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Did the Oscars Blow Its Big Bet?

At the turn of the century, the Oscars began a steady decline in relevance, and the Academy knew it. Dramatic changes were instituted. Nearly 10 years after the most significant one, the awards ceremony is in no better shape. Where did it go wrong? And is it too late to get America to care about the Oscars again?

Characters from ‘The Shape of Water,’ ‘The Post, and ‘Call Me by Your Name’ Fox Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm/Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration

“We will be casting our net wide.” These were the words of Sid Ganis, then president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was 2009, on the heels of the biggest strategic shift in Oscars history. Ganis announced to the world that the awards ceremony would expand the nominee pool in the Best Picture category from five — the number it had settled on in 1944, after varying in size in its first 16 years — to 10. It was a reactionary move, the first radical change to the Academy in decades, and it was driven by fear. Earlier that winter, the Oscars ceremony handed out its biggest prize to Slumdog Millionaire, choosing Danny Boyle’s tale of an Indian game-show contestant over The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and Milk. Slumdog was the 16th-highest-grossing film of that year, but earned nearly $400 million less than the impetus for the Academy’s rule change: The Dark Knight. The absence of Christopher Nolan’s Batman film and Pixar’s WALL-E in favor of perfunctory Weinstein machine prestige fare like The Reader forced Ganis and the Academy’s hand. Things had to change. The future of movies was at stake.

Sid Ganis smiling Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Ganis is a fascinating avatar for this shift, given his role in Hollywood’s rise to the center of American culture. He began his career working in marketing, and spent time at Lucasfilm selling the world on the original Star Wars trilogy and Indiana Jones films. At Paramount, he helped make Top Gun and Fatal Attraction into hits aimed at adults that seemed enticing to teenagers. He developed Ghost and acquired the rights to Forrest Gump. He got his start on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s early films, gleaned wisdom from Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and later produced Adam Sandler comedies. Ganis is Hollywood incarnate, a studio baby who brought big-top movie populism to audiences for decades. But by the time he arrived atop the Academy, he could no longer dictate taste. In the first year of his eventual four-year reign, Crash won Best Picture, notoriously besting Brokeback Mountain, both critically and financially superior. The $246 million cumulative domestic gross of 2005’s five nominees is the lowest of all time — it was at once an anomaly and a portent of things to come.

After 15 sustained years of art-house infiltration into the Best Picture conversation, the category had redefined itself. In 1998, the most successful movie to date — Titanic — was named Best Picture. More than 55 million people tuned in to watch James Cameron crow, “I’m king of the world!” A decade later, Scott Rudin accepted the same prize for No Country for Old Men, before an audience of 21 million fewer people than Cameron’s. It was the lowest-rated Oscars telecast in history.

The Oscars are rarely an objective adjudication of the best that movies have to offer. For every stone-cold classic like No Country, there is a turkey like Crash. But what had been assured in decades past, specifically from the heady late ’80s on, was that the film that took home the big prize was almost always a hit with audiences. In 1988, Rain Man kicked off a run of Best Picture winners that grossed over $75 million — including megahits like Forrest Gump, Dances With Wolves, and Gladiator. The lesson was direct: Winners are seen. No Country was the first film to break this streak, grossing a hair under $75 million. Since the Academy’s expansion, the number of films to cross that arbitrary red line has dipped to just two in eight races — The King’s Speech in 2010 ($135 million) and Argo in 2012 ($136 million). Ganis and Co.’s plan to draw in The Dark Knights of the world backfired; in the period since the expansion, box office figures from the winners have shrunk and ratings have declined, culminating in last year’s telecast, the lowest-rated since No Country’s win a decade earlier.

The specific details of the Oscars’ ratings will not, as my colleague Bryan Curtis likes to say, affect your life. But they do affect the movie business. The Academy Awards is routinely the most popular non-sports televised show in America, year after year. It is not only a pageant that celebrates the gallantry of filmmaking and the mythic power of celebrity — it is also a kind of public trust, decided in private. In no other artistic community is consensus so valued and later scrupulously organized, cited, and historicized. The Oscars matter in a way that the Grammys or Emmys never can. And that’s because movies matter in a way that can unite 55 million to see what happens to Titanic, in large part because nearly that many people bought a ticket to see Titanic. That was once true, at least. When Ganis and the Academy made the change to the nominee pool in 2009, the expectation was clear: more eyeballs. After the announcement was made, The New York Times wrote the following:

In all, about 300 films qualified for awards in 2008, so roughly one out of every 30 films will now become a best picture nominee. While broadening the reach of the awards — a best picture nomination now becomes a bit easier for documentaries, animated films and foreign-language films, for instance — it may also dilute the value of a nomination somewhat. In the past, studios have built the marketing campaign for many films around a coveted best picture nomination.

This has been more true than the Academy likely bargained for. In its first year in action, Cameron returned to the Best Picture race, once again toting the most successful box office performer ever, this time Avatar. Cameron was a slight favorite in an awkward face-off with his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, and her film The Hurt Locker. The first 10 nominees represented a diverse collection that featured powerhouse auteurs (Inglourious Basterds), international sci-fi upstarts (District 9), a Pixar movie (Up, just the second animated movie to receive the honor), two Oscar-friendly character studies with movie-star turns (The Blind Side and Up in the Air), admired art-house films (An Education and A Serious Man), and, for the first time in history, a film directed by a person of color (Lee Daniels’s Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire). Two films directed by women were nominated, the only time this has ever happened. And Avatar’s blue-complected $600 million tally was seated right up front. This was Ganis’s dream, as perfect a group of nominees as he could have imagined. (Notably, 2009 is the last time that a comic book movie did not appear among the top-10 grossing movies of the year.)

Still of the 82nd Academy Awards announcement featuring 10 Best Picture nominees Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

So of course The Hurt Locker, with a modest $17 million gross and nearly eight months removed from its release, won the Oscar for Best Picture. Bigelow’s film won six awards in all, and Avatar took three, for visual effects, art direction, and cinematography. At the time, this felt like a triumph of the underdog over the movie business’s computer-generated, overdetermined future — the practical, physical, psychological storytelling in Bigelow’s film upending Cameron’s majestic, moneyed diorama. It was, as they say, great copy. More than 41 million watched the show that night, up 14 percent from the previous year. Ganis had done it again, with populism and artistry coexisting peacefully (and wealthily). But there was subtext.

The expanded pool has routinely represented a gateway for smaller films, not bigger ones. And it has coincided with a series of movies that own little real estate in the public consciousness taking home the biggest prize. Modestly seen work like Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, and Spotlight have taken the place of Chicago and American Beauty. In a cinephile’s mind — and certainly in mine — this is a massive upgrade. But the financial take of the past four Best Picture winners, including last year’s shocker, Moonlight, represents less in aggregate than another ill-regarded winner of yore, A Beautiful Mind.

This may seem like a pedantic, numerological way to examine the current relevance of the Oscars. On the internet, Moonlight’s win felt like a thunderclap, equal parts celebrity gaffe, powerful personal statement, and instant meme — a trifecta for content mongers. But fewer than 33 million people watched the show. That isn’t encouraging in a time when Rotten Tomatoes scores and Netflix’s ability to eventize bad movies have become the cri de coeur of the film-obsessed. The only time movies feel vital to the broader conversation is when Reddit babies wail about their dead heroes. Moonlight is a special film with an unlikely narrative and a lifetime’s worth of feeling. It needn’t make $600 million to be validated. But its victory at the Academy Awards gives those willing to dismiss the show one more reason to do so. Movies are how isolated people learn about an expansive world. Next time you hear someone say, “Hollywood is out of touch,” think of the movies that person can’t or won’t watch — it’s an experience they don’t have, and an empathy they’ll lack. It’s not the Oscars’ job to open minds — but it has in the past.

Almost exactly two years after Sid Ganis announced the Academy’s big move, it walked the change back a bit. In the aftermath of a disastrous 2011 ceremony hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco, the pool was recalibrated once more: Based on a variable voting system, between five and 10 films would be nominated for Best Picture. As a response to what some internally in the Academy ranks described as a dilution of the award’s significance, the modification was met with enthusiasm. “This is a good change,” veteran Oscar campaign consultant Terry Press told the Los Angeles Times. “I think we are all aware of years where five didn’t cover it and 10 was too many.”

The knock-on effect was more strategic and fundamental to the nominees we see today. “If the populist film is really good technically, artistically and performance-wise, then it could get in,” a high-ranking public relations executive and Academy member told the L.A. Times’ Nicole Sperling and Amy Kaufman. “It can’t just be commercial. I don’t think you’re going to see Bridesmaids. But the [Dark Knight] example that’s always used — this does allow for a film like that.”

That Academy members are allergic to Bridesmaids is a symptom of the body’s lingering sickness, just as prizing a superhero movie over a female-led comedy is illogical genre prejudice with a dash of gender bias. The cast of Bridesmaids on the red carpet at the Oscars would have been a boon — for TV audiences, for fans of the movie, and for the sake of culture at large. (Note: The little-seen and quite bad Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was nominated for Best Picture in the same year Bridesmaids was not.)

The Oscars are — like every form of mass entertainment, or what we once delusionally deemed the monoculture — in a soft decline. (How to explain the audience spike to 43.7 million in 2014? Easy, that was the year highly successful Gravity was beaten by 12 Years a Slave.) A year ago, I coyly suggested the Academy nominate Deadpool to disrupt the inevitable La La Land–vs.-Moonlight showdown. My intuition that millions of people wouldn’t watch the show was right. Last year was a surprisingly wondrous one at the movies, but I suspect that the audience for the Oscars will be low again — perhaps in the range of 35 million. And in what has been declared the most unpredictable race in more than a decade.

The total domestic box office of the nine nominees sits at $637 million, in line with the average of the past five years. The front-runners, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, have combined to earn $87 million for Fox Searchlight — not bad at all for a pair of idiosyncratic dramas from a boutique shingle inside a major studio. But most Americans just haven’t seen these movies — which are not available to stream or purchase — and most won’t before the broadcast on March 4. The two box office heavyweights among the nine nominees this year — Get Out and Dunkirk — are notable achievements, but not exactly star vehicles. The precocious nominees of Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name are on a charm offensive the likes of which we haven’t seen in some time, and a decade from now scoffing at the star power of Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet may seem foolhardy. But right now, most people couldn’t pronounce “Saoirse” with Bono’s accent or pick Chalamet out of the LaGuardia Performing Arts School Yearbook. Ultimately, the expanded nominee pool benefits films like Phantom Thread and Darkest Hour — admired fringe contenders — not the kind of audience-drawing, red-meat entertainment that the Academy initially envisioned. If ever there was a year to explore that possibility, when some of the year’s biggest films were also among the most critically acclaimed, this was it.

As a thought experiment, let’s remove Darkest Hour, Call Me by Your Name, The Post, and (noooooooo!) Phantom Thread from the race this year and swap in four new candidates: Pixar’s delightful Coco; Patty Jenkins’s dominant, celebrated Wonder Woman; James Mangold’s gritty, respected Logan (which established its bona fides with an Adapted Screenplay nom); and, as a capstone on three straight years of topping the domestic box office, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Seem far-fetched? Consider this: Lee Unkrich, the codirector of Coco, has already helmed a Best Picture nominee, in 2010: Toy Story 3. Mangold’s Walk the Line was nominated for five Oscars and nabbed Reese Witherspoon a Best Actress statuette. Likewise, Jenkins’s Monster earned Charlize Theron the same prize. And Star Wars? Don’t forget, the original was nominated for Best Picture 40 years ago, and Rian Johnson is among the most celebrated auteurs of his generation. According to the bulk of reputable awards-season reporting, none of these four films was ever seriously considered by the Academy. Why not? Think of the fun we had when Mad Max: Fury Road was in the mix.

Best Picture is an award that has been given to Mel Gibson, Harvey Weinstein, and Woody Allen’s producers. It’s also a prize that has recognized A Man for All Seasons, The Godfather Part II, and Rebecca. There is glory and shame in every awards season, and regret bound up in the missed opportunities and anxiety about the campaign hustlers. It is not a democratic action; it’s a secret society evolving behind closed doors giving little gold men to people who pretend for a living. The Academy is self-conscious and reactive — for every Out of Africa, there is a Platoon on the way to shift the balance. And what small, independent producers wrought in the ’90s, thanks to plucky nominees like Pulp Fiction, Secrets & Lies, and The Full Monty, was an incursion that became a wave, which transformed into a strategy. The Shape of Water and Three Billboards are part of that lineage. In no other context is Star Wars an underdog. And yet, movie fans like me, who dream of a coherent populist entertainment, can’t make sense of the increasingly hermetic tradition of the Academy Awards. Save us, AMPAS, you’re our only hope.

All data according to Box Office Mojo and The Numbers.

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