A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Oscars… but the major studios aren’t laughing

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was not, originally, in the award-awarding business.  In fact, the Academy (founded by some of the early Hollywood moguls i.e. Louis Mayer, Douglas Fairbanks, and Jack Warner, among others) didn’t get around to handing out the little gold men until 1929 — two years after AMPAS’ creation.

The idea of the awards was a bit of Hollywood self-promotion.  Movies were fun, they were entertaining, but generally viewed as a more-or-less plebian diversion.  Movies didn’t have the kind of cultural cachet which, say, theater had.  They didn’t have – for lack of a better word – class.

The awards were a way of publicly pronouncing movies as not only entertaining, but also capable of being good. After all, what said class better than commemorating excellence by giving out gold statues of a bald naked man hiding his privates with a broadsword?

That the Academy had been set up by the movie business and was populated by people from in the movie business and that Academy voters often voted for who their studio bosses told them to vote for put the Academy’s opinion on what good might be on somewhat shaky ground integrity-wise.  In effect, the first Oscars were a form of grandiose self-back-patting – “See how good we are?  We’re so good, we gave ourselves an award!”  Still, it wasn’t long before the Academy Awards became the most prominent and popular of entertainment award ceremonies.

Flash forward four score years and a funny thing happens on the way to Oscar night.  What had been originally conceived by Hollywood as a platform to show the public how good Hollywood movies were, turns into a platform showing the public how good Hollywood movies aren’t.

In the eighty-odd years since the first awards, the Academy has grown up.  Its taste and judgment may have often been questionable (sometimes unbelievably so; a Best Picture nomination for The Towering Inferno?  THE TOWERING INFERNO?), but not its independence.  Over time, it has become – more or less — what it had initially been grandly (if not particularly truthfully) declared to be:  an organization for the promotion and recognition of advances and excellence in moviemaking.

The irony therein is that more and more often in recent years, the Academy has been finding that excellence outside the circle of the major studios which had founded the Academy in the first place.  The bitterest and most ironic part of this bitterly ironic irony is that, as always, the nearly 6,000 members of AMPAS are people from the movie industry.  In the technical categories, the awards are sort of a peer review thing:  editors vote on editing, production designers vote on production design, and so forth.  But all members vote for Best Picture meaning this is still Hollywood’s own rendering judgment upon their own, and their judgment of late has regularly been that people outside of Hollywood’s big power circle are making the best (well, ok, better) movies.  Consider the scorecard:  since Titanic brought home the Best Picture trophy in 1998, seven of the 12 films which have subsequently taken the category have been indies including the last three winners:  No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker (if you count mini-major New Line as an oversized independent, the total rises to eight thanks to The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King).

The major studios beefed, they whined, they complained.  There was just something unfair (though God knows no one could exactly say what) about how these little snooty-snoot-snoot made-on-a-(comparative) shoestring art house movies kept getting the lion’s share of nominations and, more often than not, walking home at the end of the night arm-in-sword-wielding arm with Oscar.  The majors felt particularly aggrieved when they did turn out an exceptional picture – like, say, The Dark Knight – and all they got for their creative daring and accomplishment was an AMPAS snub.

The Academy was concerned that the majors were concerned.  No one expected any of the majors to take their marbles and go home, but still… The majors spent millions on Oscar campaigns every year, and big studio glamour was very much what made the Oscars The Oscars!!! If, at some point, the Big Guys began to figure all they were doing was putting out a lot of effort – and money – to support what had become, in effect, a publicity platform for a bunch of beret-wearing, pony-tailed, artsy-fartsy competitors… Well, really; what would be the point?

The Academy had its own concerns.  The Oscar telecast had hit an all-time high audience of 57.25 million viewers the year Titanic took the big prize.  The ratings have been more-or-less sliding ever since.  Last year, 41.62 million watched indie The Hurt Locker walk away with the Best Picture title, and that was up from the 36.94 million who saw Slumdog Millionaire cop the prize the year before.

Since 1998, there’s been a certain mathematical predictability to the ratings.  They spiked for The Return of the King, they dropped for Crash, they spiked for The Departed, they nosedived for No Country for Old Men.

The fairly obvious conclusion was this:  understandably, people didn’t want to watch an award ceremony in which most of the contenders for The Big Enchilada – and particularly the frontrunners — were movies they hadn’t seen, had no interest in seeing, and quite possibly might not even have heard of.  Everybody and his brother/sister had seen Titanic = Oscar’s highest-rated telecast.  No Country for Old Men had grossed about 1/8 what Titanic had raked in = Oscar’s lowest-rated telecast.

AMPAS’  response to the concern was typically Hollywoodian in that it was an overly simplistic tactic based on an overly simplistic read of the situation.  The Academy broadened the nominating field for Best Picture to ten slots from five.  The thinking here was, apparently, indies were crowding out the Big Guys in a small field, but with more slots there’d be more room for movies like The Dark Knight and the Star Trek reboot and the other better major studio releases.

The 2009 Oscars were the first ceremonies with the expanded Best Picture field.  And then another funny thing happens on the way to the awards.

It doesn’t help.

Six of the ten nominees were indies:  District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, and winner The Hurt Locker (if you want to stretch a point and consider Pixar an extremely muscular indie under the Disney umbrella, it becomes seven of ten with Pixar’s Up). On a percentage basis, that’s not much of an improvement for the majors over what they were doing in a field of five.

Fluke?  Or maybe Academy members were still feeling their way through a newly-expanded field for the first time?

Let’s look at the just-announced nominees for this year’s Best Picture field:

Black Swan (indie)

The Fighter (indie)

Inception (major)

The Kids Are All Right (indie)

The King’s Speech (indie)

127 Hours (indie)

The Social Network (major)

Toy Story 3 (Pixar – you call it)

True Grit (major)

Winter’s Bone (indie)

Two flukes make a trend, and it doesn’t end with the night’s big prize.

Beyond the Best Picture category, 16 of the 20 acting nominations are for performances in indie films, including all five Best Actress and four of five Best Supporting Actress nods.  Six of the ten screenwriting slots –  including four of five for Original Screenplay – are for indies.

Not to be cynical but one does start to think even if they widened the field to 15 or 20 titles, the majors would still come up short…maybe even shorter.  After all, once you’re past Inception and The Social Network and snubs The Town and Shutter Island, what could the majors put up?  Iron Man 2? Clash of the Titans?  Little Fockers?

However, it would be just as overly simplistic to say, “What the bigs need to do is make more better pictures.”  To that, keep in mind what Monty Pythonite John Cleese once said in an interview some years ago to the effect that when you knew how the movie business worked, the surprise wasn’t that so few good movies got made; the surprise was that anything got made at all!

The majors are built to make big movies.  That’s what they do.  That’s what they exist to do.  Trying to get them to go small is like trying to use a Formula One race car as a golf cart.  They survive from one year to the next by making movies that make scads of money, and the kinds of movies with that kind of earning power don’t inherently lend themselves to being Best Picture kinds of flicks.  This is why there are more big studio movies of the Iron Man 2/Little Fockers ilk then of the The Social Network/Inception breed.  Academy Awards don’t protect your big studio job or keep that huge organization running, but The Hangover II and Iron Man 3 and re-booting the Spider-Man franchise can.  The reason most Best Actress/Supporting Actress nods come from indies?  Because the most lucrative audience for big studio movies is young males who would rather see other males blow things up or drink themselves into a comical coma than see women do…well, pretty much rather than see women do anything (except maybe blow things up or drink themselves into a comical coma).

With a leaner, less cost-intensive architecture, indies are more maneuverable.  They don’t have to please huge masses of people to stay alive.  Just enough.  And in 2010, because the Big Guys did what they’re supposed to do so badly toward the end of the year (stiffs like Gulliver’s Travels, Yogi Bear, Skyline, Love and Other Drugs, Morning Glory, How Do You Know, and profitable but unbearable muck like Little Fockers), they left plenty of room for indies to do what they do best, providing a steady stream of sharp-edged, intelligent, adult indie fare.

There still may be something to this strategy of widening the Best Picture field as far as the annual telecast is concerned.  Last year’s viewership uptick may have been due to there being room among the noms for biggest-earning-film-of-all-time Avatar, and another box office heavy-hitter, The Blind Side (eighth highest earner of the year).  This year’s inclusion of Inception (#5 for 2010) and Toy Story 3 (#1 and the first animated film to do $1 billion worldwide) might buoy the viewing numbers as well.

But as far as bettering the odds of going home with the gold?  The Big Guys may still have to settle for empty hands…assuaged by full pockets.

Continue to the followup article

(published after the Oscar ceremony)

38 Comments
  1. […] all that bouncing here and there, triggered a bit of nostalgia.  Probably because I was working on the piece during Oscar week, the mention of Ebert reminded me that there had been a time when this would’ve […]

  2. karishma upadhyay

    RT @ranvirshorey: If you thought getting one was tough, here's how tough it is giving one! Get set for the #Oscars. http://bit.ly/e2NCJ7

  3. Aabha

    RT @ranvirshorey: If you thought getting one was tough, here's how tough it is giving one! Get set for the #Oscars. http://bit.ly/e2NCJ7

  4. Vibhor Agarwal

    RT @ranvirshorey: If you thought getting one was tough, here's how tough it is giving one! Get set for the #Oscars. http://bit.ly/e2NCJ7

  5. checkmate v

    RT @ranvirshorey: If you thought getting one was tough, here's how tough it is giving one! Get set for the #Oscars. http://bit.ly/e2NCJ7

  6. a traveller

    RT @ranvirshorey If you thought getting one was tough, here's how tough it is giving one! Get set for the #Oscars. http://bit.ly/e2NCJ7

  7. Ranvir Shorey

    If you thought getting one was tough, here's how tough it is giving one! Get set for the #Oscars. http://bit.ly/e2NCJ7

  8. Beverlee says

    As an average individual, I must say, you could not pay me to watch the “Pat-Me-On-The-Back” Awards. When the most popular movie of the year is not nominated because it is “Not __________ Enough” is when I stopped watching…and that was yearsssss ago. And FYI, all the women I know only watch for the fashion. Sad.

  9. Andy says

    Inception may win a few Oscars, it’s possible. But ten Best Picture nominees is supremely stupid. Five was fine, five was working out pretty well for, I don’t know, what, 65 years? Ten is ridiculous. I’d even go as far as to say that five was enough and a film shouldn’t be nominate for Best Picture if it doesn’t earn at least two other nominations in other categories, with one having to be a major category like Director, Original or Adapted Screenplay, or an acting category. Indie films can be just as good as Major films, and vice-versa. Look back at the 70’s; look at some of the films that won Best Picture as well as the ones that earned nominations. There was a lot of quality.

  10. Kelli Marshall

    #Oscars, initially a platform to show how good HWood movies were. Now, platform showing how good HW movies aren't http://tinyurl.com/48e24xg

  11. Diego says

    Every single day I start to believe even more that Inception won’t win anything…. Too bad. Great article an everybody’s opinion is also worth the reading!

  12. Damian says

    Here’s all you need to know about the quality of movies these days:
    In Cold Blood was not nominated for Best Picture. Capote was.

  13. Samuel Rafuse

    RT @flipcritic: A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars… http://j.mp/ekbBYO A very good read.

  14. Laya Maheshwari

    A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars, but the major studios aren't laughing: http://bit.ly/genOhZ

  15. Martin (french) says

    Great article again, you’ve got a new reader!

    Even if you’re right on everything, I believe that the Oscars are still so popular because of this balance they create between majors and indies, between the critics and the audience. What is so good with Oscars is that, while giving prizes to movies that deserved it, they never forget the people going to cinema (am I still speaking English?)

    You should see in France with our Festival de Cannes which is quietly falling to the oblivion. And why ? Because the jury is forgetting the audience, forgetting that cinema is not made just for critics but also for the people. The last Palme d’Or was a giantic failure at the box office, while beign praised by the critics. It is a thing that the Oscars will never do.

    Don’t know if I have been very clear, but again, great article, have a great day (or night)

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Monsieur Martin —

      Very interesting to hear a perspective from across the big water.

      It’s a tough balance. Popularity does not guarantee quality (otherwise SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT would be considered one of the all-time great cinema comedies), but, on the other hand, you’re right that there are films whose aspirations of high art make them a sort of cinematic broccoli: good for you, but not fun to eat.

      Merci for chiming in.

  16. EddyL says

    Maybe when the majors start making films for adults again and not 12-year-olds, movies will get better.

    I will never EVER go to the theater to see a cartoon, comic book, sci-fi/fantasy crap or any of the interminable remakes or sequels. Nor will I rent or buy DVDs for these.

    The stench from the local cineplex isn’t from burnt popcorn.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I agree with you, Eddy, but the issue is that it’s very easy to get 12-year-olds to go to the movies, sometimes 2-3 times, have them collect the action figures, buy the videogame, etc., and then hook them for the sequel besides.
      That’s a hard financial dynamic for more adult-skewing movies to trump.

  17. Kirsten says

    The problem is that the Academy does things a year too late. They expanded to ten films because of the uproar over The Dark Knight not getting nominated but by then it was too late. They would have gotten more respect and better ratings if they had nominated the thing in the first place. Apparently, in the Academy’s eyes, you can’t make a really good movie that also rakes in serious cash. I think nominating Inception is a step in the right direction, but it most likely won’t win.

  18. Jake says

    Yeah, but especially this year, some of the indies are not as small as you’re making them. Example: black swan gets a wider release than most indies and its now a 100$ million movie. Audiences WILL go see the thought-provoking, “good” movie if they are given an opportuinity.

    1. Anonymous says

      I’d make they case that audiences will…and they won’t. There’s some indies out there doing tremendous business (although one wonders if they’d be doing as well if the major studios slates had been stronger). But there are other highly acclaimed indies that haven’t been able to find traction, like BLUE VALENTINE.
      Statistically, most indies most of the time (granted, a lot of qualifiers there) won’t break $20 million, and the breakout hits usually peter out around $40 million +. They also require, on a percentage basis, significantly more money to promote because they are harder sells (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN cost as much to market as it grossed).
      Still, for all that, it does prove — as you say — there is an audience for them.

    2. Bill Mesce says

      Well, they will…and they won’t. Some indies are out there doing gangbusters business, but some, like BLUE VALENTINE, are stuck in the art house ghetto. One also wonders how well a lot of these indies would be doing if the majors had had a stronger end-of-the-year slate.
      Also, indies are typically more expensive (percentage wise) on the marketing side. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN cost more to market than it did to make; indies are harder sells. I think what you’ve seen happen with a lot of the stronger-performing indies is that once they started getting review and award buzz, the distributors then started ponying up more marketing money. Before that, it can be an uphill battle to get people interested.
      Still in all, it does show — as you say — that there is a not insubstantial audience for these kinds of flicks.

  19. Taylor Fenno says

    “In the technical categories, the awards are sort of a peer review thing: editors vote on editing, production designers vote on production design, and so forth.”

    That is wrong. All of the voting members vote on every category on the final ballot, with exception to Animated Short Film, Live Action Short Film, Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, and Foreign Language Film in which the voting member must attest to have seen the film.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      You’re right, but it still means that the first hurdle is is peer-on-peer, and the general thesis holds true: Hollywood is voting on Hollywood. Nonetheless, it was a notable screw-up on my part. Good catch.

      1. Taylor Fenno says

        No you are still dead on with what you are saying. It’s a great article.

  20. Chris says

    Check check check… a well written piece!

  21. Art Ilano says

    Great article. The good news (for the majors) is that this may well be the year when one of them finally wins Best Picture once again, what with The Social Network and True Grit topping the list.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I hope so, Art. Both of those movies DON’T have the typical big studio big budget sensibility, and being respectable earners (particularly GRIT) and award contenders might buoy up support for doing more flicks like that at the major studio level.

  22. Ramblin' Randall says

    First off, great article. I agree with a lot of what you said. The way I look at it is as follows:
    The Academy Awards are supposed to (key phrase here is “supposed to”) be handed out to what/who the Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, etc. is for any given year. It is not supposed to be a popularity contest (although arguments can be made for and against that as well) so the Academy is not supposed to be handing the award out to whatever made the most money that year. If it did that, then it would be going against its mandate, which is to award the best of the year for their accomplishments.
    At the same time, the majority of the public go to the movies not to see something artsy or thought provoking, they go to the movies to be entertained, which at the moment is usually a slam-bang action flick, a buddy/crude comedy, or whatever the latest chick flick or Twilight franchise is. This means that consistently in the last decade, the films that rank near the top of the box office end up with Razzies instead of Oscars. Now the Academy might be trying to up its viewership by expanding the Oscar field and including more popular films, but if they end up including most of the major money makers of the year for the sheer point of increasing ratings, then they would be going against the mandate of the Academy Awards and would end up turning into the People’s Choice Awards and Adam Sandler would be winning Best Actor for Grown Ups (the sheer thought of this makes me want to puke).
    I’m going to get some flack for this next comment, but it’s the truth: a majority of people are idiots and they like going to idiotic films because a thought provoking and slow moving art house film is above what they are capable of understanding and thus if they don’t understand it, then they can’t enjoy it. Personally, I love movies where I need to watch it multiple times to understand it because it gets me thinking and analyzing the film more than I would watching Transformers 2. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good action flick or popcorn flick or bad but enjoyable movie (ie. Leppy in the Hood) like everyone else, but you would never see me arguing for it to be nominated for a major award or defending its merits. I will openly acknowledge that the movie sucks, but that it has entertainment value. That’s what separates me (and I feel most movie people) from the majority of society, is that we can willingly admit when a movie is enjoyable but still a piece of crap, but we can also enjoy and take notice of the deep thought provoking art house indies that are worthy of Academy Awards.
    The second that the Academy crosses that line and stops distinguishing between what were the truly great films of the year and what the majority of the population thought were the truly great films of the year, then I think the Academy will have lost its way. If the major studios want their films to get award recognition, then they need to start making better movies (probably at the cost of not making a great amount of money) because the way that society is these days, you can’t have it both ways. Don’t expect to see a major studio Miley Cyrus film picking up any nominations for Oscars any time soon.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Randall —

      Thank you for your comments, it’s very flattering to see the kind of thinking the piece provoked.
      I think I would only mildly disagree with you on judging the majority of people idiots (though sometimes the weekend box office reports make that kind of judgment tempting).
      Keep in mind that the majority of the public doesn’t go to the movies. The audience for the big money movies tend to be fairly young and it’s easy to see that a pair of 19-year-olds on a date would rather go to IRON MAN 2 than BLACK SWAN. I know that was the case when I was 19, and I was a film major back when we studied Bergman and Fellini along with Ford and Welles. That’s not a question of taste; it’s a question of hormones.
      However, the WHY doesn’t change the WHAT; the earning dynamic is still the same which, as you point out, makes TRANSFORMERS III a better box office bet for a studio than doing the next SOCIAL NETWORK; maybe better because you can do a lot wrong in TRANSFORMERS III and still turn a good dollar, but a SOCIAL NETWORK you pretty much have to do juuuust right. The studios knows this and that’s what often scares them off that kind of material.
      Nice comments, though, Randall, very interesting to read.

  23. Classic Steve says

    I now realize that I saw all the major studio nominees (including Pixar’s) for both 2009 and 2010 in theaters, yet TKS is the only indie I’ve seen in a theater.

  24. valdezlopez says

    Great article.

  25. Neil says

    I think The Towering Inferno is a great film. Enormous in scale and very effective as a cautionary tale to big business. Aspects of it have dated atmittedly, but I don’t think its relevance or dramatic impact have been lessened over time. The cast also all do sterling work.

  26. Cynthia says

    The reason that the plan backfired is simple: the Academy sicks to what they are comfortable with, which has proved to be indies, specifically dramas. Many insiders argue that the expansion of the Best Picture category to 10 films was a direct result of the snubbing of The Dark Knight (and to some degree, WALL-E) for Best Picture in 2009. Both were extremely commercially and critically successful. But the Academy has proven that amount of films allowed to be nominated doesn’t make a difference. They continue to use the same formula they have for the past 20 or so years: Independent dramas, most of which 90% of people have never even heard of. So now, instead of just 5 indie dramas, we have 10. They’ll be sure to include a blockbuster in there for good measure, but will give it no serious consideration.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Cynthia —
      I think you may be right that there’s a prejudice — maybe even a subconsious one — against blockbusters. I think Academy members (some of them anyway) might worry that voting that way could make them look like they’re in mainstream Hollywood’s pocket. They might also second guess their own gut feeling thinking, “As much as I liked DARK KNIGHT/WALL-E/UP/STAR TREK/etc., cartoons and superhero movies couldn’t possibly be as good as a small-scale drama BECAUSE they’re cartoons and superhero movies”
      It may be a comfort thing — feeling more secure voting for serious art house fare — but it should be said that doesn’t make flicks like BLACK SWAN and THE FIGHTER and the other indies up there this year less deserving.
      The fact that, as you say, 90% of people may never have heard of these movies also doesn’t make them less deserving. Popularity is no gauge of quality any more than snob appeal is a gauge of popularity.
      But I do think you might be on to something that at least some voters might worry about the appearance of class in their selections when, if they were a little more honest with themselves, they might be more inclined to put Woody and Buzz above a ballet dancer suffering a psychotic break.

  27. Alice says

    Thanks for this article. I figured the expanded best picture slots were to draw more viewers, but I didn’t think about the fact that major pics might be getting squeezed out by indies…

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