Saturday, March 04, 2006

Box Office, Schmox Office: Or, How the Public Deserted the Oscars (not the other way around)

"This year's best picture nominees are the least popular on record," says Brandon Gray, publisher of online movie tracking site

"I think they have a lot different view than the public as to what is a good movie," Bender says. And box office numbers prove that.

That was from the Deeeeeeeeeeeetroit News. Read more here.

Tom Long, a film writer, is usually pretty smart, but he's falling for a line here that most of the media has fallen for. Some media people did last year, but most of them have this year. Really, the whole thing seems to me to be a way to say, "Middle America doesn't want to see Brokeback Mountain!" even though that movie is by far the most successful of the five nominees (and scroll down at this site to see how well it has done in some Middle American cities). Now, obviously, with a box office total that doesn't come close to this year's number one champ, Star Wars: Episode III, Brokeback Mountain has not been embraced to the degree that some would have you believe (it's going to need some luck to make it to $100 million, though it should make it over $90 million). But it IS out there. If you live in Mitchell, S.D., you could have seen it if you really wanted to (and I suspect it will do even better on video -- the social stigma is removed in the privacy of your own home).

But, yes, this is a bad year for the box office of the five Best Picture nominees. The worst since 1984, in fact. Last year was another year that wasn't too hot for Best Picture box office (The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby were finally able to just barely crack $100 million, but MDB needed a boost from its Best Picture win). If you look PERCENTAGE-wise at how much the nominees have made after their nominations, the so-called "Oscar bump" (the idea that Best Picture nominees see success at the box office after they are nominated) sits at 19%, which is in keeping with previous years (I've relied on a poster at, one of the best sites for this sort of stat when I don't want to do any math). In addition, the Oscar bump average has been hurt by Crash, which had little-to-no bump since it's already out on DVD and video.

THAT SAID, why haven't the films nominated done as well at the box office as in prior years?

The quick answer for many is to point to the films' purported liberal politics. But that, to me, just doesn't cut it. Brokeback, of course, deals with homosexuality, which is a deal-breaker for many. But the other four are all pretty standard Hollywood dramas. Let's look, shall we?

Capote -- A film biography of a famous writer. While he is gay, the film doesn't dwell on that fact at all, preferring instead to look at the seedier, less ethical sides of journalism (if this movie had been about Dan Rather, Ann Coulter would have salivated over it).

Crash* -- Lots of people run in to each other. Racism ensues. Despite this, the film doesn't propose any sort of sweeping social changes to eliminate racism. It simply says that. . .racism is bad, but we all have prejudices. Last I checked, this was a pretty safe message for a message movie.

Good Night, and Good Luck -- Many read this as an allegory for the media in George W. Bush's America, but it also plays as straight historical docudrama. If you don't want to see parallels, you don't have to. The only OVERT message preached is that television dumbs things down. Again, I thought we were all agreed on that one?

Munich -- This film's politics are really complex, but I hardly think it says that we should let terrorists go free (as some have claimed). And if you want to turn off the politics, it can be enjoyed as a straight thriller with some excellent "hit" sequences.

So we've got a bio-pic, a message movie, a docudrama and a thriller. Not exactly the products of the fringe Left to my mind. Even Brokeback, while, yes, dealing with homosexuality, shows no forthright gay sex. There's some kissing, to be sure, but if you really, really wanted to, you could read it as a commentary on how homosexuality destroys lives. You would be wrong. But you could. If you wanted to.

Of course, the box office as a whole was down in 2005. This was also blamed on Middle America's growing disenchantment with Hollywood, due to those bastards in show business blatantly inserting left wing propaganda into everything and not making more movies like, I don't know, The Passion of the Christ.

Here's a dirty little secret, though. Hollywood WANTS Middle America's money. But it also knows the surest way to Middle America's money is through Middle America's teenagers. And Middle America's families that travel in mini-vans.

If you look at the top 20 films of 2005, you mostly see action movies, comic book movies, family movies and the occasional comedy (one of which argues, really, that sex should wait until marriage). Hollywood's not going to shy away from church audiences (see Narnia) if it thinks it can take their money. But it's not going to shy away from gay audiences (see Brokeback) if it thinks it can take THEIR money.

But mostly, it wants your teenagers' money. Because it knows that teenagers are easily entertained and quick to part with their cash.

Hence the long string of poorly made spectacles that continue to clean up at the box office.

Which brings me back to the Oscars.

The Oscars, for as long as they've been around, have honored a certain TYPE of film. It's a film pitched right at the middle of the plate. Sometimes, these films are truly, truly great films (Casablanca, The Godfather). Sometimes, they're truly, truly awful films (The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days). But they tend to be BIG films focusing on GREAT THEMES that look to the untrained eye like ART. The Oscars were born out of an inferiority complex, and even though film has become the dominant art form in our world, that inferiority complex continues to hold sway.

Here's the thing though. . .the kinds of films Oscar loves to reward are the kinds of films that are primarily attended by adults. And that audience has been drying up as Hollywood has targeted, more and more, teenagers.

I hear you bringing up Titanic and Lord of the Rings. We'll get to those. Hold on a second.

You can feel the wheels turning SLIGHTLY, though. The Oscars are nominating more and more blockbusters, but only blockbusters that are in their wheelhouse. The nominations for Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were anomalies, as those sorts of pure entertainments haven't been nominated very often since (most likely, the nominations were to regard just how much money those films made, opening up the door for the blockbuster). But those were SUPERIOR entertainments. Are you REALLY going to tell me that, say, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire matches up to one of those three? Of course it doesn't. Those films were REVOLUTIONARY. Now, the blockbuster is the bread and butter of Hollywood.

But the bread and butter of Oscar continues to be the prestige picture. The dramas that used to be the studios bread and butter, offering opportunities to shine for their stars before their stars went back to genre pictures. Now, the genre pictures define what happens. The cart is in front of the horse (to coin a phrase).

Don't get me wrong. There's a LOT of interesting stuff going on in genre movies and family films. I would have LOVED it if Batman Begins or King Kong had cracked the top five this year. The same last year for Spider-Man 2 or The Incredibles. These are films working in a genre mold that have something to say and say it well.

But the Oscars don't get that. The Academy is a BUNCH OF OLD PEOPLE. And old people do not change with the times very gracefully. It's a slow, slow process. Where I might see King Kong and see a beautiful story of unrealized love, they're going to see a movie about a big monkey.

And that's fine. No one's going to complain as long as the Academy nominates SOMEthing people have seen. And that's the problem this year. The target audiences for the films nominated are, increasingly, waiting to see these films on video. Brokeback managed to get people out because it felt like an event, but no one's saying, "Oh man! We've GOTTA see Capote!"

In addition, the studio pictures (Munich, of course, is a studio picture, but its moral ambiguities make it feel like an "indie") that might have competed for the Oscars all fell short this year. Walk the Line was the only one that really hung around (and its box office performance still falls short of the populist choices listed by Mr. Gray above), and it was done in by being so similar to last year's Ray and by having reviews that were good, but not good enough. The other studio offerings just collapsed. Remember Memoirs of a Geisha? Jarhead? Cinderella Man? They were done in by bad reviews or bad box office or both.

Most years, however, there are one or two big, middlebrow movies that Hollywood can nominate to show that it's not out of touch. Some years, those films are musicals (Chicago). Some years, they're bio-pics (A Beautiful Mind). Some years, they're the biggest films in history (Titanic). And some years, they're happy accidents (Lord of the Rings, which benefited from feeling more like a war film than a fantasy film AND from a post-9/11 climate).

It's easy to think that the last two years make up some new sort of "Oscar rule" where films with small box office will keep getting nominated to tick off Middle America (which likes to get ticked off). But when we look at the last 15 years of top earners in the Best Picture list, we see that this is clearly an anomaly.

To whit (figures are rounded to the nearest million; an asterisk denotes the film won Best Picture):

2005: Brokeback Mountain ($77 million and still earning)
2004: The Aviator ($103 million -- a number Brokeback could reach)
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King* ($377 million)
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers ($340 million)
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring ($313 million)
2000: Gladiator* ($188 million)
1999: The Sixth Sense ($294 million)
1998: Saving Private Ryan ($217 million)
1997: Titanic* ($601 million)
1996: Jerry Maguire ($154 million)
1995: Apollo 13 ($172 million)
1994: Forrest Gump* ($330 million)
1993: The Fugitive ($184 million)
1992: A Few Good Men ($141 million)
1991: Beauty and the Beast ($146 million)

This isn't part of some downward, spiraling trend. In some years, there were MULTIPLE movies that were big hits that made the final five (for more data, go here).

The problem is that in the last two years, the kinds of films Oscar likes to reward have not been what the public has been going to see. It's not as though Oscar is AVOIDING popular films. As you can see from above, Oscar LOVES popular films. But those popular films need to be in Oscar's comfort zone. It's going to take a while until a comic-book film is nominated or another animated film (the separate animated feature category made sure of that in 2001). That doesn't mean that Oscar hates Middle America. It just means that a bunch of old people couldn't find a middlebrow musical, drama, war film, epic or bio-pic to connect with that the public would also connect with.

These two years are the EXCEPTION, not the rule. Next year, Clint Eastwood is going to be doing a film about Iwo Jima. In a few years, Spielberg will be doing a Lincoln bio-pic. Ask yourself: If these films are any good, will Oscar avoid them? Will the public? Of course not.

So stop bringing your subtly coded homophobia 'round these parts. It's not Hollywood's fault Geisha sucked.

Okay, that IS Hollywood's fault.

* -- I couldn't mention Crash without posting a link to this excellent, very critical essay.

1 comment:

Aurens said...

I don't know why I'm here. I just followed Pojo's link.

But good read! :D