Peter Bart: Will Film Biz’s Current Gloom And Doom Extend To Oscar Voting?

Cinerama Dome Oscars

“The Oscar show will have so much wattage, sunglasses may be required to watch.” So proclaims an Academy release this week, deftly ignoring the gloomy clouds hovering over Oscar weekend (voting opens today).

Closures of the Cinerama Dome and other ArcLight and Pacific theaters this week provided a reality check for Oscar prospects. So did projections that the show’s audience may dwell in the 12 milllion-15 million range, down from 42 million in 2014. A glimpse at the “awareness” studies underscores the challenge: Despite some heroic promotion, a movie like Mank failed to register much of an awareness ripple, finishing below Judas and the Black Messiah and others.

In response to all this, will the voting constituencies themselves tune in or tune out? The Academy’s zealous get-out-the-vote campaign has itself reflected concern about Oscar weekend and its gritty choices, reminding voters that winning an Oscar provides a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Vote totals, to be sure, will never be revealed.

It seems like a lifetime ago that movies like Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody or even La La Land vied for our attention. The contrasts have been underscored by the recent parade of tributes to films of 50 years ago. They’ve insistently reminded us of the critical and commercial success of movies like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, etc. “Art” movies had suddenly become hits while the big-budget musicals were flops.

It’s unfair to compare films of different generations, but a few points command attention: Films of the 1960s and ’70s tended to be both young and also very personal. Medium Cool (1969) was about the events of the Chicago 7, but its protagonist fell in love and got laid, rather than giving speeches. The eccentric lady in Harold and Maude needed a new home, but unlike her geriatric successor in Nomadland, she danced and sang with her 18-year-old boyfriend. Anthony Hopkins has to deal with dementia in The Father, but an aging John Wayne was ready to stumble through one more heroic role in True Grit.

The films of that era, to be sure, benefited not only from critical approbation but also from the energy of festivals, screenings, platform releases and all the other buzz-building components of movie marketing.

Given the present slate, the Oscar producers, led by Seven Soderbergh, will surely score record highs for diversity, while getting hammered on ratings. They lack a star property like Lord of the Rings (2001), or a special effects spectacle (Avatar in 2009) or a big-canvas action extravaganza like Gladiator (2000). Equally important, they lack open theaters and popcorn.

So will the Dome face doom? It was designated as a historic-cultural landmark in 1998, having been constructed in accordance with a Buckminster Fuller design. Together with the ArcLight complex behind it, the project had established itself as a hub for Hollywood parties and premieres.

Insiders are persuaded that it will make a comeback, though no one wants to say how or when. It’s essential to Hollywood mythology. Like the Oscars.

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