Who Cares About The Oscars? Very Few People

‘I’ ON CULTURE

We used to really care about the Academy Awards. People argued over the merits of different movies, and Best Picture winners were important. But in recent years, we have been getting more movies nominated that no one has even seen.

We were at an Oscars party Sunday night, and many of the guests had not seen most of the movies. I was one of two people there who had seen Whiplash and Boyhood, and only a few other guests had seen winner Birdman. I estimate that only a tiny portion of those watching the Oscars telecast had seen all of them, and it is likely that the great majority had not seen more than one, maybe two.

The movies nominated this year are all good. There are no special tricks or games. But in 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences increased the number of nominees so that “popular” movies would be nominated. Yet the opposite has happened. Most of the biggest movies of the year were ignored. The problem is that the voters are now snobs who pick movies that are surrealistic (Birdman), gimmicky (Boyhood, made over the course of 12 years), British (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything) or politically correct (Selma).

Birdman was a nice film, but hardly the kind of achievement we had in On the Waterfront. If it hadn’t been for extra surrealism, it would have been a nice B-movie about an aging movie star. The acting was very good, but those who now see it with high expectations will probably be disappointed. Personally, I rated almost all the other films nominated as better. And, again, few people saw it. At the party, most people were more interested in the dresses on the red carpet before the show than the actual awards.

This has not always been true. Examine the winners from the years ending in four since the Oscars began: It Happened One Night (1934), Going My Way (1944), On the Waterfront (1954), My Fair Lady (1964), Godfather, Part 2 (1974), Amadeus (1984), Forrest Gump (1994), Million Dollar Baby (2004). Several of them were huge box office hits, and, until the 2000s, all were movies that would certainly be remembered.

And while you might argue that is only a list of winners, check out the nominees of 1939, 75 years ago: Gone With the Wind (the winner); Dark Victory; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Love Affair; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; Stagecoach; Wizard of Oz; and Wuthering Heights. If we were rating movies, would any of this year’s films beat out any one of them to win a spot?

American Sniper was the only box-office hit in the group. By now, it might be the biggest grosser. But the other big hits — Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America — were very good movies, and in past years, that would have meant something. Frankly, I enjoyed all three more than the nominated films. They were great pieces of entertainment and essentially ignored by Oscar voters.

Imitation Game came in 44th place in box office gross, and the other films were lower. As I wrote in my review, I was the only person in the theater when I saw Birdman. It was the 82nd-highest grossing movie, well behind a lot of duds. That does not mean it is less of a film, but it does mean that almost no one has really seen the film. Fewer than 10 percent of the number of people who saw American Sniper saw the winner.

Keep in mind when we discuss box office that the average ticket price is around $10. So the number of people who see a movie is about one-tenth the box office take. That means Imitation Game was seen by around 8 million people. It got, and deserved, glowing reviews. But more people watch the evening news on ABC most nights. And American Sniper, which was snubbed by Oscar voters, has taken in more money than all of the others combined.

There are other awards given to movies, such as the People’s Choice Awards, and it will be the blockbusters that probably rule. The people in Hollywood will sniff and say that they award quality. Gradually, they are moving their notions of “best” away from that of the rest of us. If it continues, it will be nothing more than a fashion show.

However, the voters did get the acting awards right. Every one of those winners was exceptional.