Tuesday, February 26, 2008
81st Oscars: There Will Be Blockbusters?
The 81st Academy Awards are a year away, but apparently it isn’t too early to predict the films that will vie for Best Picture. Your nominees will be: The Dark Knight, Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince, Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Star Trek and Something Animated By Pixar or Dreamworks.
At least that’s what’s going to happen if you buy into any of today’s doomsday analysis of the dismal Nielsen ratings for Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony. With only 32 million viewers, the 80th edition of the Academy Awards had the smallest audience of any Oscars ceremony since 1974, when the Nielsen folks began tracking the numbers. And as if that weren’t bad enough, Sunday’s show drew the lowest household rating since the program’s national television debut in 1953. Ouch.
Lisa de Moraes’ story in The Washington Post details the reasons the broadcast bombed, while also nitpicking faults of the ceremony that likely had nothing to do with the low viewer turnout (excuse me, but if Americans were such snobs about writing, 24 would have tanked in its first season). Pretty much, it comes down to the reality that this year’s Oscars were “dominated by films no one's seen” while starring “actors no one's heard of.” “No one” being all the folks who wouldn’t come to “The Cooler” and who strive to keep Nicolas Cage an A-lister.
The question nobody seems to be asking however is whether the low viewer turnout is such a bad thing. I think we can all agree that, even beyond all the political reasons that certain performances or films are recognized or ignored from year to year, the Academy Awards are more about Hollywood selling itself than celebrating itself. The Oscars, and all the hype that comes with it, is a marketing event, and we movie fans are happy to be putty in Hollywood’s hands because, in the long run, movies – all movies – are better off with an annual awards show that everyone talks about than without one.
But if in 1998 the Academy Awards racked up 55 million viewers thanks to the masses who had helped Titanic rake in almost $500 million at the box office to that point, what did those monster Nielsen numbers do for the movie industry? Certainly there were gains. For example: Folks who fell in love with Kate Winslet that year saw her performance validated by an Oscar nomination. And, though she didn’t win an Oscar, we all got to see her look like a Hollywood icon as she walked down the red carpet and sat in the front row. Heading into 1997, Winslet was a someone “no one knew,” but by the end of the Oscars she was a star, and the Academy Awards exposure contributed to that evolution. And maybe, years later, more people went to see the unsettling Little Children than would have otherwise because they liked the actress in the lead. The trickledown effect is hard to measure exactly, but certainly the Oscars gave Winslet some celebrity mojo.
But that’s only part of the effect. True, compared to Titanic’s epic box office haul “no one” has seen No Country For Old Men (still closing in on $65 million domestically), but it stands to reason that more moviegoers who gave it a pass in theaters will give it a chance on DVD now that it carries a “Best Picture” stamp of approval. Thus, I’d argue that while the movie industry marketed itself to fewer people this Oscar night, it marketed itself more effectively (read: more profitably).
As just one piece of evidence, consider that Wild Hogs, starring familiar faces John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H Macy, received a paltry 15 percent favorability rating among critics at RottenTomatoes.com but finished 13th in the 2007 domestic gross rankings. The big-star movies sell themselves no matter how terrible, no matter how hyped. Thus, Hollywood gains more by bringing Javier Bardem out of the proverbial art house and into the living rooms of mainstream America, even if his image makes it into fewer living rooms, than it does by flaunting already-established stars. And the benefit for those of us who wouldn’t even consider watching Wild Hogs is that we might get more Bardem in the future and less Cage & Co.
In general, I loath this kind of discussion. You’ll rarely see such concepts discussed at “The Cooler” because I don’t care a lick about box office tallies or Nielsen numbers. I just want to be entertained, and I want to see cinematic art (both the highbrow and the lowbrow). Still, it’s a subject worth discussing because it’s crazy to think that the poor viewer turnout for this year’s ceremony won’t impact ceremonies to come. It’ll start with a change in hosts (something tells me they’ll offer Billy Crystal whatever it takes to have him host in 2009), but you can bet that it will also influence future slates of Oscar nominees. Next year there will be at least one Jerry Maguire in the field that the masses can rally around.
So we should care that a celebration of movies drew a lackluster reception on TV because the unusually just Academy Awards of 2008 could go down as a glimpse of Halley’s Comet rather than a sign of things to come. Hollywood will be determined to see that the Oscars stay relevant to the mainstream, and that probably means a return to pandering to the masses, at least for a while. So enjoy the memories of this Academy Awards season for as long as you can, because the fact that a lot of people didn’t watch the Oscars this year has a lot to do with why those of us who did felt so abnormally happy about what we saw.