The Winter of Our Oscar Discontent


Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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34 Responses

  1. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    One of my bugbears which I maintain by even though lots of dissent is that people born after 1972 or so (especially people born after 1978) or so is that they have largely and totally abandoned the art house and/or even the high middlebrow entertainment that Ross D says normal oscarbait.

    People strike back and state that the relative youngsters could be watch the arthouse movies on streaming but I highly doubt it. This assumes a lot of facts not in evidence. Netflix wants prestige and is betting on ROMA (which was good but also a bit heavy handed with the symbolism) but there I don’t see any evidence of people besides critics and the usual arthouse set watching it on Netflix or in the theatres. Netflix doesn’t tell us the numbers and that is a shame for the sake of art. My bet is not that many.

    I do go see Arthouse movies. My favorite movie of 2018 was Kor’eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters (nominated for Best Foreign picture but probably too foreign for the Academy and for Americans) When I saw Shoplifters in the theatres last November, the majority of people had 25-30 years on me and I’m 38. Maybe they had more on me.

    A variety of social-economic-technological factors seem to have turned Generation X and younger into anti-arthouse pop culture junkies and stay at homes. Technologically, these generations are used to home screens which are near or at cinema quality and sometimes size. There is nothing special about even seeing a visual spectacle extravaganza in theatres. But there is also something about the Internet and social-culture-economic developments that turns Generation X and younger into huge nostalgia machines. So you see facebook groups dedicated to long discussions of glorified toy commercials and being really deep and actually intellectual/mind-blowing* with side-trips into overly long discussions of the sugar cereals of yesteryear which is why diabetes is on the rise.

    But we also live in a self-affirming age that allows for boastful anti-intellectualism if it makes people feel good about themselves and/or “owns the libs.” I say and/or because plenty of allegedly culturally elite, fellow liberals also show rank hostility towards the highbrow and difficult. Hence countless stupid fights about whether Captain America is a liberal Democrat or conservative Republican.

    *They really are not that intellectual and mind-blowing.Report

    • Avatar InMD in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      The summer before last I decided to read War and Peace, not for any particular reason other than that I hadn’t before. It was a bit of a slog, took me probably 6 months to finish, but I eventually did it. A friend of my wife was shocked and asked if I actually enjoyed it and seemed to assume I was making a cringey attempt at showing off.

      This was surprising to me because I think this friend is quite intelligent.
      She’s also probably the most politically active person I know personally. I tried to explain why sometimes trying art that isn’t easy or that readily caters to its audience is worth it even if you don’t fall in love with it or it isn’t subject to fan culture. I’m pretty sure I just confirmed her suspicion that I was making a lame attempt at being pretentious but I really meant it.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to InMD says:

        Political activity and art consumption don’t necessarily correlate, so I’m puzzled by this. When I read War and Peace, I did it with some other people, and we talked about it as we went, so that helped a lot. It was a very worthwhile experience, but I don’t expect everyone to share that opinion.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to InMD says:

        That is another anti-intellectual attitude with a bi-partisan existence. Certain books, movies, art, etc is not really enjoyed by anyone. People only pretend to like these things to appear intelligent/cultivarted. The pop culture fanatic insists everyone just wants to be a sugared up seven year old watching cartoons forever.Report

        • Avatar Lark in reply to Saul Degraw says:

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          • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Lark says:

            I am not always a fan of Oscarbait movies but the example given here is War and Peace which is a titan of world literature. How is War and Peace oscarbait?

            How is Goddard’s Two or Three Things I know about Her oscarbait?

            If the Internet wants to amuse itself to death by looking at imaginary trading cards of He-Man cartoon characters as professional wrestlers that is fine. Just don’t insist everyone secretly wants all entertainment at that level and nothing above.Report

          • Avatar Lark in reply to Lark says:

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    • Avatar Lark in reply to Saul Degraw says:

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    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      And I ‘ll just say (again?) that high middlebrow for Gen X audience has almost entirely moved to television, now that (for over a decade now) screen size and HD makes the viewing experience good enough, and the economics superior.

      The ‘golden age’ of cinema in the 1970s was a result of the old studio system finally falling apart, but before new hierarchies (and the small b blockbuster business model) emerged from the frothing sea.

      I mean, this was also the last gasp of the drive-inn as a significant business sector.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Kolohe says:

        What’s killing the drive-ins are SUV’s and vans outfitted with TV screens for the passengers, and now video streaming from a smart phone. Why drive all the way out to a theater when you can watch a movie anywhere, even on the side of the road or in traffic?

        So instead of taking the kids to what we considered a defining experience, a drive-in theater, parents today load the kids up in the van, drive to Walmart, run in an buy cokes and popcorn at unbelievably low prices, and then watch the move in the parking lot.

        At least I assume that’s what parents are doing.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Kolohe says:

        I agree in part and disagree in part. Yes there is prestige TV and streaming but it is kind of hard to see how many people are watching Bojack Horsemen or Babylon Berlin over NCIS except on Netflix/Hulu instead of TV. We don’t even know how many people watched Roma but it is noticeable that Netflix released info for Bird Box and not Roma.Report

  2. Avatar Aaron David says:

    The main reason I won’t watch the Oscars (OK, the second reason, due to having cut the cord years ago) is I haven’t seen a current movie, in the theater, in years. Nor have I scene ROMA. The movies just aren’t exciting to me or my wife, at least not in a “gotta see that!” kinda way. I generally prefer to stumble across things, so they fit my life when I need them. In this way, I think the video store was the best way for me to come into the range of the film. But I digress. I was talking to my mother’s husband the other day and he was describing Green Book. And it just sounded boring. I like film, but what is crossing my plate right now is just not very interesting. The small movies are too small, the big ones to big.

    That and I could care less what so-in-so is wearing.Report

  3. Avatar PD Shaw says:

    This seems like a good take on the movies and the award process, but just in terms of the Oscars, I think the purpose was to be an advertisement for the Studios. That relates back to the movies, the Studios use this to pimp movies that they want to encourage the viewer to watch. But at a more basic level, to watch the Oscars means you want to spend time with these people, and actors that don’t seem as glamorous as they did in the Golden Age of Hollywood. They seem more impressed with impressing each other. (And IMHO its not necessarily a bad thing that Hollywood doesn’t serve as some entertainment aristocracy)Report

  4. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I’m not sure why one would think that box office should correlate with industry awards. At its best (and yes, the awards aren’t always at their best), the awards celebrate high skill and craft, as recognized by peers in the business. Money is it’s own reward.

    And you could call that snobbery if you want, but they get to make the decisions they make in the way they want to make them. These are the Academy awards, not the People’s Choice awards.Report

  5. 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.

    I’m tempted to say that the audiences being marketed to is the difference – but I’m not sure why that second group is any less important than the first one. I’m also not clear why each of those later three movies, all of which made more than $100,000,000 at the box office, should be dismissed.

    And as for Moonlight’s win – rather than La-La Land – maybe there’s something to be said for rewarding something different rather than giving the award to the same old song-and-dance routine?Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      Also, relative costs should be probably be explored. Dunkirk made a much bigger box office than something like Moonlight, but Moonlight was much more profitable given its cost to make.

      Meanwhile, of those three movies listed in the quote above, 12 Years A Slave and The Shape Of The Water each earned roughly nine times their production budgets. Birdman earned five times its budget. American Sniper earned roughly ten times its budget. American Hustle earned seven times its budget. Dunkirk earned five times its budget.Report

    • Yeah, I’m not saying one is better than the other, just that they’re different. I liked 12 Years better than American Hustle and Moonlight better than La-La Land. I also liked Dunkirk better than the Shape of Water. I still think being nominated is an honor. I just think who the award goes to has become a bit more narrow. Good or bad, it is what it is.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      American Hustle seems more like a Hollywood Renaissance film from the 1970s than Dunkirk or American Sniper. It was also probably more of a surprise hit. Dunkirk also has a lot of throwback elements.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      Can anyone remember what American Hustle was about without looking up the plot online?

      I like David O Russel, especially everything up to I Heart Huckabee’s, but I don’t think that you can talk about his Oscar success without talking about Harvey Weinstein’s campaigning efforts. In general, people tend to underweight the role of campaigning when talking broadly about the Oscars.Report

  6. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Speaking of Hollywood, Stanley Donen, the man who gave the world Singin in the Rain, has died:

  7. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Nice piece.Report

  8. Avatar George Turner says:

    Looking at the Oscar news stories today, it seems they somehow made a dumpster fire boring.Report

  9. Great piece, Michael! I really enjoyed it!Report

  10. Avatar Pinky says:

    Big movies look better on the big screen. Blockbusters are more fun to watch in a crowded theater (if you can put up with the rest of the audience, at least). Some big films are released around Christmas, but the biggest releases are usually in the summer. Small Oscar-bait films are released in December in a few theaters.

    Most of the Academy members see the nominated movies on “screeners” at home by themselves. This gives the small movies home-field advantage.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Pinky says:

      Pretty much this. Going to the movies is going to cost me, when I go alone, $20 easy. If I go with my wife, or son, or both, the cost can double or triple. So I am picky about what I bother watching on the big screen. I save that for movies where the spectacle matters, where the size of the screen and the sound system has impact, where the darkened room helps, etc.

      All the rest, I save for the 55″ flat screen at home.Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    When I was a young man (in my 20’s), I saw many of the Oscar nominees just by virtue of the fact that I saw movies all the time. I was going to school but working 40 hours a week and making tips meant that I always had cash in my pocket and so when I found myself on a Monday or Wednesday night walking out of the building at 6 with empty hours ahead of me and no classes until 10AM the next day, I would usually wander down to the theater and catch something that had a good poster.


    Anyway, now I am old. I see two, maybe three, movies a year. (Note to self: Might be time to update that to “one, maybe two”.)

    Part of that means that my ratio of blockbusters to arthouse films has turned really crappy.

    But, that said, it feels like blockbusters used to be better.Report

  12. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    The problem is that the Oscar categories don’t match the interests of the moviegoing public. I’d suggest new ones like:

    Best Spiderman Reboot
    Best CGI Explosion
    Best Bloated Superhero Crossover
    Best Performance in Appearing Sensitive and Vulnerable Before Destroying an Entire City and Everyone in it
    Best Star Wars Ripoff
    Best Star Trek Ripoff
    Best Foundation Series Ripoff
    Best Lord of the Rings Ripoff
    Best Film Based on a Mediocre TV Series
    Best Wholly Unnecessary RemakeReport

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      This is tough, because the new Star Trek movies are Star Wars ripoffs, and Star Wars is a ripoff of westerns.

      I could get behind “Least Awful Wholly Unnecessary Remake”. But even then, could I come up with 5 nominees each year?Report

  13. Avatar Jesse says:

    My hot take is that Oscar ratings have dropped because…the ratings of everything except the Super Bowl have dropped in the past 10-15 years and there’s no reason the Oscars, which isn’t a Secular Holiday like the Super Bowl is, wouldn’t either.

    If anything, the Oscar’s shouldn’t worry about chasing after the 10-15 million people it’s lost, since attempting to get those viewers back would just upset the 25-30 million people (which in 2019 TV, is still a huge number) who actually enjoy the Oscar’s still.Report