Friday, January 23, 2009

The Unpopular Oscars

The nominations for the 2008 Oscars were announced this morning, and regarding the nominations for Best Picture, the odds will be pretty short that you have not seen more than one of the five nominated films.

In fact the five films nominated are together the least popular group of nominations for 23 years.

A funny thing has happened to the Oscars in the last few years. Since the massive success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003, the Oscars have gone decidedly indie. Since The Return of the King year, the cumulative US Box Office for each group of five films nominated for Best Picture has never been over $300 million. This is historically rather bizarre. The last time this had occurred before 2004 was way back in 1996 when The English Patient won, but Jerry Maguire was the biggest box office performer of the five nominated films.

In 2005, with the decidedly non-blockbuster group of Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Munich, Good Night and Good Luck, and Capote, the cumulative Box Office of the Best Picture nominees was a mere $186.3 million.

This year's five films: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, and Frost/Nixon, have thus far only earned $186.7 million, but given movie ticket prices in the USA have increased around 12% since 2005, the Box Office of this year's five is worse than the 2005 group. Not only that, this year is the first time since at least 1982 that two of the films nominated for Best Picture (The Reader and Frost/Nixon) have earned less than $10m.

Here's the list of the cumulative box office earnings of the five Best Picture nominated films at the time of nomination from 2008 to 1986 with the highest grossing nominated film and its box office in brackets - and the eventual winner listed after (all data from the great Box Office Mojo website):

2008 - $186.7m, (Benjamin Button, $104.4). Winner??
2007 - $216.7m, (Juno, $87m). No Country for Old Men
2006 - $243.6m, (The Departed, $121.8m). The Departed
2005 - $186.3m, (Crash, $53.4m), Crash
2004 - $205.2m, (Ray, $73m). Million Dollar Baby
2003 - $637.9m, (The Return of the King, $338.3m). The Return of the King
2002 - $486.7m, (The Two Towers, $321.1m). Chicago
2001 - $484.3m, (The Fellowship of the Ring, $271.7m). A Beautiful Mind
2000 - $471.3m, (Gladiator, $186.6m). Gladiator
1999 - $521.0m, (The Sixth Sense,$278.4m). American Beauty
1998 - $301.9m, (Saving Private Ryan, $194.9m). Shakespeare in Love
1997 - $578.8m, (Titanic, $338.7m). Titanic
1996 - $209.9m, (Jerry Maguire, $121.5m). The English Patient
1995 - $332.6m, (Apollo 13, $172.1m). Braveheart
1994 - $468.3m, (Forrest Gump, $172.1m). Forrest Gump
1993 - $260.8m, (The Fugitive, $179.4m). Schindler's List
1992 - $252.3m, (A Few Good Men, $120.1m). Unforgiven
1991 - $393.7m, (Silence of the Lambs, $130.7m). Silence of the Lambs
1990 - $458.2m, (Ghost, $213.6m). Dances with Wolves
1989 - $188.5m, (Dead Poets Society, $95.9m). Driving Miss Daisy
1988 - $188.5m, (Rain Man, $96.9m). Rain Man
1987 - $221.5m, (Fatal Attraction, $142.3m). The Last Emperor
1986 - $119.4m, (Platoon, $39.3m). Platoon

The list shows a few things. Firstly, on the surface it seems that being the biggest box office performer is not a big advantage - after all only 9 times in the 22 years from 1986 to 2007 does the biggest box office performer win. But given that accounts for 41% of the time - more than double the expected amount given the one in five chance of the each nominee winning.

The other aspect (not shown admittedly) is that in each year, there is rarely more than one big box office nominee. In the 23 years, in only 6 years were there 2 films with a box office of over $100m, and never were there three such films.

So while it may seem that the last five years have seen a drop off in the general popularity of the Best Picture nominees, what is more the case is that the last five years have seen a lack of one big film that bumps up the cumulative box office. In 2002, for example, The Two Towers was obviously a huge film, but the other nominated films, Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Pianist and The Hours, were essentially dead at the box office - Chicago only picked up after the nomination - it made 40% of its money in the USA after getting put up for Best Picture.

So what is missing of the last few years is Hollywood rewarding itself by picking one film that demonstrates what Hollywood does well - think Jerry Maguire, Apollo 13, A Few Good Men, The Fugitive.

Perhaps the problem is that Hollywood doesn't do the big drama but audience friendly that well anymore. Why bother trying A Few Good Men, when you might end up with Lions For Lambs (US Box Office - $5m), and when you can put out another comic book adaptation with little risk. The Fantastic Four will never be recalled fondly by any critic, but it made $330m worldwide. So why wouldn't Hollywood crank out more of those rather than say a serious historical drama about an unsuccessful space mission - especially when Tom Hanks is no longer the box office draw he once was.

Basically unless it's got Will Smith in it, you're no going to see it

Here's the Top 10 Box Office from last year in the USA:
1 The Dark Knight $531,037,655
2 Iron Man $318,412,101
3 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull $317,101,119
4 Hancock $227,946,274
5 WALL-E $223,808,164
6 Kung Fu Panda $215,434,591
7 Twilight $184,871,145
8 Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa $178,314,231
9 Quantum of Solace $168,054,668
10 Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! $154,529,439

Compare it to ten years earlier - 1998:

1 Saving Private Ryan $216,540,909
2 Armageddon $201,578,182
3 There's Something About Mary $176,484,651
4 A Bug's Life $162,798,565
5 The Waterboy $161,491,646
6 Doctor Dolittle $144,156,605
7 Rush Hour $141,186,864
8 Deep Impact $140,464,664
9 Godzilla $136,314,294
10 Patch Adams $135,026,902

A big change - in 2008, 4 animated films; 1 in 1998. In 2008, 2 based on comic books, plus Indy and Hancock which were comic book types; in 1998 none, though Godzilla is sort of. In 2008 no dramas; in 1998, three.

Ok back another 5 years to 1993:

1 Jurassic Park $357,067,947
2 Mrs. Doubtfire $219,195,243
3 The Fugitive $183,875,760
4 The Firm $158,348,367
5 Sleepless in Seattle $126,680,884
6 Indecent Proposal $106,614,059
7 In the Line of Fire $102,314,823
8 The Pelican Brief $100,768,056
9 Schindler's List $96,065,768
10 Cliffhanger $84,049,211

It's a different world. No animated films. No comic book films. Six of the films could be classed as dramas - The Fugitive and In the Line a Fire are more drama than action and the two comedies, Mrs Doubtfire and Sleepless in Seattle are much more dramatic than comedies done today. Mrs Doubtfire has morphed into Big Mommas House 2. And the last time a romcom made the top ten box office list was 2005 with Wedding Crashers (last year Sex and the City came 11th).

The other big difference is the action films - Cliffhanger and even Jurassic Park, while stretching credibility, don't give the heroes super powers. They generally are bound by reality and gravity. In the last Indy film, Harrison Ford was as impervious to injury as any of the characters in the X-Men films - heck he survived an atomic bomb!

But it's hard to be too critical of Hollywood films - or of the choice for Best Picture. After all, this whole argument could have been rendered moot if the Academy had nominated the one comic book adaptation that actually deserves critical acclaim - The Dark Knight. Similarly, Wall-E has made numerous critics top 10 lists.

Had either of those films been nominated this year would have looked like a return to the days of Hollywood loving itself, instead of honouring small 'outsider' type films.

None of this has anything to do with quality per se. But it does mean that once again this year the Academy Awards will rate poorly. Who wants to stay up watching to see if one film you have never seen will beat four other films you have never seen?

The old person in me wishes for a return to Hollywood making good popular dramas, good 'real' action films, and for the best of those to be nominated for Best Picture. But the realist in me knows those days are gone (at least for a while), and thus given action now means comic book action, then let's find the best, and give that a go. And let's admit we're in a golden age of animated films and give them a go at the big prize.

The members of the Academy should realise that the awards only matter so long as people care about who wins them. The AFI Awards in Australia get little attention because hardly anyone has seen the films that are nominated. Now that might be because there aren't any films worth seeing that are also worth nominating, but the AFI effect could happen to the Oscars, even though the reasons may be different.

The films nominated for Best Picture no doubt are good. But so what? They're not Hollywood, and they're not being seen, so the net effect is less people caring about the Oscars - which means the nominations and wins will eventually mean less in box office boosts.

If Hollywood isn't making the types of films that in the past were box office successes and were worthy of nominating, then perhaps it's time those in Hollywood realised this and either made them again, or started looking at what is popular now and realising that perhaps it's time to acknowledge the Oscar worthiness.

You can't tell me taking out any two of the nominated five and replacing them with The Dark Knight and Wall-E, wouldn't pique your interest more, and have you thinking about actually staying up and watching to see who will win.

UPDATE: Last night I realised that I had forgotten to take inflation into account for the 1986 figures. Ticket prices have increased around 94% since 1986, meaning the 1986 nominated films' total of $119.4m would be about $231.7m today.

Thus this years' five nominated films are actually the worst performing lot of potential Best Pictures since... well since ever. Even the lowly total of 1984's lot of nominees (Amadeus, The Killing Fields, Places in the Heart, A Passage to India, and A Soldier's Story), of $103.5m would equate to around $221.8m in today's money.

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