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Could movies be losing their cultural cachet? The latest evidence: The Golden Globe Awards saw ratings plummet 62 percent in total viewers to just 6.91 million. Sure, there were extenuating circumstances: The show lacked a strong lead-in; the virtual ceremony meant the glitz was dialed way down; and because of the pandemic-forced cinema closings, most of the films never had a chance to woo moviegoers in theaters.
But there’s also the possibility that movies that pride themselves on being serious, cultural commentary, with only the occasional exception, no longer dominate the culture the way they once did. The best films — the kind that now most often win Oscars — don’t reach a mass market but speak to a smaller, self-selecting cognoscenti. (TV ratings for the ceremony have declined steadily since 2014, except for a spike in 2019.)
If there’s an analogy, it’s what happened to the novel. In the mid-20th century, novelists enjoyed lots of mainstream attention. Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Gore Vidal and John Updike all appeared on the cover of Time — back when the magazine was one of the nation’s reigning cultural arbiters. True, most were white men, though over the years, James Baldwin, Alex Haley and Toni Morrison also made the cut. And novels from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying coined terms embraced by popular culture.
Gradually, though, the prominence of the big, influential novel faded. In a provocative 1989 Harper’s essay, Tom Wolfe blamed his fellow writers for abandoning ambitious, realistic novels in the vein of Dickens and Thackeray in favor of more narrow slices-of-life — of course, he had a horse in the race since he’d just published his own sprawling satire of Reagan-era New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities. In any case, no novelist graced the cover of Time between Stephen King in 2000 and Freedom author Jonathan Franzen in 2010, and it was nearly a decade before Time recognized another, Colson Whitehead, upon the publication of his The Nickel Boys in 2019.
Novels didn’t disappear, of course. They were simply relegated to the rarefied realm of literary fiction — aimed at more select, discerning audiences. Oprah Winfrey’s and Reese Witherspoon’s book clubs did help build best-sellers. But nonfiction still regularly outsold fiction. Michelle Obama’s Becoming was the biggest book of 2018, while Barack Obama’s A Promised Land was the top title of 2020 with 2.5 million printed copies. By contrast, last year’s No. 1 new fiction title, Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, which stirred up controversy with its tale of Mexican immigrants, sold 524,000 copies.
One factor in the gradual decline of the novel’s cultural influence was the concurrent rise in the sway Oscar movies held over the culture as a new generation of directors emerged in the late ’60s and ’70s. 2001, The Graduate, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Apocalypse Now — all introduced images and catchphrases that lodged in the popular imagination while winning over critics and competing for Oscars. Their directors were lionized the way celebrated novelists once were.
But since then, the cultural landscape has shifted again. Recent Oscar winners like Moonlight, The Shape of Water and Parasite didn’t attract wide mainstream audiences, and that’s likely to be true for current contenders like Nomadland and Minari. In that respect, they’re more akin to the more specialized literary fiction that supplanted big novels of the past. To their credit, such films introduced new directorial voices, tackled subjects too often ignored and did it in creatively innovative and moving ways.
There are still a few movies with Oscar heft that reach the masses and become cultural touchstones — most dramatically, Black Panther, which gave rise to empowering cheers of “Wakanda Forever!” as it became the rare blockbuster that’s about more than just selling tickets. But it’s the exception to the rule. Few big-budget movies harbor the ambitions of a Black Panther. And as culture has become more balkanized, all movies have to compete for attention with the thousands of hours of streaming content, even as they are given less time in theaters to raise their profiles.
So the upcoming 93rd Oscars are facing a ratings decline. It’s not just because this pandemic-impacted awards season has meant most films have barely registered at the box office, opting for streaming and premium VOD. It’s also because serious movies, even when they individually attract passionate followings, now occupy a smaller niche. The pictures haven’t necessarily gotten small, but their potential impact has.
This story first appeared in the March 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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