Every year without fail, some journalist comes wandering out of hibernation and notices, with the force of revelation, that the Academy Awards are not based on popularity or, on the other hand, on some sober and considered judgment of cinematic quality. By God, it's just a big party where the film industry congratulates itself! I'm thunderstruck!
In years gone by, this generally took the form of disdainful cinephiles bemoaning the Academy's atrocious taste. ("Ordinary People" wins over "Raging Bull"! "Dances With Wolves" wins over "GoodFellas"! Yul Brynner wins over Olivier! And so on.) More recently, we've heard the inverse of that criticism, in which the Oscars have become an inward-looking, bicoastal-elite, anti-populist celebration of arty niche movies that no regular folks out there in cud-munching Middle America have actually seen. You know, weird obscurities like "The Departed," "Chicago," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," "A Beautiful Mind" and "Gladiator" -- all of them 21st-century best-picture winners, with a cumulative $1 billion-plus in domestic ticket sales.
Right-wing movie critic Michael Medved is the acknowledged kung-fu master of this complaint, but he's stayed quiet this year, even with an indie-rich roster of Oscar nominees to rail against. (Maybe he's still exhausted from all the righteous indignation he worked up against "Brokeback Mountain" in 2006.) Still, the Oscars-vs.-ordinary-moviegoers meme comes up every winter like a hothouse orchid: Time magazine's Richard Corliss took it out for a spin in December (in an essay with the self-recriminating title "Do Film Critics Know Anything?"), and freelancer Michael Ordoña just cranked out a noncommittal reported piece on the subject for the Los Angeles Times. His conclusion: There are movies that pile up awards and movies that pile up money. They aren't usually the same, except when they are.
There's a reason why this idea that the Oscars have become a snobbed-up, limousine-liberal affair, out of touch with ordinary Americans, never goes away: It has a grain of truth, however teensy and elusive, at its core. At first glance, mind you, it seems pretty silly, and maybe at second glance too. OK, so "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek the Third" (this year's box-office champs) didn't exactly rack up the nominations. Those were summer movies for tweens and teens, destined to melt into sludge long before awards season, like a double-pistachio cone dropped on the beach boardwalk on Labor Day. As the list of recent winners given above suggests, Academy voters' tastes seem every bit as middlebrow and mainstream-friendly as they ever were.
Oscar's perceived divorce from public opinion nonetheless reflects something real. It reflects how closely the Academy Awards are now identified with a specific grade of Indiewood product, meaning movies distributed and marketed by the studios' specialty divisions (Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent, Picturehouse, Miramax, et al.) but not generally produced by them. Overwhelmingly, this means mid-budget, independently produced dramas and comedies with A-minus casts, name directors, adult themes, faintly literary origins and a slightly eccentric style. You know: Little Miss Juno Crashes Sideways Into Brokeback Mountain, Where There Will Be Blood.
Beyond that, it reflects anxiety over a real and recent shift in the Hollywood economy -- which has abruptly split itself into a relatively low-budget prestige wing and a deranged, 'roided-out industrial production line -- whose overall effect on the art and business of film is not yet clear (but is unlikely to be salubrious). More broadly still, the widening gulf between Indiewood's Oscar-targeted fare and the media conglomerates' lumbering blockbusters speaks to Hollywood's growing internal unease in an era of global expansion and consolidation that depends on ever bigger, ever dumber and ever more standardized productions.
Looking beyond that list of recent hits that went home with statuettes, things have changed rapidly in Oscarville over the last few years. Most obviously, there's the much-discussed indie takeover. As recently as 2003, four of the five best-picture nominees were wide-release studio films that grossed at least $90 million apiece, with one unconventional outsider thrown in to spice the pot. (That year it was "Lost in Translation.") But in the last three Oscar seasons, 10 of the 15 nominees have been independent or quasi-independent productions. Moreover, at least three of the five exceptions were indie-flavored, mid-budget pictures made at studios thanks to the clout of a star producer (George Clooney, in the case of "Michael Clayton" and "Good Night, and Good Luck," and Clint Eastwood in the case of "Letters From Iwo Jima").
At least on the surface, that's a startling transformation. As always in Hollywood, it's wise to view the terminology and statistics with a skeptical eye. We've had several waves of "independent film" since the early '80s, but the phrase remains a slippery term of art, at best, that means different things to different people. Within the industry, it generally refers to the mechanics of how a film is financed and produced; it has nothing to do with daring or unconventionality or artistic ambition or amount of drugs consumed on-set or any other such intangibles.
It's not like the Academy fell out of its collective tree one day in 2005, removed the scales from its eyes and began handing out awards to five-hour Hungarian films or $5,000 "mumblecore" productions or whatever. "Juno" and "Crash" and "Sideways" and "Brokeback Mountain" and "No Country for Old Men," along with most of the other recent indie-esque Oscar candidates, are exactly the kinds of prestige movies the Hollywood studios could and probably would have made under different circumstances or in other eras.
Conversely, as you drill backward into Oscar history you keep finding things -- Hollywood classics, in some cases -- that could only be made now as independent films. I'm pretty confident that nobody in Hollywood would see much sex or sizzle potential in "Hope and Glory" (a 1987 best-picture nominee) or "Gandhi" (1982) or "Deliverance" (1972). (And they'd be right; none of those movies made much money.) For that matter, try to imagine pitching such vintage Oscar fodder as "Annie Hall" or "The Graduate" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" to a contemporary Hollywood executive. (Well, OK, maybe "The Graduate" -- if you made it wackier and made Mrs. Robinson, like, 29 and insanely hot.)
Allowing for shifts in taste and sensibility, I think it's clear that the classic middlebrow "Academy film" (as historian David Thomson has observed, it's pretty much a genre unto itself) is still with us. Much as I admire this year's list of best-picture nominees, all five of them fit the description. Only the nomenclature, the financial details and the circumstances of production have changed. Indiewood's new breed of Academy films aren't necessarily worse or better than the ones produced under the old system, but they're cheaper and leaner and more tightly focused on an educated, upper-middle-class audience. They don't usually cost as much money, or make as much back. What has suddenly and almost completely vanished from the Oscar ecosystem is the major Hollywood blockbuster, or even the midsize one.
In 2007, there were at least 11 studio films released that earned more than $200 million apiece in domestic box office. That's a lot of success for a business that's constantly whining about its financial predicament. Of those movies, only the animated "Ratatouille" was nominated in any major Academy Award categories. ("The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Transformers" got several technical nominations.) Conversely, there have been only two films among the last 15 best-picture nominees that grossed even $80 million ("Juno" this year and "The Departed" last year).
This year's best-picture list has collectively earned less than $300 million, with almost half of that total coming from the unexpected success of "Juno." While I haven't tried to do the math, in constant-dollar terms that's got to be at or near an all-time low. And it's not a fluke. If you exclude the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which strikes me as a special case in recent movie history, no film that earned $200 million or more has been nominated as best picture since "The Sixth Sense" in 1999.
It's not that the Oscar voters have suddenly embraced finely honed yupscale tastes and left multiplex America behind. At least, it isn't just that. It's more that Hollywood, in the corporate oligopoly sense of the word, has left the older, affluent, movieland-insider demographic of the Academy behind. Today the major Hollywood studios are run as industrial production arms of multinational entertainment conglomerates. They have outsourced the production of adult-oriented, Oscar-plausible films to independent producers so they can focus on their core product lines: action franchises for teenage boys, romantic comedies for young women, animated spectacles for kids and a handful of other generic options. While the abrupt indie-fication of Oscar night was presumably an unintended consequence, it was a logical and even predictable outcome.
It decidedly wasn't always this way. While the very biggest blockbusters weren't always Oscar fare, the Hollywood studios specialized, across many decades, in crafting large-scale entertainments that drew large and diverse audiences and Academy voters alike. Step into the way-back machine and you'll see what I mean. In 1997, which in retrospect looks like the end of a long era in Oscar history, the best-picture winner was "Titanic," one of that decade's biggest hits. There were two other nominees that year -- "As Good as It Gets" and "Good Will Hunting" -- that topped $100 million.
Five years earlier, the nominees included "A Few Good Men," one of the year's biggest hits, along with "Scent of a Woman" and the eventual winner, "Unforgiven," smaller Hollywood films that did exceptional business by the standards of the time. Five years before that, in 1987, best-picture nods went to "Fatal Attraction" and "Moonstruck," two highly popular, adult-oriented films, and the Oscar went to "The Last Emperor," a three-hour historical spectacle from a European director that was partly financed by Columbia Pictures. (Try to make that deal happen today!)
In 1982, the nominees included Steven Spielberg's "E.T.," one of the biggest box-office films in Hollywood history, along with "Tootsie," which grossed $177 million (perhaps twice that much in present-day dollars). Five years earlier, we find the movie that changed everything in Hollywood, George Lucas' "Star Wars," nominated alongside "The Goodbye Girl," which also topped $100 million. (Best picture went to "Annie Hall," which decidedly did not.) Another half-decade earlier, in 1972, we find one of the legendary years in Oscar history, when the nominees included "The Godfather" and "Cabaret," two big hits, alongside the critical fave "Deliverance."
I think you get the point: More often than not, there was a crowd-pleasing Hollywood smash, or several of them, on Oscar's short list. In 1965, "Doctor Zhivago" and "The Sound of Music" were both nominated. A year earlier, "Mary Poppins" and "My Fair Lady" got nods alongside "Dr. Strangelove," "Becket" and "Zorba the Greek." In 1962, "Lawrence of Arabia," that era's defining big-screen spectacle film, was nominated and won. In 1958, the roster included "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Auntie Mame," "The Defiant Ones" and "Gigi" (the winner), all of them box-office hits; infamously, neither Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" nor Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" was even nominated.
Sure, the big studios still crank out productions aimed at adult audiences and awards voters (see "American Gangster" or "Dreamgirls") but they do it less and less frequently with less and less aptitude (see "American Gangster" and "Dreamgirls"). We're only five years removed from seeing a major-studio musical that grossed $170 million take home the big prize, and it's not like that could never happen again. But we've reached the culmination of a long historical process whereby the production of Hollywood blockbusters aimed at undifferentiated masses of young people and the production of smaller and more purportedly serious movies aimed at grownups have become distinct and mutually irrelevant operations.
Does this have dire consequences for art and/or the future of democracy? Are Indiewood's Oscar films somehow less significant because they generally cost less to make and reach fewer viewers? Most important of all, will network viewers still tune in, in vast numbers, to see Jon Stewart's quips, the fabulous and horrifying gowns and the abysmal production numbers, even if they haven't seen the movies? Right now I would answer those questions probably not, probably not and maybe. But on that "maybe" hangs the future of a tottering cultural empire.