Post Oscar Thought: Grown Up Films – An Endangered Species?

“When I was a child,” film reviewer Stephen Whitty wrote in “What Happened to Grown-Up Films?” for New Jersey’s state paper, The Star-Ledger, on the day of the Oscars, “most of the big hits in movie theaters were aimed at adults. Now that I’m an adult, most of the big hits in movie theaters are aimed at children.”

Earlier this month (“Why Can’t An Oscar-Winner Look More Like a Hit?” posted 2/8/12), several of us on this site were discussing what turns out to be the heart of Whitty’s article: the divergence between the acclaimed and the popular. With respect to my SOS colleagues, none of us put it quite as eloquently or made as substantial a case for the how’s and why’s behind that schism as Whitty does. His piece is worth a read and you can find it here.

The part of Whitty’s article which really brought it home for me – since he and I are about the same age – was his now-and-then contrast of box office toppers:

“In 1971…I was 12 and just getting seriously interested in films. And that was easy. Because back then, the top 10 domestic grossers were, in order, Fiddler on the Roof, The French Connection, Summer of ’42, Diamonds Are Forever, Dirty Harry, Carnal Knowledge, A Clockwork Orange, Klute, The Last Picture Show, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks

“In 2011, the top 10 movies included two films based on young-adult novels, two more based on toys or amusement park rides, two superhero films, one sci-fi flick, one cartoon, one raunchy comedy and one over-the-top action picture…not one was a drama.”

Oft-quoted box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian looked at the year’s Top 10 and noted, “You can’t find a single original movie on it. They’re sequels, remakes or they’re setting us up for next year’s The Avengers…”

Whitty quotes director Steven Soderbergh that back in The Day “…the best movies were the most successful movies. And that changed. That just doesn’t exist anymore.”

A look at the box office numbers for this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, and those of 2011’s chart toppers, brings the point home in grim dollars-and-cents detail. The worldwide gross as of this writing for all nine nominees totals a hair over $1 billion…just about the same as the worldwide earnings for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides alone…and about $100 million less than those of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

In other words, each of those two truly lousy movies (34% and 35% on Rotten Tomatoes’ “Tomato Meter” respectively) did better than all nine of the supposedly best films of the year combined.

With the exception of The Help ($169.7), no Best Picture nominee broke the $100 million barrier, and none of the nine made it into the Top 10 (The Help stands at #13 for the year out of a field of 598 releases). In fact, of the other eight, none placed higher than #41 (War Horse). Best Picture winner The Artist barely made the Top 100, coming in at #96 behind such fare as Final Destination 5 and Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son.

The lack of a big hit in the Best Picture line-up was reflected in the ratings for the Oscar telecast which tend to ebb and flow with the popularity of the nominees.  Although viewership was up a bit from last year’s 37.6 million to 39.3 million, the numbers still look a little anemic compared to the telecast’s 1988-2002 heyday when viewership regularly hovered in the 40 millions or better.

Whitty ends his piece with more optimism than I have. He looks at the success of 2010’s The King’s Speech, or this year’s Midnight in Paris, and says this proves there’s still an audience for substantive, intelligent films.  He maintains – bless him – that “…many Americans are still sophisticated, dedicated movie lovers.”

Me, I’m not so sure.

Today, I stood at the head of one of the university classes I teach and looked out at my 20 or so students – none older than 21 – and asked who’d watched the Oscars last night. Three put up their hands. One admitted he didn’t even know it had been on. I asked if anybody had seen any of the Best Picture nominees.  One had seen two of them…and that’s it.

Keep a good thought, Stephen.

-Bill Mesce

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