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.


Richard Bellamy said...

It was a very encouraging year in film - great films like No Country, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James, Sunshine, Juno, Into the Wild, and the sadly forgotten Zodiac - as well as noble efforts such as The Darjeeling Limited, Michael Clayton, and Reservation Road. I don't hold the same hope for this year - too many superheroes on the horizon - but wins by No Country - and even last year by a lesser Scorsese film - will provide hope and inspiration for the creative filmmakers. And that works for us!

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: The good news is that this is the time of year when most of us are aware of nothing but the sequels and the superheroes. Few other packages come with such built-in hype.

As for Zodiac, its snubbing pretty much proves the point about awards season: by the time the Oscar nominations were decided, Zodiac was long out of theaters and already on DVD. There wasn't anything for a studio to gain financially by creating a big marketing campaign (whereas Michael Clayton got a re-run in theaters), so it was left to gather cobwebs. At least Zodiac was honored on a lot of critics' year-end top-10 lists.

Mark said...

Good discussion of the ratings and marketing, and all true, I'm sure.

The other point that I haven't heard anyone make, though, is that ratings for all big events are down -- World Series and Super Bowl included. The entertainment options, especially the TV options, are too fragmented now for anything to dominate the way the big events used to. There will never again be an event like the final episode of MASH.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps the reason you have not heard anyone make the point that ratings for all big events are down is that it's simply not true. In fact, this year’s Super Bowl ranked second only to MASH in all time viewership:

On Feb. 7, just after the Super Bowl, Nielsen reported this:

“The Nielsen Company today released an analysis of advertising trends from Super Bowl XLII, which was viewed by an average audience of 97.5 million people in the U.S., more than any previous Super Bowl.”

Subsequent press releases said:

"Super Bowl A Hit With Viewers In More Ways Than One”

This year's Super Bowl was a ratings bonanza as the big game was the most watched in history averaging 97.4 million viewers. Among all programs, it was the second highest-viewed of all time."

See the url:


Mark said...

Hey if you guys are going to start showing up with facts I might have to find another place to throw around my blowhard theories. Reminds me of my life as a political reporter.

Uh, sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

Funny how this turned out - two of the films you mentioned got delayed until 2009, and one of them certainly won't be up for anything.