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What’s the point of the Oscars if nobody cares about the Best Picture nominees?

Cairns on Cinema - Oscar Best Picture nominees all have too low a profile
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The Oscar broadcast is this week, and as usual John Cairns is all worked up about it.

NORTH BATTLEFORD - Today, I venture into my long-awaited rant on the Oscar show this weekend.

Yes, to your surprise and mine, the Oscars show is on. Anticipation, quite frankly, has never been lower. There are a lot of reasons for that. The awards season lead-up has felt the loss of the Golden Globe awards telecast, after the Hollywood Foreign Press Association self-imploded due to a lack of diversity in its ranks. The hype that normally accompanies the winners from that show is missing this year.

Moreover, the Oscars are still feeling the stench from last year’s depressing COVID-era awards show, where they handed out awards to a small gathering of people inside a train station, of all places, with no movie clips to speak of. It was such a debacle that I understand this year’s Oscars will reinstate the film clips and actually have hosts. What a concept.

There is a wider problem with the Oscars, and that is the absolutely low profile of the Oscar-worthy movies that are up for Best Picture nominations. Quite frankly, this is an issue that has been building up for years.

I’m going to preface this by listing the following iconic movies in film history: The Godfather; The Sting; Patton; Rocky; Chariots of Fire; Platoon; Rain Man; Schindler’s List; Forrest Gump; American Beauty; Chicago; Titanic. I could go on, but what do all of these have in common?

That’s right, they have all won Best Picture at the Oscars.

My point is, casual movie fans out there have at least heard of these movies. Never mind that, you probably have seen them. These are movies people actually saw, that made an impact in popular culture and also commercially.

Back when these movies were made, many of the Best Picture contenders were hits prior to Oscar night. In other cases, a movie would ride the momentum of a Best Picture win to weeks of commercial business at the cinemas. Chariots of Fire, which came out of nowhere to sweep the Oscars in its year, was a prime example of that.

In more recent times, it has been a different story. It seems the Best Picture winners are movies that only dedicated, film-obsessed fans have heard of. Examples: Spotlight; The Shape of Water; Green Book; Parasite; Nomadland.

In fact, in 2017, Moonlight was the Best Picture and the only reason it is remembered at all is because the Academy mixed up the envelopes with La La Land and announced the wrong winner. People are more likely to remember that Oscar screwup than most recent winners!

How did we get here? What seems to be happening is that there are, increasingly, two different streams of movies being released. One stream consists of movies that are commercial in nature. They are designed to be cash cows, like Marvel or DC superhero movies. Or the Star Wars franchise or the 007 movies or Fast and Furious or whatever. At the very least, they are movies aimed at wide audiences that have making money as a primary aim.

The other stream of movies released doesn't seem aimed at commercial success, at least not immediately, but are instead designed to appeal to award-season voters and film-festival judges. These would get shown in the festivals or in limited releases, with the hope the critical buzz will spur on their “Oscar campaigns.” Then, once they win an Oscar, they start making money. But it's really not about that for these filmmakers. It's about making a quality movie.

What you are seeing increasingly happening, then, are Oscar-voter types of movies cleaning up the nominations and eventually winning, while movies that are aimed at mass audiences are getting the snub.

I will give you a prime example of this. Back in 2010, the Oscar race was between James Cameron’s 3D sci-fi epic Avatar, and The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

In the end, the Oscar went to The Hurt Locker, much to my chagrin. It's a good movie and probably deserved some awards, but I will forever contend that Avatar should have won Best Picture.

Avatar changed the movie business. The 3D process employed in that production was visually stunning and set a new standard for Hollywood. We saw a flood of 3D releases in the years after that.

You can argue the pros and cons of 3D forever. The bottom line was that Avatar was ground breaking, both visually and in terms of its impact on audiences. It set box office records with a worldwide haul of over $2.7 billion. It was, by any objective standard, the movie of its year and of the decade as well.

To heck with that, the Academy said. Their voters decreed that “the Oscar goes to” The Hurt Locker, which made a lousy $17 million domestic and international $32 million.

At least Avatar got nominated!

Not all about money

Now, I am not here arguing that all the Best Picture winners should be limited to the big box office hits. In fact, it’s always a great story when you have a movie that gets made, not because of commercial considerations, but because it’s a story that deserves to be told. It doesn’t matter how obscure a movie is or how limited a distribution it gets — if the movie is a truly great one, it deserves to be nominated, and it will be a great Cinderella story when it wins Best Picture. If that happens, maybe it will encourage people to seek out the movie and enjoy it afterwards, and that is always a good thing.

I have no problem with obscure or under-appreciated movies being selected as nominees for Oscar Best Picture. My problem is when the nominees, ahem, are all of them.

Here’s the full list of movies that are this weekend’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars: Belfast; CODA; Don't Look Up; Drive My Car; Dune; King Richard; Licorice Pizza; Nightmare Alley; The Power of the Dog; West Side Story.

If you knew these were up for Best Picture, good for you, eh? You are truly a film geek.

And that is exactly the problem. You need to be a film geek to know what these movies are about. I’ll bet that a lot of you had never heard of these movies before I mentioned them just now.

In fact, I looked up a story over at The Wrap from back in February, which had the following headline: “No Best Picture Oscar Nominee Grossed Over $1 Million at Weekend Box Office.” The closest was Licorice Pizza by Paul Thomas Anderson at $922,500. Then it was a long drop to Belfast at $285,000. Keep in mind, COVID-19 has been over at the box office for a long time now, so these movies don’t have that excuse anymore. But these overall numbers were, frankly, embarrassing.

What gets me laughing is that the musical remake West Side Story from Steven Spielberg is one of the Best Picture nominees, and it was notorious for being a major flop when it came out in December. Nobody wanted to go to it. Now it’s up for Best Picture!

Underachieving nominees

Who the heck will care about the Oscar telecast when the movies up for the top prize are a group of rank box-office underachievers? Really, this illustrates the main problem facing this entire low-rated Oscar TV show. How are you going to drum up interest in the Oscars when your Best Picture nominees are films the folks at home probably haven't seen and otherwise don’t care about?

And yes, I know some of these releases probably deserve better than what they got at the box office, but there are plenty of movies out there that actually did do better, and they didn’t get anywhere with the Academy. They got totally shafted.

I’ll tell you one group of people who are particularly upset: the Marvel fans. They are convinced that Spider-Man: No Way Home was robbed. They say it should have been one of the 10 movies up for Best Picture.

This movie was the runaway box office champion of 2021, with a domestic haul currently sitting at $797.5 million. Just based on box office alone, it made more of an impact with audiences in 2021, and for that matter 2022, than all 10 Best Picture nominees combined! But, more to the point, the movie was good. Its Rotten Tomatoes score from film critics is Certified Fresh, at 93 per cent.

Yet it is up for only one Academy Award   Best Visual Effects. For nominations in the other categories, they got a big zero.

When the news of this snub came out, folks like Jimmy Kimmel were outraged. He went on TV and called it “unforgivable.”

“Forget the fact that the movie made $750 million and is still going. This was a great movie. It wasn’t in the top 10 best movies of the year? There were three Spider-Men in it!”

So, the Spider-Man fans have no reason now to tune into the Oscars. Nor do fans of Venom, Black Widow, No Time to Die or many other hit movies from 2021. (Fast and Furious fans have no hope of Best Picture anyway.)

Now, granted, you don’t expect a lot of the hit movies on Box Office Mojo to be in the running for any Oscars whatsoever. You wouldn’t believe the amount of crap audiences will make a success out of these days at the cinemas. The quality of a motion picture should never be summed up solely by its box office performance. But there was a time not long ago when Oscar-calibre movies were all over the top of the box office charts. I mean, even one of the Lord of the Rings movies won Best Picture at one point in time.

What concerns me is that the Oscars really ought to celebrate movies that set the standard for having a major impact on movie audiences, and that includes in a tangible, commercial way. People remember seeing The Godfather, people remember Rocky. People remember Forrest Gump. They remember a host of classic movies, because they actually saw them. They didn’t simply take the word of Oscar voters that a movie was good, they saw it for themselves. In short, these movies made a direct impact.

So, what does it say now about the Academy when their Best Picture nominations are a bunch of obscure motion pictures that a lot of people have never heard of? Year after year?

Yet, I don’t want to see “the Oscar go to” these blockbuster superhero movies every year, either. In fact, I’m personally kind of fed up with Spider-Man and Batman and the like. There has to be some sort of happy medium where the Oscar contenders can also be movies that make a significant impact in the popular culture and at the box office. Unfortunately, the only Oscar movies that seem to consistently fit that bill are the animated ones from Pixar and the like.

I’m at a loss for how to remedy this situation.

Is it an age thing?

The excuse I keep reading about is that it’s only young people who go to the movies, and that Oscar-nominated movies are aimed at an older crowd that doesn’t show up at the cinemas anymore. I don’t buy this line of baloney whatsoever.

First of all, it would really help if these Oscar nominees were wide releases right from the get go, instead of this limited-release nonsense. But perhaps it would help if there was more of an effort made by the studios to make movies that can be both commercial and important at the same time.

There are wider issues at play. There is a definite perception out there that the filmmakers in Hollywood are more interested in making pictures aimed at “the elites” rather than for folks in the real world. In turn, I keep on seeing all the whining on the Internet about how fed up people are with being lectured to by rich Hollywood celebrities.

There is a definite disconnect going on between the movie business and audiences, and it seems most apparent with these Oscar nominations and with the Oscar show itself. It will not be easy to fix.

Maybe what is really needed is a total, radical overhaul of the entire film business, with new movie stars, new directors and completely new styles of movies. If that happens, maybe that’s the way we can again get movies that are both successful at the cinemas and also ground breaking, important and award winning; ones that can set the standard of filmmaking for decades to come.

Or maybe we need an overhaul of the Academy voters. That, too.