Re-Invigorating Oscar

February 08, 2015
A thought by James Berardinelli

Note #1: This is an attempt to be controversial. It is not, however, a cry to receive hate mail. If you want to dispute my proposal, that's fine. But please do me the dignity of reading it all the way through (not skimming it or just reading excerpts) beforehand.

Note #2: Axiom: All big budget movies are not necessarily crap. Just as all small budget movies are not necessarily art.

Are the Oscars out of touch? It's a valid question that should concern the Academy. On a seemingly annual basis, we are told that "This year's Oscar telecast is among the lowest-rated ever." The quick-fix, knee-jerk reaction is to blame the host or the length or something else. But could the real reason be because the films feted by the Academy are disconnected from those people want to see? After all, why watch an awards show when you don't really care who wins?

What do the following lists have in common: the 2015 eight Best Picture nominees and the top eight grossing films of 2014? Answer: nothing. Not a single movie nominated for Best Picture was among the top money-makers of 2014. (Caveat: If one was to use "lifetime gross" or combine 2014 and 2015 totals, American Sniper would become the lone crossover. However, when the film was nominated, it had only made a small amount of money in limited distribution and no one, not even the producers, expected it to become a blockbuster. It's an anomaly.) In fact, looking purely at 2014 (domestic) numbers (ignoring any dollars accrued after December 31, 2014), the highest grossing Best Picture nominee is The Grand Budapest Hotel, which sits at $59.1M or place #55. The award frontrunner, Boyhood, stands at #101.

The Academy's argument is straightforward. Supporters of the current Best Picture selection claim that the films are chosen by artistic merit rather than for commercial reasons. This is, of course, bullshit. Studios spend millions upon millions of dollars attempting to buy nominations and, for the most part, they are successful, at least if a movie is well regarded. The end result isn't necessarily that the nominees represent excellence but the perception of quality is high. Box office blockbusters rarely get nominated, and even more rarely win, because there's a stigma against them. In many cases, money is perceived as the antithesis of quality. It's a hypocritical stance but that's one reason why Whiplash (which I adored) got a nod and Interstellar (which I cited as the best film of 2014) didn't.

When the overnight ratings for Oscarcast 2015 come back as dismal, Hollywood will dismiss them, claiming it's expected because the 2014 multiplex roster was weak. But how much more interest would there be in this year's Best Picture contest if it was among these eight titles: Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The LEGO Movie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Gone Girl, Maleficent, and The Fault in Our Stars? All good movies, all Top 30 earners.

Even considering such a list is anathema to many but they operate under the false pretense that there's something pure about the Oscars. The show takes itself too seriously. All spontaneity has been squeezed out. It's not fun anymore. How likely is it that a Jack Palance will come out and do one-armed push-ups? Or that a streaker will flash behind a presenter? Where's the suspense when most (or all) of the major category winners are signed, sealed, a delivered before the envelopes are opened? Relevance for the Oscars isn't about going farther down the path of obscurity. It's about acknowledging that the majority of Americans like popcorn film and finding a way to honor them.

My proposal, which has a 0% chance of being seriously considered, would elevate the interest in the Oscars. Want evidence? What are two of the highest rated Oscarcasts of the past 20 years? 1998 (Titanic) and 2004 (Return of the King). Recognizable titles - movies a large number of people have seen - get viewers excited. They have a rooting interest. The only people pleased by victories for The King's Speech and The Artist are those who spend their weekends in art houses. While it's nice to see "the little film that could" succeed, it loses its allure when it recurs annually. It's not a good thing for the industry in general if the public as a whole is shrugging when the winner is announced. Can you name the last five Best Picture winners? I can't without looking them up. And, over the past 25 years, the only ones I recall are the blockbusters and those that are reviled because they shouldn't have won (I'm looking at you, Shakespeare in Love and Crash).

So what's the proposal, the one that would forever "taint the integrity" of the Best Picture award? (I'm only proposing this for Best Picture - the other categories could continue nominating from obscure fare because, for the most part, the actors and actresses are recognizable brand names even if the specific performances aren't.) Add a single qualifying factor to the eligibility criteria: the film must have grossed at least $100M domestic by 11:59 pm on December 31. Small films are still eligible to have their directors, casts, and technical people nominated but in order to vie for the Big Dog, you have to be a Big Dog.

There would be a side benefit to this. Suddenly, the end-of-the-year prestige picture glut would be alleviated. Studios would push out Oscar contenders earlier in the year since it's a lot easier to make $100M in ten weeks of general release than in ten days of limited release. It would eliminate the New York/Los Angeles elitism where certain films open in "select" theaters in December before being offered to the national unwashed masses in January.

Call me a Philistine. Call me a sellout. Call me someone with no integrity who would rather promote Studio Trash over Indie Art. The way I see it, however, the Oscars have become dry, desiccated husks; the only ones who can sit through them sober are die-hard movie lovers and people who (like me) have to cover them or write about them. I want to invigorate them. I want them to have life. I want them to be celebrations of cinema. I want them to embrace the triumphs of the past year, not just a select group of films that, although often worthy, are mostly unseen. I want the Oscars to give the Superbowl a ratings challenge (something that hasn't happened since Superbowl IV, the last time the Oscars pulled in more viewers). Many of these things could be accomplished by changing the kinds of films that are awarded a Best Picture nomination.

But what about the name? "Best Picture." Let's look at some recent winners. Was 12 Years a Slave the best film released in 2013? Perhaps - some might agree. What about Argo in 2012? Wasn't that awarded primarily because Ben Affleck was snubbed? The Artist, The King's Speech, The Hurt Locker… very good films all, but the best? The point is that changing the criteria to one based in part of box office performance wouldn't degrade the award. But, to appease the purists, it could be changed to "Top Picture." (Semantics arguments are big with the Academy Awards, which are now called "The Oscars." Should it be "The winner is…" or "The Oscar goes to…"?)

Boyhood will win the Best Picture Oscar in 2015. But wouldn't it be fun to guess what might win with the $100M minimum in place. No one would know because the statue wouldn't track any critics' citations, polls, or other awards. It would be a complete unknown and that, more than anything, would enliven Oscar night and keep people invested until midnight.