The Oscars Aren’t for Popular Movies

The Washington Post
Thursday, March 02, 2017

When we consider the ever-shrinking ratings of the telecast, it is perhaps time to consider: What’s the point of the Oscars?

Originally, at least, the goal was to lend some measure of artistic legitimacy to a disreputable industry. The Academy Awards are the celebratory event put on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), and the History Channel provides us with an appropriately sanitized version of the organization’s origin story: “The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, head of the powerful MGM film studio, the Academy was organized in May 1927 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement and improvement of the film industry.”

More provocative is the theory that the Academy was created to head off the industry’s unionization and the Oscars have more or less served as cover to obscure that. Robert Sklar, in “Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, suggested AMPAS “functioned more or less as a company union,” short-circuiting efforts to unionize the trades. David Thomson, writing in Vanity Fair, put it this way:

“Mr. Mayer and his pals decided they needed an organization to handle labor problems at the studio without having to get into the union thing, and it would be a public relations operation that pumped out the message that Hollywood was a wonderful place where delightful and thrilling stories were made to give the folks a good time. … They had a banquet (January 1927) at which they offered membership to some of their cronies. Anyone could see that it was an association for the people in power. Someone suggested awarding prizes. That sounded like their stuff. And if there were prizes for the best pictures, anyone could see they were doing quality work.”

“Quality work” is a nebulous concept, of course, and the obvious answer to the question above — that the “point” of the Oscars is to provide a way for Hollywood to choose which film released in any given year is the best — is also obviously the wrong answer. In part because there can be no objective “best” in a form as subjective as the arts generally, to say nothing of a field of the arts as diverse as film. But also in part because, accepting that, so many choices for “best picture” have been so laughably wrong over the years: Oliver! over 2001: A Space Odyssey; Ordinary People over Raging Bull; American Beauty over half the films released in 1999; Moonlight over Arrival (or Hell or High Water, take your pick).

A better answer, perhaps, is something like, “The Oscars represent the way Hollywood sees itself.” In this conception, Mayer is an overprotective father, one who wants his children to make him proud. “Mayer had decided that using his power to net his filmmakers trophies was a good way to make them grateful to be at MGM, and thus make them more willing to make movies the MGM way,” Karina Longworth wrote in Slate. “The first Oscars weren’t balloted so much as negotiated upon by some of the most powerful people in late 1920s Hollywood.”

As author Mark Harris noted in Pictures at a Revolution, by the end of the 1960s, that self-conception was breaking down. “What was an American film supposed to be? The men running the movie business used to have the answer; now it had slipped just beyond their reach, and they couldn’t understand how they had lost sight of it,” Harris writes in his book about the 40th Oscars, when the wildly disparate Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner jostled against one another for best picture.

Hollywood underwent a different kind of soul-searching in the aftermath of the 2008 Oscars, when The Dark Knight — Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed box office smash about America’s efforts to negotiate a post-9/11 world (and also Batman) — failed to garner even a nomination for best picture. Concerned that Hollywood wasn’t rewarding films regular people saw, leading to a dip in the telecast’s ratings, AMPAS decided to expand the best picture race by nominating up to 10 pictures.

Perhaps predictably, this has done little to improve the popularity of the crop of nominated films and may have actually exacerbated the problem of little-seen movies winning: Moonlight and The Hurt Locker, both of which have won since the rule change, are by far and away the least-seen best picture winners in the last 40 or so years, according to Box Office Mojo.

And that’s before you account for inflation.

There’s a chicken-and-egg problem here, of course. Audiences aren’t flocking to Oscar-worthy motion pictures any longer: of the 20 highest-grossing films released this year, exactly two — Hidden Figures and La La Land — were deserving of best picture nods. (And both, it should be noted, got them.)

For the most part, big hits are almost exclusively comic book adaptations or animated family fare or franchise continuations, i.e., not films that are particularly worthy of awards. As fun as Deadpool was, throwing curse words and meta-humor into an otherwise rather straight-ahead comic book origin story does not a best picture winner make.

There’s also the very real problem that movies aren’t the cultural force they once were. As John Podhoretz noted on Twitter, “Oscar ratings are declining because moviegoing itself is declining. Pop is up 40 million since ‘00; ticket sales down since ‘00.” Increasing ticket prices and gimmicks like 3D and IMAX have inflated box office results, obscuring the fact that audiences aren’t showing up like they used to — and what they do show up to is not exactly high art.

Perhaps, then, AMPAS should consider the Oscars to be less of an industry celebration or an effort to reward the best films of the year and more of an opportunity to highlight its appeal to niche audiences. Look: The blockbusters can market themselves and they’re clearly having no problem finding an audience. And Hollywood, frankly, shouldn’t worry too much about resentment from mass audiences that these films aren’t getting awards consideration; we’re all grownups here, even if the grownups, myself included, are mostly watching the kiddie junk these days.

This wouldn’t solve the ratings problem, but that “problem” is really only one of self-conception; there’s no real reason to try to entice tens of millions of viewers once a year to watch what amounts to a trade show. A niche broadcast aimed at niche audiences who tend to live in urban enclaves and seek out the critically acclaimed but relatively unpopular movies that have won in recent years would also be tremendously freeing: In addition to worrying less about attaining the proper mix of commerce and art in the year’s nominees, concerns about alienating audiences via overly political speeches would go out the window.

In our age of fractured media — one where prestige cable and video games and ebooks and social media and everything else vie for ever-shrinking pieces of our free time — there’s nothing wrong with serving a niche. But there is something a bit sad about denying what you are.