Commentary: What if they gave an Oscar race and nobody cared?

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Oscar outlook: The peace movement's '60s slogan "What if they gave a war and no one came?" has been a victim of paraphrasing for years and I'm doing it again today by asking, "What if they gave an Oscar race and nobody cared?"

Unfortunately, that seems to be what's happened this year. Having spent untold hours handicapping the Oscars since this column began in The Hollywood Reporter in 1985, I well remember how exciting it once was to debate what could happen. In those days there always seemed to be a scenario in which one of the nominated pictures could charge down the homestretch and nose out the favorite. Suspense was in the air and people cared about how the race would turn out. But the hard-fought battles of the past are now just memories. In their place we had this season's restrained, just-going-through-the-motions campaigns.

Perhaps we should blame it on the recession. It was a year in which distributors cut back on what they spent to campaign for Oscar consideration. Several of them wound up doing consumer-targeted marketing that they claimed would also be seen by Academy members. But that's a far cry from trying to connect with the voters and doing whatever it takes to win. Say what you will about the evils of dirty tricks campaigning, but at least those who were guilty of doing it in the past cared so much about winning that they were willing to take some risks.

One of the factors that drove past best picture campaigns was the studios' desire to show filmmakers that they would support them with the best and most aggressive Oscar campaigning anyone could do. Studios were willing to spend big to help their filmmakers take home Oscar gold. It made sense on two levels in those days. To begin with, getting a best picture Oscar nom used to translate into a big boost at the boxoffice because Oscar fans across the country wanted to see all the nominees so they could talk with friends and co-workers about who was likely to win and, in fact, have the best shot at winning their office Oscar pools.

Prior to 2004 when the Academy moved the Oscars from late March to late February, there was an extra month in which the public could find time to see all those films. The shortened time between the noms and ceremonies, of course, makes it harder for people to see all the contenders. Moreover, these days most of the nominees are small films that may only be playing in big markets. People in smaller cities don't even have an opportunity to see some of the contenders.

The studios also believed that by spending big money to win or, at least, to try to win Oscars they would have an advantage in attracting the best filmmaking talent. The idea was that if filmmakers felt their Oscar aspirations would benefit from a particular studio's willingness to mount an expensive campaign they'd be more inclined to make their next film there. Because there was something potentially to be gained by both sides, it made sense to fight hard to win.

Today's campaigns lack that kind of passion. Mailing out DVD screeners and holding screenings followed by Q&A sessions with filmmakers is about as exciting as things get on the Oscar campaign trail nowadays. That lack of excitement is contagious and the public senses it. It's one of the reasons that Oscar's ratings have been declining in recent years.

Last year's television audience of around 32 million people was Oscar's lowest in years, but this year's numbers might make that look good. Mostly, low ratings reflect the public's lack of interest in the films competing for best picture. The kind of movies that get best picture noms these days tend to be critically driven dramas that opened late in the year in a handful of big cities.

These are largely independently made pictures released through small distributors or through the few surviving specialized distribution arms of the major studios. The days when major studio releases targeted to mainstream audiences generated all or most of the best picture nominations are long gone. Today's nominees are generally films that were embraced by critics groups and other awards givers in December and managed to capitalize on that success by generating sufficient buzz for Academy members to see and the nominate them.

Essentially, Academy members have allowed critics, critics groups and leading awards givers like the Golden Globes to define the field from which Oscar nominees for best picture emerge. Small independent movies tend to be the ones that resonate best with those groups and by taking their cue from them Academy members, too, have turned away from mainstream movies.

In recent years it's become fashionable to think that mainstream films aren't deserving of best picture consideration. Earlier this awards season there were those -- I wasn't one of them -- who thought Academy members would realize this makes no sense and give best picture nods to well made crowd pleasers like "The Dark Knight" and "Wall-E." Not only were both films popular with moviegoers, they'd also resonated big time with critics. "Knight" had a 94% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com and "Wall-E" came in with a 96% fresh rating. "Knight's" grossed over $533 million domestically and "Wall-E's" done about $224 million.

Both "Knight" and "Wall-E" are "popcorn pictures" in the best sense of that much maligned term. They're commercial movies that deliver a few hours worth of great entertainment and escape -- just what the doctor ordered in this grim world of ours. If either film had gotten into the best picture race it could have delivered a built-in audience of fans who would have tuned in Oscar night to root for it to win.

That, of course, didn't happen. Academy voters saw "Knight" as a comic book based blockbuster that could be recognized with a best supporting actor nod to the late Heath Ledger. And they perceived "Wall-E" as a great animated feature that could be recognized with a best animated feature nomination.



Only one of the five films that Academy members wound up endorsing for best picture is a big studio film with major stars and mainstream appeal. But Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" isn't a "popcorn picture." It's a very serious three hour long tale about a man aging backwards and it's not escapist entertainment. And while it has big stars in Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, they're playing deeper and more serious roles than if they were in a real mainstream movie.

"Benjamin's" grossed about $123 million and while that's nothing to sneeze at, it's still not breathing the same rarefied boxoffice air as "Knight" or "Wall-E." So it's hard to point to "Benjamin" and credit Academy members for having made at least one mainstream movie nomination here.

The other best picture nominee released through a major studio is "Frost/Nixon," which Universal is distributing. While that makes it sound like a mainstream release, "F/N" is really a small independent film that Imagine Entertainment partners Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and Working Title Films partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media teamed up to make in partnership with Universal on a modest budget.

Moreover, it's a film without any big stars. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen both deliver terrific performances, but neither of them are the kind of names that can get a movie open -- and that's all the more reason to applaud Universal, Imagine and Working Title for casting them. Although "F/N" did well with critics -- scoring a 92% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com -- it never caught on with critics groups. It underperformed at the boxoffice, grossing less than $17 million, reflecting not only its lack of big stars but the fact that it's a period piece drama about something that happened over 30 years ago that most moviegoers today really don't remember or care about.

Oscar's three other best picture nominees are all small independent films -- including the presumed winner "Slumdog Millionaire" from Fox Searchlight Pictures; "The Reader" from The Weinstein Company; and "Milk," from Focus Features. These are three excellent examples of the kind of small independent films that are able to achieve best picture Oscar nominations these days. Over the course of the awards season all three titles resonated to one extent or another with critics or other awards givers. While "Slumdog's" done an outstanding $88 million-plus at the boxoffice -- about half of which came in since it received its 10 Oscar nominations -- "Reader's" only grossed a little over $19 million and "Milk's" only collected about $27 million.

"Slumdog," of course, emerged as the frontrunner supreme after sweeping key contests like the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, BAFTA's, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Producers Guild of America Awards and Directors Guild of America Awards. Where "Slumdog" has lacked presence was in the acting races because it has no big Hollywood stars. That's the void that "The Reader's" Kate Winslet and "Milk's" Sean Penn were able to fill, establishing themselves as prime contenders.

Having won Globe, BAFTA and SAG awards for her performance in "The Reader," Winslet is now the Oscar frontrunner. Penn, who won the SAG best actor award, faces very strong competition from Mickey Rourke, who won the Globe and BAFTA best actor awards. Rourke's career was revitalized by his performance in "The Wrestler" and that's the kind of personal redemption story that Academy voters sometimes respond to.

So if it's excitement you want Oscar night, watch something else. Most Hollywood handicappers see the best actor contest between Rourke and Penn as the only prime race that's not already a lock. Oscar's ratings could suffer not only from the lack of suspense over who will win, but also from some of the things the Academy's doing in the name of reinventing the show. It's hard to believe the Academy decided not to announce who its presenters will be, thinking that by keeping their names secret the public will be more likely to tune in to see who's opening the sealed envelopes. If anything, knowing who the presenters are is a good reason to tune in as long as they're people you want to see.

Compounding that wrongheaded thinking is the Academy's plan to try to get some of the biggest stars to avoid walking down the red carpet and instead enter the Kodak Theater unnoticed through a side door. The red carpet is one of the most glamorous aspects of the Oscars and to water it down this way makes no sense. "Who are you wearing?" is what Oscar's mostly female television viewers want to know. They tune in to see the stars and the fashions.

In any case, whatever happens Sunday it will finally be all over for another year. Hopefully, when the 82nd Academy Awards roll around next year we will have enjoyed an awards season filled with hand-to-hand combat in the Oscar trenches and there will be a feeling of real excitement in the air that's sadly missing this time around.

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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