February 23, 2015

OSCARLAND: Do the Oscars Need To Be Popular?


Here’s a factoid:  during the 1970s, that halcyon decade when the rebel filmmaker inmates finally, if briefly. took over the Hollywood studio asylum, viewed by movie history ever since with wistful nostalgia, every single winner of the Best Picture Oscar was one of the Top 10 box-office grossers of its year.  This includes big-budget productions like The Godfather (#1 in 1972) and The Sting (#1 in 1973), but also what we would now consider pure indies, little pictures like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (#3 in 1975) and even Annie Hall (#10 in 1977).

OK, you say.  The 70s were the 70s, you could barely walk into a moviehouse without tripping over a masterpiece.  What about the 1980s, when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had turned Hollywood into an assembly line of entertainment products?  Every Best Picture winner but one that decade was in its year’s Top 12–that even includes Chariots of Fire, remembered now as a mere curiosity, but actually the #7 movie of 1981, and Amadeus, #12 in 1984.  The only exception was The Last Emperor, all the way down to 25th place in 1987.

The 1990s?  Things got a little shakier there, thanks to the 1995-96 tandem of Braveheart (#18) and The English Patient (#19), but still:  every winner was among the year’s Top 20.  It wasn’t until 2004 that a 2d Best Picture winner of the past 45 years dipped as low as #24, and that was Million Dollar Baby, which still made over $100M.

After that, the bottom fell out, with a few exceptions.  Crash was the #49 movie of 2005, No Country For Old Men #36 of 2007, The Hurt Locker #116 of 2009.  In the past 5 years, the Oscar winners have been The King’s Speech (#18), The Artist (#71), Argo (#22), 12 Years A Slave (#62), and now Birdman (currently #82, and even with its Oscar bump, unlikely to get anywhere near the Top 50).  It’s fair enough to say that some of this is due to the top level of each year’s box office chart being loaded with franchise movies–but whether it’s the public’s taste scurrying away from serious filmmaking or the Academy becoming elitist, it’s fair to say that two groups whose taste used to be relatively close are now separated by a gulf.

The results could be seen in last night’s Oscar ratings, the lowest in 8 years.  Aside from 2006’s The Departed, every Best Picture winner of the last decade has worked its way to the podium by way of international film festivals, and Departed has also been the only traditional “Hollywood” production during that time.  This year, with the quasi-exception of American Sniper (which no one expected to be a fraction of the blockbuster it became, and which was directed by living legend and Oscar favorite Clint Eastwood), even the list of 8 nominees didn’t include any populist hits.  The Academy is certainly aware of this issue; it’s the reason an expanded list of Best Picture nominees was adopted in 2009, its total of 10 tweaked 2 years later to instead feature a number between 5 and 10.  (The result has only been even more arthouse nominees.)

If you’re not ABC (which sells ads during the Oscar telecast for $2M per 30-second spot) or the Academy (which is paid tens of millions each year for the rights to its telecast), is there anything wrong with this?  Whether you rooted for The King’s Speech or The Social Network, or this year for Birdman or Boyhood, one can’t really argue with the quality of the contenders, and awards to works for specialized tastes are common enough.  After all, Mad Men won the Emmy 4 years in a row without ever being a particularly big hit.

What’s missing, and seemingly will be difficult to recapture, is the old sense of consensus around the Academy Awards.  For decades, there were critics awards, and then there were the Oscars, and the latter could usually be counted upon to choose works that were deserving but also had wide appeal.  Audiences had at least seen the movies being discussed.  That’s no longer the case, and instead the Oscars are becoming another polarized, specialized piece of pop culture, hoping that guest stars like last night’s Lady Gaga will bring in the crowds.  (She didn’t.)  The Academy may have to get used to being merely academic.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."