The Column I Wasn't Going to Write

January 28, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

I wasn't planning to write a reaction to last week's Oscar nominations. The way I figure it, there's little I can add to the litany of cries (both pro and con) that are already out there. Plus, I find it boring to write about how Sally Hawkins was screwed, why Heath Ledger shouldn't be eligible, and the injustice of the Brad Pitt selection. (Actually, I did write about the Ledger situation.) When it comes to Oscar nominations, even the "surprises" typically aren't that surprising. Melissa Leo's nomination caused me to raise an eyebrow, but it didn't result in my clapping my hands or doing a little dance. There's always an unexpected name or two and they almost never win. You know the cliche: "The nomination is their Oscar."

But there's an elephant in the room, and that's the dismissal of The Dark Knight as a Best Picture candidate. There's no better way to kill the telecast's ratings than failing to nominate the year's highest grossing motion picture. And it's not like this was a crapfest that achieved its overbloated box office take because people were in the mood for something mindless. The film was critically lauded. Yet somehow it failed to be recognized as a nominee. Would there have been shrieks of dismay if The Dark Knight had replaced The Reader or Frost/Nixon? I don't think so. In fact, it would have instantly guaranteed a more robust audience for the program.

Traditionally, Oscarcasts do well when audiences know the movies. The year Titanic won, ratings were through the roof. Another strong year: Return of the King. Last year's ratings were miserable. Why? Because mainstream movie-goers didn't know any of the films. They were all "obscure" titles. And, among Mom and Pop Moviegoers, No Country for Old Men was not a popular winner. They didn't get it. It enforced the Oscars' reputation for rewarding "arty" films that no one sees or cares about. This year's nominations feed into that perception. Of the nominees, only Benjamin Button and perhaps Slumdog Millionaire have a shot at $100 million, and neither will get to $200 million. Meanwhile, the $500 million behemoth sits on the sidelines. Also neglected was another big, popular film: WALL-E, which was ghettoized into the also-ran Best Animated Film category.

There should be some way for a committee to manipulate the nomination process. Maybe four of the five titles could be chosen using the current method but the fifth would be picked based on a select set of criteria. That way, The Dark Knight could have been the selection. Some might argue that this is a perversion of the Oscars' artistic integrity, but that's a laughable contention. Integrity? It's a glorified popularity contest, and anyone who doesn't acknowledge that isn't living in the real world. Pundits who pick Oscar winners don't do it by figuring out which movie is the best movie. They do it by figuring out which one is best-liked, which one has spent the most money on publicity and marketing, which one was produced by someone who is beloved in Hollywood, which one has the hottest buzz, and so forth. Allowing one of the slots to be filled by a title that wasn't voted in hardly damages the nomination process' credibility, as long as guidelines are developed and adhered to.

How are the Oscars better without The Dark Knight than with it? Sure, people will tune in to see who picks up the award when Heath Ledger wins, but they won't stay to see the naming of Best Picture. If The Dark Knight had been in the running, the ratings would have held until the end. A large group of people cares about that movie. The number of people who will be pulling for Slumdog Millionaire and Benjamin Button is much, much smaller.

The Oscars are all about publicity and self-congratulations. It's Hollywood throwing a party for itself and inviting the whole world to watch. The pageantry is diminished when mainstream viewers consider the films to be "obscure" or "out-of-touch." I remember the grumbling last year. It's louder this year. The Oscars were once known as the "Superbowl for Women" and were virtually guaranteed the second highest TV rating of the year. Now, they're beaten by American Idol and show erosion every year. They're in danger of becoming like Miss America: irrelevant. It's no longer unthinkable to envision the Oscars on a cable network at some time in the future. Bravo or E! perhaps.

Yes, there are problems with the show itself. It's too long. It's not spontaneous enough. It lacks the consistency of a recurring host. But the issue I'm addressing here is more fundamental. It's about getting to the show. It's about generating enough excitement so potential viewers will want to watch the telecast. There's a saying that goes "Don't fix what isn't broken." Well, the nomination process is broken and AMPAS will find to its dismay that a failure to address the problems now will result in a situation where those problems will no longer be fixable.

There's nothing that can be done about The Dark Knight. The key is to act now to prevent this sort of thing from recurring in twelve months. But if I was to place a bet, it's that the Academy will act as they usually have and do nothing.