Filling out my Academy ballot this week, I find myself indulging in an exercise in Oscar futility: re-living my list of Oscar “should-haves.” Brokeback Mountain should have won over Crash in 2005, Apocalypse Now over Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979 and ET over Gandhi in 1982.
The Academy is, well, the Academy, but some 683 new members have been added to the rolls this year representing a wider swath of experience and taste. Will future lists of nominees and winners reflect this new constituency? Will the Oscar show become a black-tie version of the Independent Spirit Awards or more of a Hollywood party?
As the Academy Awards illustrate each year, the disparity between the two sectors of the film world continues to grow ever more dramatic. The combined grosses of Spotlight, Birdman and 12 Years A Slave — the “best picture” winners of the last three years — would provide half the budget of a studio blockbuster. Add up box office returns of this year’s nine nominees and you reach about 25% of the gross of Avatar, the last Hollywood blockbuster to win an Oscar.
Oscar votes, to be sure, are clearly not influenced by box office results, as they were in the 1930s or 1940s when studio films needed massive filmgoer approval to be anointed “best picture” — witness Gone With The Wind or Casablanca. Of course, in that era the studio chiefs instructed their employees how to vote, and you were prudent to listen to them. I was sipping a martini at the bar of the Oscar show in 2007 when I heard one veteran studio chief proclaim grumpily, “How can anything be Best Picture if no one has seen it?” (It was No Country For Old Men, which won that year, that set him off.)
Personally, I applaud the Academy for honoring the art and craft of filmmaking, and not their financial models. Still I am surprised by the year-to-year consistency with which major hits emerge empty-handed; The Martian, which grossed $640 million last year, was a rare exception (it was a runner-up). The studios each year dispatch last-minute bulletins to voters that superhero movies are also part of the landscape; Suicide Squad is a contender for makeup and hairstyling, notices reminded me last week. But none of the billion-dollar tentpoles of recent years have been advanced as serious contenders for much else — Avengers or Transformers, for example. Films like Frozen or Jurassic Park or The Hobbit impacted the imaginations of millions of young filmgoers, but not those of the Academy.
Back in 1972 when I attended my first Academy Awards show, I failed to anticipate this phenomenon. The Godfather won that year and was correctly heralded as both a stand-out picture and an “audience picture” (studio argot of that era). At that moment many films seemed to be shaking the landscape — The Graduate, The Sting, The French Connection, etc. Even studio musicals like Oliver, The Sound Of Music and My Fair Lady were bringing in both awards and box office grosses.
Given this harmony of adulation, it seemed unthinkable that Hollywood, in the future, would soon bifurcate into tentpoles vs the indies – a complete separation of church and state. Or that the Academy would revere one, ignoring the other. But that’s the pattern that has emerged, along with this ultimate irony: the Oscar show is broadcast on ABC, whose parent company, Disney, pulls in half the revenues of all Hollywood movies because of its dominance in franchise films.
Perhaps we are approaching the moment when Disney and ABC will simply concoct their own awards ceremony and not distract the bifurcated filmmaking community with all this other random product.
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