Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Lost in Translation

The Academy Awards have come and gone and the ratings continue to be in free fall. They lost approximately 6 million viewers from last year and put up an all-time low in viewership. It is fairly easy to spot the issue, but I’m not sure that the Academy cares. Perhaps when their rights fees are dropped in their next contract, they’ll start to consider a change, because as with most things in Hollywood, money talks and bullshit walks. 

The main issue with the awards show is that Hollywood is no longer concerned with what the general public thinks about their product. They have become experts at self-congratulatory gestures. This years’ list of nominees for best picture contained 2 movies that had crossed the $100 million dollar threshold. The box office totals for the past 7 best picture winners are: $44MM (2011), $136MM (2012), $56MM, $42MM (2013), $45 (2015), $28MM (2016) & $57MM (2017). Outside of a blip in 2011, it’s clear that Hollywood is very happy rewarding movies that very few have seen. 

When the number of possible nominees for best picture were expanded from five to ten in 2009, it was expected that more spots would be available for “popular” movies. The outcry over the fact that the Batman movie, which was incredibly well reviewed but didn’t manage to make the best picture list led to a change. The Academy saw that their ratings were slipping and looked for a way to be more inclusive and to find a bigger audience. However, they have done the exact opposite. They have continued to reward movies that they find interesting, while ignoring what the general public actually goes and sees. The idea of “best” has morphed into small and different. You can actually see movies that are made with the academy award in mind. Movies that meander and have no central narrative are all the rage with the voters these days.

2003 seems to be the dividing point of the new Hollywood. The third installment of Lord of Rings, along with being the highest grossing move of the year, won all 11 of the awards that it was nominated for and everyone in the Academy was apparently embarrassed to have agreed with the public about what was the best movie that year. The blowback was immediate and produced the system we now have. Since 2003, no movie that finished in the top 10 in box office has won and only 3 that finished in the top 20 have won. The average box office for nominees in 2003 was $145MM compared to $77MM this year. That does not even take into account adjusted dollars. If you include the adjusted figure for 2003 ($197MM), the difference becomes even more stark. In fact the only year that the average box office surpassed the adjusted gross of 2003, was 2009 and that was skewed by Avatar, which was at that point, the highest grossing domestic movie of all time. 

There is no rule that says a movie can’t be accessible and artistic. Entertainment and art do not necessarily live in different spaces. Currently the Academy is of the mindset that they do. Perhaps they will swing back the other way or perhaps they will continue along the path of irrelevancy. This is, after all, the same group that once nominated Ghost as best picture. Let that sink in. The Academy decided that Ghost was one of the five best pictures made that year. I realize that the voting members have changed, but they still come from the same place. Would Wonder Woman or Beauty and Beast have made this years’ list worse? They only used 9 of the 10 spots available. Clearly something came in 10th and they decided not to include it. Would anyone have missed The Phantom Thread or Darkest Hour or The Post or Call Me by Your Name? How about a comedy like Girls Trip or a feel good movie like Wonder? Is something that is pleasing to the general public so repugnant to the Academy that they are not even worth consideration? 

I picked the title of this piece based on the 2003 movie starring Bill Murray. That was the kind of movie that would be added to best picture list to show that the Academy still cared about small and “interesting” movies. It finished below the top 50 that year in box office and was the only one the list in that position. However, Lost in Translation looks like a blockbuster at $44MM($60MM adjusted) compared to the Hurt Locker which won best picture in 2009 with a total box office gross of $17MM or the$ 28MM gross of Moonlight. Black Panther’s opening weekend was literally 12 times the total gross of Hurt Locker. The public votes with their dollars and their eyes. If they aren’t spending their hard earned money to go to a movie, then they aren’t going to spend their time watching it get an award. They simply don’t care about things they haven’t seen. The Academy has to understand that or they should go back to having a private self congratulatory party with no one watching. If things continue along the current path, soon they won't have a choice.