Friday, June 26, 2009

2010 Oscars: More Films, Less Fun

Newsflash: The purpose of the Academy Awards isn’t to honor achievement in filmmaking. The purpose of the Academy Awards is to market the movie industry. If you didn’t know that already, you certainly must know it now, a day after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced that next year, and for the foreseeable future, there will be 10 films nominated for Best Picture instead of the (recently) traditional five. The purpose of this increase isn’t to decorate five more films, of course, because in a sense all the AMPAS has done is expand the list of Oscar night also-rans. The goal, without question, is to make five more films – and the star-studded live TV event that pimps them – more profitable.

Do I sound jaded? I don’t think I am. Because even though the AMPAS seems to be taking an embarrassing step toward the MTV mentality that celebrates films for their teen-biased performance at the box office, at the same time the Academy also is expanding the opportunities for small, controversial, abstract, and otherwise box-office-challenged films to reach a larger audience, and the latter might be worth the pains of the former, because, ideally, the latter might eventually influence the former. See, something like the big-budget Transformers 2 doesn’t need an Oscar nomination for the average moviegoer to be convinced that it’s a “must-see” film, but something like Two Lovers does. The difference between your 8-movies-a-year coworker having already seen The Reader over Revolutionary Road comes down to the fact that one of those films earned multiple major Oscar nods (a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actress win for Kate Winslet) and the other one didn’t. If that same 8-movies-a-year coworker could be convinced to see five more movies each year, he/she might realize that Frost/Nixon isn’t a top-5 picture of any year. Simply put: the more movies the average moviegoer sees, the greater the chance that he/she discovers a truly great film. In that respect, both sides seem to profit from the expansion of the nominee pool. But there is a significant downside.

By adding five films to the Best Picture slate, the Academy has sucked some of the fun out of Oscar season by eliminating the very thing that makes it interesting: controversy. For example, had the AMPAS expanded the Best Picture pool a year ago, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight almost certainly would have received the Oscar nomination that its fanboys so desperately craved. But what would that nomination have been worth? What does it mean to be one of the 10 best pictures of the year? The 2009 Oscars were four months ago, but already I’ve forgotten the five Best Picture nominees. There was Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and … and … Doubt? No, Doubt dominated the acting categories. So what was the fifth film? I’ll look it up in a bit. For the moment it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I can easily name five films that were considered unfairly “snubbed” in the last Oscar race: The Dark Knight, Gran Torino, Revolutionary Road , WALL-E and The Wrestler.

Because the Academy Awards have more in common with a political campaign than Olympic competition, there is power in controversy. In sports terms, the Oscar race better resembles college football’s BCS format than college basketball’s March Madness tournament. Though an Oscar nomination always raises a film’s profile in the short term, what often elevates a film to celebrated long-term greatness is the debate stirred up by the Academy’s dismissal. Fanboys might still be pissed that The Dark Knight didn’t get the validation of a Best Picture nomination, but as a result its fans get to spend the rest of time arguing that their favorite film got screwed, that the system didn’t support it, that at worst The Dark Knight was the sixth-best film of the year in the eyes of people who were prejudiced against it in the first place, which means it has to be awesome just to be in the conversation.

People will remember The Dark Knight in part because of its Oscar outsider status. Had it been included in a pool of 10 nominees, The Dark Knight might have become as forgettable as … as … as that fifth nominee from last year that still isn’t coming to me. Even worse, the validation that The Dark Knight fanboys hoped to receive through the Academy’s reluctant recognition of the superhero genre could have been spoiled with a 10-picture slate if the Academy also nominated 2008’s other wildly popular comic book movie, Iron Man. If that had happened, The Dark Knight wouldn’t have looked so special after all.

The Oscars will still be fun, of course, and they’ll still inspire debate, and maybe these extra nominations will allow the Academy to be more daring while also appeasing the mostly naïve masses. Maybe it will be a net gain. But it’s always been exciting to discover which five films would get a chance to compete for the big prize. After the announcement, it’s always been fun wondering which film just missed the cut and debating why. At the end of 2009 and in the initial weeks of 2010, there won’t be the same joy in Movieville. When there are 10 films competing for one statuette, the word snubbed no longer applies. That argument is now obsolete. Until recently, the Best Picture nomination system created lovable losers. Now, if you’re not a Best Picture nominee, you’re just a loser.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Great stuff Jason. I couldn't agree more with what you lay out here. The minute I heard what they were doing my mind went to The Dark Knight. This feels very reactionary from the Academy; a move that proves they had possibly the worst bunch of nominees ever last year (you're right, I've forgotten about them all, too...except Slumdog, I'm still trying to get over my headache that movie gave me). It also feels like a move designed to try and lure in more casual viewers. It's undeniable that more households would have watched last year had Nolan's film been nominated (at least they would have watched past the Best Supporting Actor award) because that's a film they've seen (I like the way you describe it: a co-worker who sees 8 movies a year) and they want to see how it fairs against other "arty" movies (which, to the average moviegoer, the nominees usually seem).

Adding five more noms only confirms that we will see something like Star Trek or some other popular film that rules the box office get that "prestigious" nomination that its fanboys, as you so rightly claim, whine about. The funny thing is the double-standard: they feel marginalized because the Academy and snobby film critics won't accept their film; but they refuse to accept the fact that maybe people didn't like it, and they spew vitriolic language (and tomato meter percentages...don't forget those because they really tell you how good a movie is) at those who oppose these popular films, and all of a sudden, the people they want the validation from just don't get it. Whatever.

You're right: The Dark Knight conversation last year wouldn't have been nearly as intriguing had it been nominated. It doesn't matter, though. In ten years we'll all look back and see that Iron Man was truly the better comic book movie.

My prediction is we will no doubt see pseudo-serious mainstream movies like The Dark Knight fill up those five new spots the Academy opened up, because those films being nominated will create more revenue and more viewership for their already overly long ceremony. Maybe this is a blessing in disguise though? With five more movies to profile throughout the night perhaps the ceremony is going to dump all of its superfluous song and dance numbers that nobody cares about.

The very mention of The Dark Knight got me off on a tangent. Dang you Jason! Anyway, great thoughts as always.

Craig said...

I see your point about "controversy," but I think, from the Academy's perspective, the last several years of Oscar have been controversial in the wrong way, i.e., "I've never heard of these movies, so I'm not going to watch the show." I have mixed feelings about this: the "I've never heard of that movie!" argument representing the worst of populism; yet the ability of the Weinsteins (or is it just Harvey now?) to push a piece of shit like "The Reader" past far worthier and more interesting films (whatever one thinks of "The Dark Knight," I still think it qualifies comparatively) represents a different problem that I think has the potential to be remedied here.

Here were the 10 films nominated for Best Picture in 1941: "How Green Was My Valley," "Blossoms in the Dust", "Citizen Kane", "Here Comes Mr. Jordan", "Hold Back the Dawn", "The Little Foxes", "The Maltese Falcon", "One Foot in Heaven", "Sergeant York", and "Suspicion." That's not a bad list. (What would it have been had it been five -- would "Citizen Kane" been bumped?) I think not only does this open up the category to the blockbusters, but also to the handful of strong movies that are released the first half of the year and then forgotten. "Zodiac" might have made it the year before last; "The Hurt Locker" could be an example this year. And if this increases the number of people who might see movies like these early next year (on DVD, theatrical re-release, or whatever), then so much the better.

Did I wake up contrarian this morning?....

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for jumping in, guys. I'm curious to hear what people think on this one.

Kevin: I don't think it's a bad thing if casual viewers feel included in the movie debate, which is usually defined by The Oscars. Lots of casual moviegoers were pointed toward truly classic and great films through AFI's first big "100 Years, 100 Movies" celebration. In general, I think the more movies people see, the more likey they are to develop a taste for something new, different and better, rather than the boring same old, same old. Which brings me to ...

Craig: I don't think we disagree all that much. I really do think this could be a net gain. The "I've never heard of this movie" claim probably dates back to the early stages of Miramax influence in the early- and mid-90s. So it's been going on a while. Then again, a lot of people end up seeing those movies that they hadn't heard about prior to the morning the nominations are announced. Without the nomination, those films would be films the average moviegoer still wouldn't know about.

I agree that The Dark Knight was a top 10 picture of last year and worthy of being in the conversation. My point is that with 10 nominees, I think there will be less conversation because some of the controversy has been eliminated. The Reader had its moment of validation, and now people will probably forget about it. Meantime, people will remember The Dark Knight's Oscar snub for quite a while.

That said, yes, the movie conversation is improved for the betterment of movie lovers if pictures like Zodiac and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind don't suffer from being released outside of awards season (which continues to get smaller and smaller). The conversation also is better if the Academy feels it can slip in a film that's actually challenging and not just pretending to be challenging like The Reader. Those are all good things.

Still, an element of the Oscar race has been eliminated in this move to 10 nominees, and I'll miss the fun of that controversy, even if this turns out to be a step forward overall.

Jason Wilde said...

I totally agree with you on this. While I'm for expanding other things -- like the NCAA basketball tournament from 64 to 96 teams -- to eliminate all the March Madness bellyaching, I think the motivation behind this change is exactly what you suggest: Making the casual moviegoer feel more compelled to see a few more films. For instance, had Gran Torino gotten more Oscar noms, I might have ignored your review and gone to see it. Instead, I waited until it came out on DVD, ignored your review and bought it at Target ... and now realize I wasted $15 anyway.

A. Villalba said...

"Adding five more noms only confirms that we will see something like Star Trek or some other popular film that rules the box office get that "prestigious" nomination that its fanboys, as you so rightly claim, whine about."

I just don't buy that notion. And there's a distinction to be made here. That argument just contradicts the very term that even the average moviegoer (i.e. us) likes to use of "Oscar-bait" films. People can't argue that the voters like to select films like THE READER or whatever other "Oscar-bait" melodrama over foreign or indipendant films that we favor, as they're criticized of doing, and then say that this will allow the summer films to get in. How does a group of people go from selecting THE READER and FROST/NIXON, or films of that ilk, to selecting STAR TREK and HARRY POTTER in two or three selections afterwards, which are the antithesis of the other?

THE DARK KNIGHT was argued in favor because critical praise saw actual merit in the film. Whether one agrees with that or not, that's a different critical reaction than other summer films, like STAR TREK, in which the critical community likes it, enjoys it as entertainment, but hasn't argue for it as worth of end-of-the-year recognition. While the blogsphere hasn't been kind to TDK, at least it has to be fair enough to accept the critical distinction between that and STAR TREK, and that TDK is not in the same category. It was a unique discussion for a summer film, not regulary seen for other franchie, box-office hits.

I can understand the argument that this will allow films like, say, REVOLUTIONAR ROAD, to get it. You know, more Oscar-bait films that didn't make it but follow the characterestics of one nominated. In a more positive view, maybe like Craig said, that films like ZODIAC or THE HURT LOCKER could have gotten in. But if the Academy adheres to the name "Oscar-bait" pandering, which we all like to use, they can't be schizophrenic enough to select something like STAR TREK or a every other film that is a box-office hit. The Academy may be full of snubs, but it is evident they have at least a criteria.

Now, one might argue that they're going to vote for it now that they need it. But if that's the case, they would have done so last year with TDK. The voters might sell themselves to propaganda, but not that much.

Jason Bellamy said...

A. Villalba: Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. I see your line of reasoning, and you might prove to be correct, but here are some counters to consider:

* If the Academy intends to only select five more films of the ilk it already nominates, then there is very little to be gained from adding five more nominees (aka five more losers) because that would only increase the alienation felt by the 8-movies-a-year moviegoer.

* I'd argue that one of the reasons the Academy nominates films that meet the "Oscar bait" tag is because they think those movies market Hollywood in a distinguished light. (Remember: Hollywood doesn't need any help convincing people to see often shallow popcorn flicks.) Thus, adding nominees ensures that Hollywood can continue to nominate its Oscar bait movies and make the masses feel included, giving them a reason to tune in on Oscar night, which is a cinema marketing exercise more than anything else.

* The Dark Knight is a special case only in that I think it inspired this change. Yes, I think it's a good film. I think it was worthy of being in the conversation of the best films of last year. But do I think it was one of the top-five films of the year? No. Was it a crime that it wasn't nominated? Hardly. But the experience of TDK demonstrated to Hollywood that it could expand its audience by expanding its pool of nominees, and so that's what has happened.

* I'm not sure that it will be Star Trek, but I think you will certainly see a mainstream film nominated that wouldn't normally match your expectations of a Best Picture nominee. (Could it be Up?) Of course, this upcoming Oscars is tough to call because the movie year thus far has been extremely disappointing.

* One last thing: Just a reminder that it wasn't long ago that Hollywood managed to pander to the masses with just five nominees. Jerry Maguire was a blatant throw-in in 1996, for example. So Hollywood has always been aware of the need to keep the masses interested, while also using nominations as a means to market films that the masses wouldn't otherwise pay to see. In the end, more nominees simply means more marketing. The Academy would be foolish to use the additional spaces in the same old way.

Anyway, we'll see.