The Oscar big picture: Did expanding the nominees make a difference?
Even in a year when the academy top brass doubled the number of best picture nominees, desperate to broaden the Oscars' sagging popular appeal, the best picture award went to "The Hurt Locker," the gritty Iraq war thriller that now has the dubious distinction of being the lowest-grossing picture in modern times to win the award.
Going with "The Hurt Locker," whose director, Kathryn Bigelow, became the first woman to take the best director prize, will surely leave the academy open to another round of charges that its tastes are hopelessly elitist and out of touch with rank-and-file moviegoers, since it passed up the opportunity to give its top prize to "Avatar," a film that has made more than $2.5 billion worldwide. But if the show's ratings go up, which I expect they will, it could be hard to make the criticism stick. What people love about the Oscars is the horse race, not necessarily which horse wins.
And what a fascinating horse race it was. With "Hurt Locker" and "Avatar" as the clear-cut favorites, we had a wonderfully stark ying and yang contest. It was the movie nobody wanted to make up against the movie everyone wished they had; the movie that struggled to find an audience against the film that seems to break a box-office record every day; the movie that represents Hollywood's technological future versus the film that best exemplifies the industry's traditional values of filmmaking craft and storytelling prowess.
So why was "Hurt Locker" the winner? The pundits will surely have a field day with that question. All sorts of possible explanations come to mind. The academy remains a deeply tradition-bound institution, apparently too tradition-bound to reward the biggest game-changing film in recent history, a film that has already jump-started a huge 3D visual effects revolution. It's worth remembering that the most influential films from the past, be it "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate," which sparked a new rebellious spirit of filmmaking, or "Jaws" and "Star Wars," which established the modern blockbuster era, were all Oscar-night best picture losers too.
It's also possible that the academy's actors branch, its biggest wing of voters, is still queasy about rewarding a special-effects driven film that, despite Cameron's protestations to the contrary, did little to honor the actors' craft. It may simply be that this year's voters preferred an underdog to an overdog, especially one that had already earned enough financial accolades to last it a lifetime. My suspicion is that academy members still find it difficult to believe that films largely created and sculpted in the computer--whether it's "Avatar" or the long string of brilliant Pixar films -- can be just as worthy and artistic as the old-fashioned live-action ones.
Of course, the most intriguing question about this year's Oscars didn't involve who won best picture. This was the year the academy broke with precedent and, in a hotly debated move, expanded its best picture field from five to 10 nominees. The idea was to broaden the field by making room for more commercial studio pictures, which in turn would attract a bigger and hopefully younger audience to the telecast. (The average age of last year's Oscar viewers was 49, which, compared to "American Idol," made the telecast something of a geezer fest. It's hard to imagine that the "Sunshine Boys"-style gags provided by hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin will do anything to change that.)
Even though I'd like to see the experiment continue for a couple of more years, it would be hard to call the initial expansion of the nominees a success. If the ratings go up significantly, most of the credit will go to the presence of "Avatar," which like "Titanic" a dozen years ago, should provide a big up-tick simply because it was a picture virtually everyone in the world had seen and presumably had a rooting interest in, whether for or against.
But the expansion hardly made the best picture category more of a horse race. In fact, from the moment the nominations were announced in early February, the die was already cast. There were four possible contenders -- "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Up in the Air" -- which were quickly whittled to two favorites. If there had been only five nominees, "Precious" would've probably taken the fifth slot. All the other nominees were also-rans from the minute their nominations were announced.
Even worse, it's hard to make the case that the additional nominations really did anything to help drive the also-rans' box office. "The Blind Side," "Up" and "District 9" had already made tons of money in their traditional theatrical runs. They had no incentive to run an expensive Oscar campaign for a statuette beyond their reach ("Up" was already focused on winning its animated feature award). The art-house pictures, "An Education" and "A Serious Man," hardly benefited either. "A Serious Man" was already out of release by the time the nominations were announced. "An Education" had made $8.8 million by nomination day. Now, nearly five weeks later, it's barely made an extra $2.8 million, hardly worth it when you consider the money its distributor spent to support its Oscar bid.
It's hard to imagine that things will work any differently next year. There's really room for only three or four serious best picture contenders in any given year. If you study the media coverage of this year's Oscar race, an overwhelming percentage of the stories were about the top five pictures -- they take all the air out of the room. No one talked about "The Blind Side" or "An Education" except to lavish praise on the film's actresses, who would've scored their nominations in any year. "District 9" was totally ignored, while "A Serious Man" was a hot topic only among the Jewish chattering classes. It felt like every time I turned around I was getting invited to another temple discussion group titled something along the lines of " 'A Serious Man's' Larry Gopnick and The Lost Jewish Spirituality."
But outside of the Jewish intellectual community, the movie didn't make much of a dent, barely making $9 million in its theatrical run. So basically the second five nominees were simply along for the ride, except that when you add up the expense of all the parties, filmmaker screenings and Oscar ads, it wasn't an especially cost-efficient way to promote a picture.
So why do the Oscars still matter? Despite the relentless superficiality of the media's coverage, the awards have developed an enormous cultural gravitational pull. Nearly any movie that emerges as a serious best picture contender finds itself serving as a Rohrschach test for all sorts of social and political issues.
Just look at "Avatar." Its Oscar candidacy, propelled by its phenomenal commercial success, transformed it into a hot-button political tract, with liberals embracing its environmental message and conservatives lambasting it for what they saw as anti-military and often anti-American themes. In recent weeks, "The Hurt Locker" also emerged as a symbol of debate, not just for the authenticity of its depiction of bomb disposal experts in Iraq but for whether its soldiers were portrayed as insufficiently heroic. Even "Up in the Air," although it didn't end up receiving the kind of attention the top dogs earned, had the distinction of being one of those rare Hollywood films that reflected a sliver of reality -- a bittersweet moment when millions of Americans, even those of us in the media, were overwhelmed with worries about the precariousness of our jobs.
Films that win Oscars don't change history. But they do often echo the shifts in our culture, telling us if we were in a mood to engage or to escape, reminding us of what kind of stories cast the strongest spell on our imagination. It's almost as if the Oscars offer a shadow history of our popular entertainment, some years rewarding films with a somber message, other years rewarding movies that simply provide an inspired escape into another world.
This was the year of "The Hurt Locker," which served as a striking reminder that for all the academy's efforts this year to embrace more popular tastes, it still sees the Oscars as a reward for quality and craft, not for the film with the deepest pockets.
Above: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal and Greg Shapiro accept the best-picture Oscar for "The Hurt Locker." Cast members Jeremy Renner, Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie stand behind them. Credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images