The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Are the Oscars ready to swap their stuffed shirt for a shapely thong?

The best thing that you can say about today's Oscar best picture nominations is that, thanks to "Avatar," millions of casual American moviegoers--the kind of folks who load up on popcorn and candy, bring a carload of kids and wouldn't dream of staying to watch the end credits--can actually say that they've seen an Oscar-nominated movie. That's a big step forward from last year's awards, which had three best picture nominees that, even if you added all their U.S. grosses together, didn't make as much money as "Avatar" did in its first week of release. The presence of "Avatar" will do wonders for the academy's March 7 Oscar telecast, at least in terms of ratings, since judging from the numbers the Oscars received the year "Titanic" won best picture, having a Jim Cameron film around on Oscar night almost assuredly delivers tons of TV eyeballs.

The academy made a bold move this year, expanding its best picture nominees from five to 10 pictures, which has clearly accomplished its obvious intent--making room for more commercial pictures. It's pretty clear that if we only had five nominations this year we wouldn't have "The Blind Side" or "District 9," two films that each made more than $100 million at the box office, in the best picture mix. (We probably wouldn't have had "Up"--another blockbuster--in the best picture race either, but it would have still been a high-profile presence on the show, since it's the prohibitive favorite to win best animated feature.)

But it's a little too early for the academy to declare victory. Since Cameron only makes a film every dozen or so years, "Avatar" is a once in a blue moon phenomenon. It won't be around next year or any of the years afterward to goose TV ratings. And if you take "Avatar" out of the mix, the best picture nominees are still heavily weighted toward the kind of serious, high-minded movies the academy, along with the nation's film critic establishment, likes to reward for their artistic ambitions. 

It is a wonder to see "The Blind Side" get a best picture nomination, since it is exactly the kind of well-crafted, heartfelt film that is usually ignored at Oscar time. Ditto for "District 9," which had an intensity and restless energy that is rarely seen in the Oscar precincts. But the academy still couldn't entirely shed its elitist sentiments. Every year, Hollywood makes a home-run comedy--this year it was "The Hangover"--and every year the academy ignores it, foolishly persuaded that comedy is somehow easier to do than drama. The academy also has a tin ear for more adult-oriented comic entertainment (represented this year by "Julie & Julia" or "It's Complicated") that were once regularly nominated by academy voters in the era of Billy Wilder and George Cukor. And the academy wouldn't dream of nominating well-made films that actually lured millions of young moviegoers to the theaters, whether it was "The Hangover," "Twilight" or "Star Trek."

What fascinated me the most about Tuesday's best picture nominations is how different they were from most of the top nominations given out by the Grammys, which had their big show Sunday night, earning an astounding 35% boost in ratings, putting the broadcast into "American Idol" territory. Both organizations are made up of respected industry professionals, presumably eager to reward the best work in their respective fields. Yet the motion picture academy almost always opts for seriousness over comedy, artistic heft over youthful innovation. It's not a coincidence that in most years, the majority of best picture nominees are set in the past, not in the present.

On the other hand, the Recording Academy, officially known as NARAS, has increasingly given itself over to mainstream commercial taste. As my colleague Todd Martens pointed out the other day, the five Grammy nominees for album of the year, the industry's top award, sold more than 13 million albums. Taylor Swift's "Fearless," the eventual winner, was the year's top-selling album, moving 4.6 million copies.

The most striking thing about those awards was the gap between pure talent and Grammy glory. Even though Swift was the big winner Sunday night, she has largely been derided by critics and is viewed as a youthful enthusiasm, not a serious artist. (If you watched the show, you may have noticed that while she has lovely hair, she can barely sing.) Yet the much-vaunted Recording Academy showered her with honors. It would be the equivalent of the Oscars giving Michael Bay the best director statuette for "Transformers" or presenting the best actor award to Kevin James for "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." The Grammys also nominated the wonderfully outrageous Lady Gaga for a slew of awards, which would sort of be like the Oscars giving multiple nominations to Kristin Stewart for her work in "Twilight."

How is it possible that the two most prestigious academies can have such radically different attitudes toward awards? My theory is that the Recording Academy, whose industry has already been devastated by a disastrous, decade-long economic tailspin, has been forced to shed any lofty ambitions and reach out for its core fan base. In a sense, the music business has finally embraced the future. If you watched the Grammys on Sunday night, you saw a show making a naked grab for TV ratings, even borrowing from "American Idol" by having viewers vote on a song that would be performed by Bon Jovi toward the end of the broadcast. It worked beyond the recording academy's wildest dreams--and of course puts the pressure on the Oscars to deliver a similar kind of ratings bounce.

It hardly matters whether the Grammys' producers decided to go for the gold or had a CBS shotgun at their heads. It was an awards show in survival mode. The broadcast was transformed into a completely populist variety show, full of eye-popping carnival acts, from Lady Gaga's surreal show-opening musical number with Elton John to Pink's amazing Cirque du Soleil-style high-wire number. The show barely gave a nod to the best-reviewed artists of the year--not a minute was wasted showing off the Animal Collective or Neko Case or the Dirty Projectors. The broadcast embraced the industry's top-selling acts, showcasing Beyonce, Swift, GaGa, the Black Eyed Peas and the Dave Matthews Band.

It was instructive to notice what didn't get airtime. The Oscars, maddeningly, still insist on giving out every minor award on air, encouraging millions to tune out while the winners of best sound editing or best documentary short are onstage. The Grammys only gave out nine awards in a 3 1/2-hour broadcast--everything else was pure entertainment. The industry's legends got short shrift too. Michael Jackson had a lengthy tribute, but one enlivened by performances by commercially viable stars. When it came to honorary tributes, if you blinked, you missed 'em. Leonard Cohen got all of 14 seconds of face time for winning one of the night's lifetime achievement awards.

So what can the motion picture academy learn from this? I'm not saying the Oscars have to stoop to conquer, although it would be pretty funny to have viewers vote--Bon Jovi-style--on having Robert De Niro and Robert Downey Jr. come out and perform the viewers' favorite scene from a big 2009 hit, like "Taken" or "The Hangover." (OK, OK, just kidding). But the Grammy telecast was a glimpse of the future, not just for the Oscars, but for all awards shows.

The era where you could simply deliver a TV audience by having a decorous evening honoring an industry's highest artistic achievements is going, going, gone. If the motion picture academy wants the Oscars to retain their stature as show business' top award show, it's going to have to give props to a wider range of movies than it ever has before. Today's nominations were a small step in the right direction, but the Oscars still have a lot of remodeling and reinvention to do before they can say that they've made the leap into the new world. 


Comments () | Archives (6)

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The Grammys are no longer an awards show. I don't think it ever has been an awards show. It's mostly a place for fans to see their favorite musical acts live (in most parts of the country) and for free.

If the Oscars did away with the "minor" categories and replaced them with, as you suggested, actors from the nominated films coming out and acting out favorite scenes, we would be watching the Tonys. And you know how low-rated the Tonys are. Plus, how would a re-enacted scene from "Avatar," "District 9" or "The Hurt Locker" look on television? Not as good as just showing the actual film clip, with sound, editing and music.

The Oscars should not look to the Grammys for help in boosting ratings. Yes, having some more popular films will draw new eyes to the show. But this is not the People's Choice Awards (and really, why would they emulate that low-rated show?) so it's not about pleasing the people. It's always been about honoring peers. There should be more of an entertainment aspect to it, but then the critics will blast the producers for so many stupid dance numbers and lavish numbers (like they did last year).

It's a lose-lose situation. Even in the year of "Titanic," critics had problems with the show.

I will always watch the Oscars, no matter which films are nominated, because I am a fan of movies and love to see people win the highest honor in the business. If movie fans want to make a statement that they want more popular films nominated at the Oscars, then they should all watch the People's Choice Awards.

And would fans really be happy if "Transformers" were nominated for best picture, simply because it made so much money?

That is all I have to say about this. As you can tell, I have a lot to say when it comes to people suggesting changes to the Oscar telecast. All awards should stay on the show and they should perform all the nominated songs. If something needs to go, get rid of the stupid banter and the film montages. Never, ever get rid of the clips for the nominated actors (unless you decide to go with last year's plan of having five previous winners).

And one more thing: The sound on the "In Memoriam" segment should not include applause when broadcast to television. It's insulting to most of the people featured because some get applause and others don't. I sit there feeling bad for some editor because no one applauds for him. Maybe they should ask the audience for silence during the segment as a way to equally honor all those we lost.

Everything you said in this is so true. Sad but true. It was sad to me because I feel like these shows now feel that they have to in a sense commercailize and "dumb" down their broadcasts for an audience that only wants flair and no substance.

It is ridiculous that, in order to garner ratings, organizations who honor the BEST work of the year, have resorted to nominate mediocre/ high grossing work, have deleted the presentation of certain awards from their broadcasts, and rely heavily on performances and presenters who appeal only to 13 to 30 year old viewers. (If popular generally equaled quality, I would have been valedictorian. )
Why does Miley Cyrus have to present an Academy Award? Answer: So that 15 year olds will tune in and watch the Oscars for 40 seconds to see who wins live action short. (Well I hope you get my point).
Average (and below average) movie goers generally don't see films unless their stars or on the cover of People or Details, and playing on 3,200 screens. So why on earth would these moviegoers want to watch a three and a half hour awards show just to see whether Christoph Waltz or Christopher Plummer or Vera Farmiga or Jeremy Renner or Lee Daniels wins. Or whether The Blind Side or Avatar will win best picture or best sound for that matter? (I suppose if Megan Fox were to present best sound they'll watch for a little while, since sound will air earlier than picture.)
How long does someone have to watch the show to get ratings?
Aren't The People's Choice Awards enough for this. Vampire's win everything!! Jeez.

I believe Hollywood could not ignore Avatar technical advances, however on the whole I see a sober approach to it's great artists with stories that have substance.
Robert Downey Jr. didn't get nominated as Daniel Day Lewis because there was
no category for them added...or should I say falling down the category cracks

I respectfully disagree. I started tuning out the Grammys when I figured out they reward people who move the most units, not the artists who produce the best work. Their ratings have to do with pure spectacle, and not with the satisfaction of seeing your fave artist get an award.

And, it's still true to this day: movie stars > musicians/pop sellers. Otherwise, Beyonce and Justin Timberlake wouldn't be so eager to foist their awkward, limited acting abilities on the public. The Grammys probably were boosted in ratings due to some American Idol effect. With a national television vehicle promoting pop, more Americans are involved with current pop stars.

If the Oscars were to start pandering to Middle America tastes, it will be through the gossip sagas. For example, last year featured the Brangelina and Jennifer Aniston triangle. I'm pretty sure that was a happy accident for the Academy: Aniston had a movie to promote, and Brangelina both were nominated, non? That configuration of circumstance can't happen every year, until some savage and savvy PR pro figures out how to manufacture it.

I actually like to watch the boring awards. Costume and art direction completely affects my enjoyment and comprehension of a film. I would hate it if they were eliminated. It's a flawed ceremony, but it's still the best one on TV for people who appreciate film. Going Leno will not do the Academy, or anyone else, any good.

I agree that the Academy's voting methods were often flawed, but I would HATE it if the Oscars turned into the Grammys. Say what you will about the Academy's choices, but at least whomever wins is almost always a decent selection --- maybe not the best possible choice of the nominees, but at least someone who did give a very good performance or wrote a very good script or designed some very good costumes, etc. It's rare that a total piece of garbage somehow sneaks through the nomination and balloting process and actually wins a major prize. Compare this to the Grammys, which decides to give its top prizes to people like Swift who will be historical footnotes in, what, five or ten years?

The only awards I'd cut from the Oscar ceremony are the short subjects, since those are the only ones that have no connection to the rest of the evening. Keep the major tech awards and keep the best documentary and best foreign film categories since a doc or foreign film can and have been nominated in other categories too.


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