, is that people have gotten sick of Hollywood’s political agenda. I think there is a tiny sliver of merit to this. Not a lot … politics has been on stage at the Oscars for a long time, going back to Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather up to accept to his award as a protest or Vanessa Redgrave ranting about “Zionist hoodlums”. And it’s sometimes difficult to judge the politics of the Oscars. There was a time when Ellen Degeneres would have been a controversial host. But she pulled in enormous ratings her year because her film career and talk show have made her America’s Sweetheart. But with politics infesting seemingly every aspect of our lives these days, the desire for apolitical entertainment has grown.
But … I think we need to dig a little bit deeper.
Last year, I was struck by this Ross Douthat column which, as is par for the course for Douthat, gets some important things wrong while provoking a lot of thought:
The key problem for the Oscars is not, as Hollywood’s critics on the right sometimes suggest, that the movie industry’s liberal politics are dragging down both box office numbers and Oscar ratings — that the desire to preach is swamping the desire to entertain. There is a political problem, but it is secondary: The key issue for the academy is that the Hollywood system no longer produces enough of the kind of movies that a mass-audience awards spectacle requires.
The ideal Oscar nominee is a kind of high-middlebrow work, a mix of star power and strong writing and gripping storytelling that at its best achieves great artistry (as happened often in the 1970s, less often in other eras) but even if it falls short maintains a certain level of quality joined to broad, dare-one-say populist appeal. The classic Hollywood genres, from gangland movies to historical epics to literary adaptations to Westerns and war movies and musicals, were all calibrated for this zone, and when the calibration was successful, the Oscar nominators had a lot of material to work with that was at once popular and pretty-good.
To pick a representative year from my adolescence, in 1996 the academy nominated five movies for Best Picture — a classic-novel adaptation and romantic comedy in “Sense and Sensibility”; a historical epic-war movie in “Braveheart”; a work of can-do Americana in “Apollo 13”; and then an ingenious children’s movie in “Babe” and a foreign film in “The Postman” (“Il Postino”). The foreign movie made “only” about $21 million in domestic United States box office (still a large haul for a subtitled movie); the other four made about $354 million combined, with “Apollo 13” the easy leader. Adjusted for today’s ticket prices, that works out to well over $700 million in contemporary dollars between them …
… which is more than the total earned by the nine movies nominated for Best Picture in 2018. The winner, “The Shape of Water,” is the most popular trophy-getter in five years — and its current box office take is just $58 million.
The thing is … Douthat’s right as far as that goes. Check out this plot I made of the inflation-adjusted grosses for the Best Picture winners. Note particularly the last few years.
Up until 2004, the typical Best Picture winner pulled in around $200 million in inflation-adjusted box office. Between 1979 and 2004, only one picture failed to make at least $100 million and that one was The Last Emperor, a foreign language film that made $98 million in adjusted gross. But starting in 2005, with Crash, the Academy has selected a series of what could almost be described as box office bombs. The median gross has been $61 million and only four films — The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and Argo, broke $100 million. The Hurt Locker only made $17 million domestically, a shockingly low number for a good film. A similar film — American Sniper — made over $350 million domestically.
My figures are from Box Office Mojo, which only has Best Picture winners tabulated back to 1978. But even before then, many Best Picture winners were financial successes. Gone With the Wind was the most successful movie of all time. Both Godfather movies were extremely successful. Ben-Hur saved a movie studio. Hell, even fare like Annie Hall made $161 million in inflation-adjusted box office. A Man for All Seasons broke $200 million inflation-adjusted domestic. Best Picture winners have generally been financially successful — until recently.
So, at first blush, this would seem to support Douthat’s point. But we’re not at the bedrock yet. Let’s dig down a bit further.
A few years ago, the Academy expanded the slate of Best Picture nominees from five to nine or ten. This was done ostensibly to get greater variety of nominees and indeed it has. Crowd-pleasing blockbusters liked Fury Road, The Martian and La-La Land get nominations but so do obscure-but-great films like Winter’s Bone. The Academy, understanding the dangers of an unconstrained plurality, instituted ranked-choice voting where members rank the choices top to bottom and the votes are tallied and redistributed until you have a clear winner.
And the math changes considerably when you consider the full slate of Best Picture nominees. Check out this plot of median adjusted box office take for all the Best Picture nominees.
Since the Academy expanded the number of nominees, the median office take has not shown the huge drop the the winners have. Obscure films were nominated thirty years ago just as they are now. And big films are nominated now just as they were thirty years ago. What’s changed is what the Academy eventually picks and that change corresponds exactly to when the Academy changed their methods.
A perfect example of where looking at all the nominees changes the math is 1984. Douthat cites Terms of Endearment as an example of a film that won Best Picture and also made lots of money. What he ignores is that the nomination slate that year also included Tender Mercies and The Dresser, films that made less than $10 million. Even in 1983, that was a tiny box office. Other nominees included The Right Stuff, a really good movie that bizarrely flopped at the box office, and The Big Chill, a boomer coming-of-age film that did well but is no one’s idea of a broadly-appealing movie.
That’s still going on. In 2009, The Hurt Locker won Best Picture, with the weakest domestic take of any Best Picture in Academy history. But five of the other nominees broke $100 million. This pattern — nominees making money but the winner frequently not — has held, with some variation, ever since the Academy changed their selection methods. Let’s look over the last ten years at the number of nominees breaking $100 million (with Best Picture Winners in bold):
2009: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, Inglorious Basterds
2010: The King’s Speech, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit
2011: The Help
2012: Argo, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty
2013: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street
2014: American Sniper
2015: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant
2016: Arrival, Hidden Figures, La La Land
2017: Dunkirk, Get Out
Expanding the slate of nominees didn’t force big popular films out. It let more obscure fare like Moonlight in. And the ranked-choice voting means that those obscure films can now win. In the past, a traditional Hollywood film like La-La Land would have won easily. And, indeed, it was initially thought that ranked-choice voting would end up selecting more broadly appealing fare. But it hasn’t; it’s resulted in lesser known but good films often taking the prize. Under the old system, popular films like American Hustle, American Sniper or Dunkirk would have won. Under the new system, they lost to 12 Years A Slave, Birdman and The Shape of Water. One doesn’t need a PhD in film to see the difference between those two sets of movies.
This, I think, is the core issue: a divergence between what the Academy is interested in and what the public is interested in. Popular films are still getting nominated but everyone knows they have no chance to win. The race on Awards night is rarely between two or three heavyweight films. Instead, it is between films that, while very good, have a much more narrow appeal. The $100 million popular films are still around; they’re just not winning because the prize is going to the $20 million arthouse films. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to you. But in terms of ratings, I’m certain that it’s a bad thing. Because, quite simply, no one cares who wins the Oscar anymore.
This came to a head for me personally when I realized that I didn’t really care who won Best Picture last year. And I don’t care this year. I usually at least have an interest in who will win, even if I haven’t seen any of the films. But last year, I just didn’t care. I was glad to see del Toro, Deakins and Oldman get long overdue recognition. But the race for Best Picture? Meh. And when I look back at recent years where I have seen all the Best Picture nominees, I still don’t care who won and only know who won because of my obsession with Sporcle quizzes.
To be fair, there’s a lot more behind the drop in ratings. Another big factor is the fragmentation of our entertainment culture. There are more entertainment options today than there were in the 70’s or 80’s and our dollar and our attention is split more ways. Another factor is the explosion of home entertainment. I’m a movie buff, but I rarely see Best Picture nominees in the theater anymore (although DVD sales and rentals usually track box office).
This fragmentation is particularly noticeable with awards shows, all of which are in viewership decline. It used to be that we needed award shows to tell us what movies to watch, what music to listen to, what plays to see. But that’s not the case any more. Internet ratings, numerous critics and word of mouth have taken over. To get back to last year’s Academy Award nominees, Get Out made $176 million domestically. It didn’t make that money because it got nominated for Best Picture; it made it because word got out that it was a very good movie.
Additionally, quite a bit of the “high middlebrow” entertainment has migrated from the big screen to television. Game of Thrones, just to take the most prominent example, has the kind of quality and appeal that movies used to have (and, I should note, the kind of dynamite cast you used to only see in big movies). Roma, one of the favorites to win this year, had its primary run on Netflix.
So now we are at the bedrock of this issue but it’s a messy kind of bedrock. The decline in Oscar ratings is because of many factors: cord-cutting, the fragmentation of popular culture, the migration of “high middlebrow” entertainment to television, the rise of home theater. And, yes, liberal politicking probably plays a role (or least the expectation of it: I know people who didn’t watch last year because they expected a lot of Trump-bashing). But I think the biggest issue is that we’ve lost interest in seeing which small film is going to win. The heavyweight popular films sit on the side, honored to be nominated. And the award goes to a film that, while good, has not been watched by many of us.
Last year was a particularly bad year for all of the trends driving down ratings. Only Dunkirk and Get Out had the sort of broad appeal that Best Picture winners used to have and it was clear, early on, that neither was going to win. The race came down to The Shape of Water and Three Billboards and while they were both fine films, they didn’t move masses of the public to enthusiasm. This year seems to be coming down to Roma, Green Book and The Favourite and while I’m told they are all fine films, I don’t sense any particular enthusiasm that one of them win.
So I expect the ratings decline to continue. Time is passing the Oscars by. And I think more and more people are happy to let it.