The Oscars’ growing sequel problem

Fewer and fewer people are watching the Academy Awards every year. Blame "Transformers"

Topics: Oscars,

The Oscars' growing sequel problem Johnny Depp, Jean Dujardin, and a transformer from "Dark of the Moon"

Three years ago, the Oscars announced the biggest change in its workings in decades. It expanded the best picture lineup to 10 films, up from five. We’ve seen two Oscarcasts since; the third one will be broadcast this Sunday on ABC.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which puts on the show, doesn’t admit it, but the tweaks are born of a concern about one thing and one thing only: TV ratings. The academy makes a mint each year off the broadcast, traditionally one of the year’s biggest shows. But the trend line for viewership has been heading downward for more than a decade. The academy’s not in the poorhouse or anything; it can still charge an ever-growing premium for advertising, of course. But the show’s not cheap, either, and those declining ratings are a very real indicator of the once fabled awards show’s fading glory.

Here’s the academy’s biggest, and growing, problem: The movies winning Oscars are movies that nobody has heard about — and, as a result, nobody is tuning in.

Five or six years ago, when movies like “Crash,” “The Departed,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Slumdog Millionaire” were winning best picture Oscars, the average box-office gross for the five best-picture nominees each year was in the $50 million to $70 million range — and “Crash ”and “No Country” were among the lowest-grossing winners (adjusted for inflation) of all time. Those were the years that drove the Academy nuts. Bad enough that a movie about a guy who killed people by sticking some sort of pneumatic hammer on their foreheads won the best picture Oscar. The next year was about a slum kid from Mumbai. The ratings tanked during these years, hitting an all-time low of 32 million in 2007.

Then came the big change. In 2009, the switch did what it was supposed to do. The average gross of the films nominated for best picture went up an extraordinary $100 million, to approximately $170 million. The ratings took a jump to 41 million. On the one end you had “Avatar” — in inflation-adjusted dollars currently the 14thhighest-grossing film of all time— but also Pixar’s “Up” and the popular family sports drama “The Blind Side.” What won? A downer of an Iraq film called “The Hurt Locker,” which made about one-fiftieth the amount “Avatar” did in ticket sales. Its $17 million made it by far the lowest-grossing best picture in the history of the Oscars.



2010 came next. There were more respectably big-ticket, high-grossing, critically acclaimed films to lavish awards on. There was “Inception,” directed by industry darling Christopher Nolan, who’d been nominated for an Oscar already and wowed everyone with “The Dark Knight.” There was “Toy Story 3,” arguably the best-reviewed Pixar movie yet, if that seemed possible. And then “True Grit,” the closest thing the Coen brothers will ever direct to a family film.

But there was a problem: The average gross of this lineup was down to $135 million and the winner was “The King’s Speech,” an agreeably middlebrow work about primogeniture and stuttering with a disappointing $138 million total box office. The Academy ignored Nolan and the Pixar folks, and the ratings were accordingly off 10 percent, making the show another of its lowest-rated ever.

Now we’re up to this year. Let’s look at the nine nominees, “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “War Horse” and “Moneyball” among them. The average gross has plunged by more than half of last year’s, back down to $62 million. In just three years, in other words, the box office of the Academy voters’ picks has speedily regressed to more or less what it was before the big switch. In essence, the revamping has accomplished nothing.

Short of creating an affirmative-action program for blockbusters, there’s little it can do at this point. First, the Oscars has the most integrity of any awards show. The academy runs a tight ship. Corrupt outfits like the Grammys, remember, allow a secret committee to overrule its membership’s nominations to hide embarrassments and make for a more youth-friendly show. Shenanigans like that wouldn’t fly in Hollywood.

Secondly, and worse, there’s the sequel problem. Hollywood’s love of the sequel (and movies that might produce a sequel) is well known. These films have increasingly come to dominate moviegoing. The last year a quote-unquote normal movie for adults was the year’s highest-grossing film was “Saving Private Ryan,” way back in 1998. 2007 was a landmark: The top five films were all sequels, reboots, wannabe franchises, or films based on superhero comics or toys — and there were five more in the top 20.

Well, this year, Gotterdammerung hit. In 2011, for the first time, the top-10 highest-grossing films of the year are all of that ilk. It’s hard to keep track anymore. Was the latest Harry Potter a septoquel or an octoquel? I think that was the third “Transformers” movie this year, unless I’m forgetting one. I count at least three fourquels (the latest “Twilight,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” entries); what number “Fast Five” is in the “Fast & the Furious” series I haven’t the faintest. Then there were a raft of straight-up sequels (“Sherlock Holmes,” “Hangover,” “Cars”) and the new would-be superhero franchise, “Thor.” And numbers 11 through 20 included five more sequels, reboots or superhero workouts. (“Captain America,” “Planet of the Apes,” the second “Kung Fu Panda,” the fourth “X-Men” and — wait for it — the third “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” coming in at 20.)

With very rare exceptions (the “Toy Story” sequels and not any others I can think of), no one seriously claims any of these are deserving of best picture honors. Of the top-grossing films of the year that weren’t in one of these predictable categories, the highest, “The Help,” was actually nominated for best picture. So it’s not like the members of the academy aren’t trying. It’s just that there’s nothing, really, for them to nominate in the category of high-grossing films worthy of a best-picture Oscar.

There are two Hollywoods now. One makes those cacophonous entertainments, which kids flock to see in noisy multiplexes each weekend. The other makes films for adults, which we see in the calmer art theaters or in the comfort of our own homes on home video, Netflix, or on demand. They don’t make much money, so they leverage what influence they can. One of these has been their efficient hijacking of the Oscars race each year. If you don’t overspend in production and play the awards-season game well, you can do all right financially.

It’s hard to see how this situation will change any time soon. The prognosticators this year say “The Artist”— an all-but-silent film from France with a current gross of $28 million — will win best picture; if it does, it will be the second-lowest-grossing film ever to get that award. The industry will grumble; the ratings won’t go up, and will probably plummet again. The rest of Hollywood will go back to work on their respective studio’s boffo B.O. hopefuls for 2012. One of the big studio tentpoles this summer? Universal’s “Battleship” — yes, based on the venerable family game. I doubt we’ll be hearing about it when next year’s Oscar nominations are announced.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>