Oscar’s Case of ADD—Why the Academy Awards Sort of Suck Now

Posted by Chuck, January 31, 2011 04:00pm | Post a Comment

I just watched Restrepo, the documentary film from Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington about soldiers in Afghanistan. It was an engrossing and remarkable film. It’s nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It’s available on DVD.

I love film, all kinds, and I see a lot of movies in a year . . . but still, I probably won’t watch the Oscars. Why not? I sort of just don’t feel invited.

Look at this year’s Best Picture Nominees:

Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

It’s a great list and I’d really like to see all of them, but I won’t be able to. Of these ten, only five (Inception, The Kids Are Alright, Toy Story 3, The Social Network and Winter’s Bone) are available on home video. That leaves five films which you must go to the theater to watch in order to view them before Oscar night.

The Academy has been wondering for years how to get people to watch the Oscars. After peaking with 57 million viewers for the 1997 awards (a.k.a. the Titanic year), the Oscars experienced a slow decline in ratings until it bottomed out for the 2007 awards when only 31 million watched. Why? The stinking airdate. And the host. And also the night of the week. (It was held on Monday evenings until 1999, when it was switched to Sundays…to avoid conflicts with L.A.’s rush hour.) Lots of theories. The studios complain about awards season being “too long.” The ceremony used to be held in late-March/early-April until 2004 when it was moved forward to February/March to supposedly cut down on the rabid campaigning the studios did to garner nominations. This year they even contemplated January.

In my eyes, the studios kind of want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to save money on campaigning . . . so they release the “Oscar-worthy” movies later and later in the year—squeaking some of them in at the last possible minute with a very limited release in the waning days of the year—and move the show up. They want to force people to see the movies in theaters; they want to promote DVD sales with award nominations; and they want us to care about the dang show, too.

Look at these release dates:

Black Swan – Dec 17, 2010
The Fighter – Dec 17, 2010
Inception – July 16, 2010
The Kids Are All Right – July 30, 2010
The King's Speech – Dec 10, 2010
127 Hours – Nov 12, 2010 (limited)
The Social Network – Oct 1, 2010
Toy Story 3 – June 18, 2010
True Grit – Dec 22, 2010
Winter's Bone – June 11, 2010 (limited)

And let’s throw in some of the other nominated films (acting categories, etc):

Biutiful – Dec 29, 2010 (limited)
Rabbit Hole – Dec 17, 2010 (limited)
Blue Valentine – Dec 29, 2010 (limited)
The Town – Sept 17, 2010

Four of the Best Picture nominees—along with three of the ones you’d need to see for acting—didn’t even come out until December. “Limited” release dates mean that for the vast majority of America, those films did not arrive in theaters until January 2011. If you have children, say, and your time is a piece of wax fallin’ on a termite that’s chokin’ on the splinters, this puts a crimp on a trek to Magic Johnson’s theater. As time (and money) are at a premium these days, I can't see a way I'd manage to get to the theater to see seven films between December 1 and February 27. I’d hazard a guess that I’m not alone.
annie hall

Look at 1977, a year when the Oscars aired on April 3, 1978. Here are the five Best Picture nominees (remember when there were five?) and their release dates:

Annie Hall (winner) – April 20, 1977
The Goodbye Girl – Nov 30, 1977
Julia – Oct 2, 1977
Star Wars – May 25, 1977
The Turning Point – Nov 14, 1977

That’s a very doable moviegoing schedule (39 million people watched the show that year). For a second example, take 1994, a year firmly from the era of home video; this ceremony was held on March 27, 1995 and almost 49 million people tuned in:

Forrest Gump (winner) – July 6, 1994
Four Weddings and a Funeral – March 9, 1994
Pulp Fiction – Oct 14, 1994
Quiz Show – Sept 14, 1994
The Shawshank Redemption – Sept 23, 1994 (limited)

If you add in video rental at the time, it’s feasible a person could have seen all of those.

Granted, there’s a lot more competition in the TV world these days, but here’s another interesting item that may be a factor. I read somewhere that the average theatrical release for a film is currently 16 weeks. I don’t believe that’s true. I’ve already missed my chance to see the new Harry Potter film, which is gone from theaters in my area and only came out on Nov 19. That’s not even eight weeks. E.T. screened in theaters for over a year, Star Wars for 44 weeks (and, for the record, it was a shit-ton better than Annie Hall), Back to the Future for 37. If word of mouth told you a movie was good, you had a small eternity to get to the theater to see it. Not so in the prepubescent 2000s.

Yes, it has something to do with DVD releases, but today there’s just no room for movies to lurk in theaters. In 1977, 47 films were released. By 1994 it was 223. In 2010 there were 880 celluloid releases. Given that figure, it makes sense to nominate ten films for Best Picture. You’d hope, out of 880 at least ten would be of a particular viewing quality. (Although, why only three for Best Animated Feature? No Despicable Me this year? That movie was insanely good.)

james cameron, king of the world

And one more thing: doesn’t it all come down to having a stake in the matter? People watch something that matters to them, and if you haven’t seen the films—which, apparently 25 million fewer had been seen in 2007 than in 1997—why would you care about who wins? It makes perfect sense that all the gazillions of people who had seen Titanic cared about that year’s Oscars. Same goes with the countless number of people who watched Avatar (ratings were up last year when Avatar lost out to The Hurt Locker for Best Picture). In a desperate bid to get more people to watch the show, the Academy widened the field to ten last year. Then they could include some more “blockbuster” types that a lot of people have seen (Avatar, Inception, etc). Remember the aforementioned year that nobody watched? The Best Picture nominees were: No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, and There Will Be Blood. All excellent films, but their combined gross was around $700 million. Only one, Michael Clayton, was available on DVD before the February 24 airing of the ceremony (it came out on Feb 19). In contrast, Avatar alone grossed $2,782,206,970.

Am I advocating that the Academy nominate a bunch of popcorn films? No sir, you misread me. I’d throw up if the Best Pictures nominees were all CGI monstrosities (Transformers was definitely less than meets the eye). All I’m screaming is give a brother some time to make his way to the theater. The studios should stand behind their films and believe that a spring release is still a conversational point in January, so long as it’s good. Last year’s winner, The Hurt Locker? It was released in June.

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Annie Hall (2), Avatar (5), Restrepo (1), Academy Awards (21), Oscars (35), Star Wars (23)