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Why Can’t An Oscar-Winner Look More Like A Hit?

Why Can’t An Oscar-Winner Look More Like A Hit?

 Throughout the first half of February, the Sound On Sight staff will take a look at the Academy Awards.

Whether one of the major studios takes the top prize at the Academy Awards or not, they have no squawk this year.

Several years ago, as you might recall, the Big Guys were getting fed up with having their clocks cleaned in the Best Picture category every year by releases from independent companies.  The last time one of the majors walked home with the Best Picture gold was 2006 when Warners’ The Departed took the trophy.  Before that, you have to go back almost a decade — to 1997 — to Titanic, split between 20th Century Fox and Paramount.

Over the last decade and a half or so, the indies have usually taken a fair share of the nomination slots and almost always the grand prize. The majors retaliated by pushing for an expansion of the Best Picture category beyond five nominees, feeling the kind of big budget spectacles where they could really strut their stuff – like, say, The Dark Knight (2008) — were getting squeezed out by the Academy’s infatuation with snooty low-budget indies (the last big budget Best Picture winners were The Lord of the Rings:  Return of the King in 2003, and Gladiator in 2000, but both came from outside the circle of majors, with King from New Line, and Gladiator from then independent DreamWorks; the last major studio extravaganza to win was, again, Titanic). 

The only shot the Big Boys had at getting one of their spectaculars in the running this year was Warners’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.  It seemed a sentimental shoo-in.  An Oscar nod would not only have recognized a film demonstrating big budget effects fests could be done with intelligence and style and taste, but also serve as a deserved salute – as is often thought the Oscar for Return of the King had been – to a series which has maintained an oustanding level of quality over a decade and eight films.  Sentiment or not, poor Harry, alas, didn’t make the cut, but, as I said, the major studios still have no squawk.  For the first time in a loooong time, the majors dominate.

Of the nine nominees for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, two are from Disney (Spielberg’s heart-tugging War Horse, and the heartwarming The Help), one from Sony (true sports tale Moneyball), one from Paramount (Scorsese’s grand scale fairy tale, Hugo), and Warner Bros. and Paramount are jointly behind 9/11 drama, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  If you add in films from the majors’ specialty divisions – those small companies within big companies charged with turning out indie-like films — the studios own eight of the nomination slots with Fox Searchlight’s brand on Terry Malick’s poetic The Tree of Life, and Alexander Payne’s mix of domestic comedy and domestic drama, The Descendants; and Sony Classics behind Woody Allen’s late-career box office triumph, Midnight in Paris.

(Ironically, the only release from a true independent also happens to be considered the frontrunner for the award:  The Weinstein Co.’s The Artist.)

You can argue with some of the individual choices, grumble about flicks that didn’t make the cut, but, let’s face it; generally, it’s a pretty respectable group.  Certainly nothing embarrassing there, and it’s a reminder to all concerned that the Big Guys haven’t forgotten what it too often seems they’ve forgotten: how to make a good movie.

What hasn’t changed is the Best Picture category’s persistent lack of big hits.  As of this writing, only one nominee has crossed the $100 million marker in domestic box office, with the rest ranging from mid-range to strictly niche performers, and none showing any promise at all of ever breaking through that deliciously round-numbered ribbon of green and gold:


The Help:  $169.6 million domestic box office/budget:  $25 million

War Horse:  77.3/66

Moneyball:  75.6/50

The Descendants:  65.5/20

Hugo:  61.9/150

Midnight in Paris:  56.5/17

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close:  26.6/17

The Artist:  20.6/15

The Tree of Life:  13.3/32

Looking at those numbers — particularly when measured against costs (rule of thumb is breakeven requires a gross of two-three times cost) — may explain why the majors don’t make too many of these kinds of movies.  While there have been a few heavyweight earners in the Oscar nominee field over the last 10-15 years, generally, Oscar contenders don’t have the same box office muscle as other releases.

The top earner in this year’s group – The Help – did terrific numbers, particularly against such a modest budget, and was one of the top money-makers of the year coming in at #13.  Yet it only did about half the business of the clanking mess that was Transformers:  Dark of the Moon (#2 for the year).  War Horse, Moneyball, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, and Hugo – this last easily one of the most acclaimed releases of the year – were out-earned by such craptasms as Alvin and the Chipmunks:  Chipwrecked, Green Lantern, Battle:  Los Angeles, The Green Hornet, and – say it ain’t so, Joe – The Smurfs.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was not nearly as loud at the box office as tired sequels Final Destination 5 or – shudder – Spy Kids:  All the Time in the World.

Oscar frontrunner and a tie with Hugo as most praised film of the year, The Artist, couldn’t get its numbers past bottom-dwelling junk like Mars Needs Women and the Conan the Barbarian remake.

And Tree of Life?  Ok, Tree is a demanding flick.  Even a lot of the art house crowd had trouble getting it down.  Still, less people had trouble swallowing Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer.

Among the general public, there’s long been a suspicion movie reviewers and bodies like the Academy voters are some other species:  “They don’t watch movies normal people do.” Undoubtedly, most of us who like to gather at this site and fancy ourselves somewhat serious in our film interests have had a conversation along the lines of the following at one time or another:

You’re at the table for some family dinner, you mention a movie.  “I never heard of that,” somebody says, and turns to the others at the table.  “You ever hear of that?” Blank faces.

Or somebody mentions whatever is riding high at the box office at that moment and you mention – knowing the second it passes your lips it’s a mistake to bring this up – that the reviews have been less than kind.  “What do they know?” someone says.  Someone else chimes in, “I already know I’m gonna like it.  You know how I know I’m gonna like it?  Because those review guys hate it! (or vice versa)”

And then there’s that all-time favorite chat after the Oscar nominations come out.  They look to you for some sort of enlightenment because, “You know a lot about movies,” and they say, “I never heard of half them pictures.  I don’t even know anybody who’s seen any of ‘em.  Where do they find these things?”

Are these two worlds apart?  Are reviewers and awards-givers just a bunch of cinema snobs with their noses so high in the air it’s a wonder they don’t wind up in neck braces?  Does the mainstream viewing audience consist of a bunch of yahoos who wouldn’t know good movie-making if a glowing Divine Finger came down from Heaven and pointed to a title on the multiplex marquee to the accompaniment of a herald of angels singing, “This one, morons!”

Is it so freaking impossible to make a movie that’s everything good filmmaking should be and that’s also fun for a lot of people to watch?

Well, these days, kinda, yeah.


Which, in itself, I grant, may sound kind of snobby, but it’s a question of demographics, and the changing sensibility of the bulk – pay attention to that; I didn’t say “all,” I said “the bulk” – of the movie-going audience.  Or, to put it more simply, it’s about where the money is.  The BIG money.

The movie box office has been driven by young ticket-buyers since the end of World War II, but the sensibility of the young audience has gone through a radical change over the last 30 years or so.  How they watch movies – or anything else, for that matter – has been shaped by growing up in households where they can cruise hundreds of cable channels, millions of websites, spend hours playing meth-paced shooter videogames.  Thanks to smart phones and other portable electronics, they can – and do – stay connected to that hyperactive digital realm everywhere and anywhere.  Providing you can even get that audience into a movie house – and attendance numbers suggest that’s getting harder and harder to do – they want a movie that fits in with the rest of their ADD-like time-killing experiences:  fast-paced, comic book-simple, and as much over-the-top action as can be packed into two hours.  No Country for Old Men (2007) or The Hurt Locker (2008) or The Artist ain’t gonna cut it for them.

What cuts it are the kind of movies which ruled the top of the 2011 box office:  behind Harry Potter and Transformers, this means The Twilight Saga:  Breaking Dawn Part 1, The Hangover Part 2, Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides, Fast Five, Mission:  Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows, Thor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America:  The First Avenger.

You say, “Good cinema…award-winner…critically-acclaimed”  to that audience, and it’s like telling a kid to eat his broccoli because it’s good for him.  Well, it may be good for him, but come Friday night he and his friends just want to go out and binge on cinematic Twinkies because that’s what kids do which pushes movie companies interested in big earnings into the cinematic junk food business.

It’s easier to amuse people than to engage them.  Good storytelling – whether you’re talking about movies, TV, theater, books, whatever – is about trying to land some of your shots on three targets:  the gut, the heart, the head.  Most of the box office kings tend to shoot low:  eye dazzle, easy humor, an occasional glop of manipulative sentimentality to give you the illusion something in the last two hours actually counted for something.  Those also are typically the easiest targets to hit.  Think Hangover Part 2.

All nine Oscar nominees, however, to some degree or another, spread their shots out among all three targets.  You can almost guarantee that the greatness of a film – its ability to hang with you long after you’ve left the theater, and maybe even to continue to connect with audiences years later – is connected to a filmmaker’s ability to strike all three targets in some sublimely deft – or deftly sublime — way. 

As for critics and awards-givers being snobs, well, undoubtedly some are.  But part of their sensibility – much of it, actually – comes from the simple fact that this is what they do for a living.  Before last year’s Oscars, I interviewed Stephen Whitty, reviewer for The Star-Ledger, the major newspaper where I live.  Whitty hit the situation so squarely on the head then, it still seems the best way to put it:

“…I see maybe ten times as many movies as the average moviegoer…A typical person who likes going to the movies might go three times a month.  A more casual goer; maybe once a month.  A lot of people go to the movies only three times a year or so.  For them, it’s like eating out.  Maybe they didn’t go to a fancy restaurant, and the food wasn’t five-star, but they think, ‘Well, the veal parmagiana was pretty good, it was ok, the place was nice…’  Nothing too special; they had a pleasant night out.  For me, it’s like going out to eat every night, and it’s, ‘Oh, God, I ate this fifty times before!’”

You see that many movies, it’s easy – painfully easy – to see when moviemakers are being lazy, derivative, when their only inspiration is that a certain bit got a laugh/gasp/shudder in a dozen other movies.  It’s not that critics are snobby (well, not necessarily, let’s say), but it’s like that line Bill Murray has in Groundhog Day (1993):  “Maybe (God’s) not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”

Even the older, mature audience has grown increasingly conservative in its choices. The Help is a wonderful, inspiring, touching movie…but it’s also rather safe.  It’s a beautifully rendered – if hardly subtle – feel-good picture of something we all know (or should know) about race in this country.  It is not quite as challenging or unfamiliar as some of the other nominees which may be why The Help did blockbuster numbers and the others did not.

I’m not saying the other flicks are all “deep” pieces of cinematic art.  Quite the contrary; a number of them, like The Help, are just terrific storytelling (Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Artist, War Horse).  But there is an air of unfamiliarity about them and that doesn’t work for mass audiences all that well these days.

As it happens, while I’m writing this I’m also flicking an eye to my TV where TCM is running Town without Pity, an American/German co-production from 1961.  It reminded me there was a time when the mainstream audience didn’t have a problem with trans-Atlantic collaborations like like Pity and The Train (1964) and Is Paris Burning? (1966) with half their casts dubbed, or with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cliff exchanging shots with swarthy dubbed Italians trying to pass as swarthy Mexican banditos in spaghetti Westerns. For that matter, we didn’t mind TV series like The Avengers, The Saint, and The Prisoner – produced in the UK for UK audiences – airing on American network TV, in prime time no less.  We kind of liked the variety. It strikes me we’ve gotten a bit more parochial, from that older, supposedly more mature audience on down to the sit-through-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-twice young crowd.

Look at The Artist.  It’s a lovely, charming, sometimes funny, sometimes romantic, sometimes touching tale of Hollywood.  If you liked Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or any of the myriad versions of A Star Is Born, if you’re looking for a movie that can work for the cineaste as a Valentine to the movies, or just one that’ll make a great date movie, it’ll work for you.  Watching The Artist isn’t like asking the audience to do Tree of Life high hurdles.

The Weinstein Co. release had been doing great art house business.  When the award noms started coming in and the adoring critical buzz seemed to be reaching some sort of peak, Weinstein broadened the film’s release apparently hoping for a breakout…and the box office stalled.  Was it because the movie was in black & white?  That it was a silent flick?  That it was perceived as being a – God forbid! – foreign film?  Maybe all of them.  But The Artist hitting the box office wall so abruptly once out of the safe haven of limited distribution says something about the limited tolerances of even the older mainstream audience.

Yeah, yeah, I know:  “I just go to the movies to be entertained!”

Ya know something?  That’s always been the reason most people have gone and still go to the movies.  It’s not like anybody – even the snootiest critic – says to him/herself, “Ah, the weekend!  I really need to go get myself edified and enlightened at the movies on Saturday!”  It’s just that what entertains most people seems to be funneling down to a suffocatingly narrow range of stuff.

These two separate worlds of the general movie-going public and picky critics and awards-givers?  The sad thing about this is they weren’t always separate.



You’d have to be near-delusional not to know Hollywood has always made more crud than cream.  Back in the days of the silents, back during the golden years of mogul-run Hollywood, back during the 1960s-1970s era of filmmaking mavericks and renegades, the junk always outnumbered the jewels.  And the mass audience was fine with that.

But there were jewels, and they came from the same outfits making the junk.  The same Hollywood that gave you Ma and Pa Kettle also gave you The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and the mass audience was fine with that, too.

In the 1930s, the top earners of the decade ranged from wonderfully soapy Gone with the Wind (1930) and all-star melodrama Grand Hotel (1932) to the screen adaptation of David Copperfield (1935) and Frank Capra’s still-frighteningly-relevant acidic comedy about politics, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  The 40s list of top earners includes The Best Years of Our Lives (1946 – this touching story of returning vets was actually the top grosser of the decade), the then revelatory portrait of alcoholism in The Lost Weekend (1945), and classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), right along with flyweight fun like Road to Utopia (1945) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947).  The 1950s brought outsized sword-and-sandal epics like Ben-Hur (1959 — #1 for the decade) and The Ten Commandments (1956), but it also brought the bitter damning of war in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Billy Wilder’s dark comedy, The Apartment (1960).

The list of box office champs from the 1960s/70s is dizzying in its breadth and sheer number of American classics.  Among them:  The Graduate (1967 — #3 for the 60s), The Godfather (1972), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), Apocalypse Now (1979)…  The list goes on.  People still wanted to be “just entertained” – National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) was the 11th highest-grossing movie of its decade, but there was room on studio slates, on movie screens, and in the audience’s appetite for all of it.

Take a movie like All the President’s Men (1976).  It’s the story of the uncovering of the Watergate scandal by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.  There’s nothing more viscerally exciting in that movie than typing and phone calls.  Yet all the elements of fine film storytelling came together in a way that made it one of the 60 highest-grossing movies of the 1970s; up there on the same list with Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975).  Can you imagine how that kind of movie would play today?

Actually you can.  Shattered Glass (2003) – another true story, another drama based in the world of journalism – despite a stratospheric 91% Rotten Tomatoes positive rating and a 77% positive from viewers, did less than $3 million…worldwide.  All the President’s Men did ten times better than that domestically without adjusting for inflation!  Movies as good – as great – as movies of any other generation are still getting made, it’s just fewer people are interested in seeing them.

If there’s a snobbism at work in the movies today, it’s sort of a reverse snobbism; it’s not the critics or the Academy or the Golden Globes or whomever who are elitist, but the average moviegoer who equates popularity with quality, and unfamiliarity with the unnecessary risk of the bloated price of a movie ticket.  Saying a movie is good and critics are out of touch simply because a lot of people go to a particular picture and even enjoy it is like saying – to go back to our gastronomic allegory – Twinkies are a better dessert than crème brulee because more people eat Twinkies than crème brulee.

As we have nutritionally, cinematically we have also become addicted to junk food and we’ve developed a sort of cultural obesity; we don’t exercise our intellect in a way we once did, we don’t try different “foods” as we should, and we ingest too much crap.

The nice thing, the admirable and inspiring thing, is despite this regular run on the Twinkie stand, God bless ‘em, there are still cinematic chefs toiling away in their kitchens, blending nutritional value with a refined, discriminating palate to turn out orgasmically divine treats.  But once done, garnished and iced to perfection, they put their work on display, and ruefully ruminate, “Now, if I could only get somebody to try it…”