- - Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Oscars are supposed to be Hollywood’s biggest night. So why does this year’s list of best picture nominees feel so small?

It’s not just that most of them lack scope. It’s that, for the most part, they’re films that few have ventured out to see. Despite recent efforts to avoid charges of elitism and expand the nominee field in a more populist direction, the average box office gross of this year’s best picture nominees is the lowest in years.

In 2009 and 2010, the average domestic box office take of the best picture nominees was well in excess of $100 million by the time they were nominated. This year the average was just $57 million, according to the website Box Office Mojo. Indeed, of the nine films nominated for the top slot in this year’s Academy Awards, only one counts as a genuine box office hit: “The Help,” a civil rights drama about a white woman’s effort to understand her black maids, which grossed a respectable $169 million since its release in August.

Meanwhile, none of the others has passed the $100 million line generally thought of as the mark of popular success. Only one of the remaining eight films — Steven Spielberg’s throwback World War I drama “War Horse,” which has grossed about $72 million so far — even has a plausible chance of reaching that milestone. (And even that’s unlikely without a large Oscar-season bump: The picture took in just $3 million at the box office last weekend.)

The rest of the lineup has grossed even less. Martin Scorsese’s magical realist fable “Hugo,” which leads the nominations with 11 nods, has grossed just $55 million. “The Artist,” a French-made silent film about Hollywood’s silent age, came in close behind with 10 nominations, but has only grossed $12.4 million in limited release so far. It’s not even the lowest-grossing film on the ballot: The treacly 9/11 drama “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” has pulled in just $10.7 million so far.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Academy knows that in order for the Oscars to be a popular event, they have to reflect — or at least connect with — popular taste. Indeed, in recent years, after falling viewership for the Oscar telecast, the Academy rewrote the nominating rules in order to help ensure that popular favorites make the cut. After box office superhero smash “The Dark Knight” failed to make the cut in 2008, the Academy in 2009 expanded the best picture field from five films to 10 — guaranteeing inclusion of that year’s biggest multiplex hit, “Avatar.” This time around, however, the process was overhauled again. Now best picture nominees are required to collect at least 5 percent of the first-place nominations by Academy voters (who submit a ranked listing of films), making a variable length list of anywhere from five to 10 films. One effect of the change is to make it far easier for titles with narrow but very enthusiastic support — polarizing films like “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “The Tree of Life” — to sneak on to the list through the back door.

It would be easy to write this year’s little-seen crop of nominees off entirely to elitist taste — an appeal to a few snobby critics whose opinions don’t jibe with those of regular moviegoers. But it’s not really critical snootiness that’s keeping the Oscars down. It’s that Hollywood can’t get over itself.

In fact, throughout 2011, critics reviewed a number of crowd-pleasers quite well. Judging by scores on display at the website Metacritic, which tracks and aggregates critical ratings, crowd pleasers like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” “Bridesmaids” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” were some of the better-reviewed releases of the year. And while it’s true that many of the nominees count as critical favorites, some are far from it: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” was widely panned, and “The Help” received as many middling-to-poor reviews as it did positive marks.

When it comes to the Oscars, the important gulf isn’t between critics and audiences. It’s between Hollywood and everyone else. The Oscars are billed as an invitation for Americans to join together — even if only in their living rooms — and collectively celebrate the magic of the movies. Instead, the four-hour ceremony ends up being an invitation to watch Hollywood’s A-list celebrate itself at expensive length, something this year’s picks make especially clear.

This year’s list of best picture nominees offers a parade of nostalgic self-congratulation: “Hugo” — an homage to French filmmaker and special-effects pioneer Georges Melies — and “The Artist” both traffic explicitly in cinematic wistfulness. Mr. Spielberg’s “War Horse” is in many ways a tribute to classic war movies. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” casts a screenwriter as its laudably independent-minded and aesthetically yearning protagonist. And the inclusion of the critically panned crowd-displeaser “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” makes little sense except as a way for Hollywood to pat itself on the back for tackling an “important subject.”

Several of the best picture nominees are genuinely worthy contenders, but the overall makeup of the list serves mostly as a monument to Hollywood’s limitless capacity for self-absorption and self-congratulation — as well as its continued insulation from the moviegoing public it relies on.

Maybe the reason the Oscar nominations feel so small is that they’re a product of a narrow, inward vision content to look only at itself.

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