The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Oscars are now an alternate universe

December 29, 2008 |  1:18 pm

This is, of course, the Oscar season, the one time of year when moviegoers are suddenly deluged with adult-oriented Academy Awards contenders. I guess that's what makes it even more depressing to peruse the holiday weekend box-office results--and hardly see an Oscar contender in the bunch. If there were ever a time when it was more clear than ever that Oscar films and commercial pictures are operating in separate universes--sort of like men from Mars and women from Venus--this would be it.

If you study the weekend's numbers, you'll discover that of the top 10 box-office winners, only two--"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which ranked No. 3 with a three-day total of $27.2 million, and "Doubt," which brought up the rear, landing at No. 10 with a three-day figure of $5.7 million--were legitimate best picture contenders.

OscarThe remainder of the box-office Top 10 consists of mainstream, crowd-pleasing pictures, some of them quite skillfully made, but none that has any chance at a best picture nod. In fact, one picture, "Valkyrie," though it earned respectable reviews, was deliberately kept out of award-season contention, with MGM/UA refusing to screen the picture for critics groups or run an Oscar campaign, fearing (quite legitimately) that if the film was snubbed by critics and awards groups, it would tarnish its commercial potential.

Isn't this a strange, not to mention altogether unhealthy, state of affairs, where at year's end, Hollywood essentially divides up its fourth-quarter releases into two totally different quadrants--the world of popcorn movies the public wants to see and the world of dark, brooding Oscar movies handled so gingerly that they can't actually be shown in wide release until moviegoers has been properly hypnotized by thousands of 'For your consideration' ads and softened up by a flurry of early January Oscar nominations and Golden Globe awards? 

I'm not blaming the motion picture academy, which simply wants to reward quality. And I'm certainly not blaming moviegoers, who, in their own way, are eager for good pictures to see. But by insisting on releasing all the potential Oscar candidates in the last 10 weeks of the year--and then largely only in limited release--studios have walled off all the potential best picture candidates in an awards-season VIP lounge, a self-defeating exercise, since once the academy announces its five best picture finalists in January, all the other films are, by definition, damaged goods, roundly ignored by the media for the rest of the season. If a movie has genuine audience appeal, why not allow it a chance to shine in a less competitive time of year?

To be blunt about it, the Oscars ignore too many good movies. It's painfully obvious that somewhere in the evolution of the Oscars (and this is a topic we'll return to in another post) academy members started rewarding movies not for their skill and craftsmanship but for their aesthetic and social importance. This has transformed the Oscars from a mainstream movie institution to an elite art society, leading to its increased marginalization, both as a barometer of public taste and as a big-time media event. If we want studios to make movies that embrace both popular taste and deft artistry, we need to find a way to give out awards that reflect both kinds of aspirations. If we put the Oscar movies in an Oscar ghetto of limited release in small pockets of urban America, we'll end up insuring that they never reach a broader audience, an audience just as hungry as Oscar voters for good pictures to see. 

Photo of an Oscar statuette by Bob Fila / Chicago Tribune

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