Written by Ross Douthat
Everyone has a theory about the decline of the Academy Awards, the sinking ratings that have led to endless Oscar reinventions. The show is too long; no, the show is too desperate to pander to short attention spans. The movies are too woke; no, the academy voters aren’t diverse enough. Hollywood makes too many superhero movies; no, the academy doesn’t nominate enough superhero movies. (A querulous voice from the back row: Why can’t they just bring back Billy Crystal?)
My favored theory is that the Oscars are declining because the movies they were made to showcase have been slowly disappearing. The ideal Oscar nominee is a high-middlebrow movie, aspiring to real artistry and sometimes achieving it, that’s made to be watched on the big screen, with famous stars, vivid cinematography and a memorable score. It’s neither a difficult film for the art-house crowd nor a comic-book blockbuster but a film for the largest possible audience of serious adults — the kind of movie that was commonplace in the not-so-distant days when Oscar races regularly threw up conflicts in which every moviegoer had a stake: Titanic against L.A. Confidential, Saving Private Ryan against Shakespeare in Love, Braveheart against Sense and Sensibility against Apollo 13.
That analysis explains why this year’s Academy Awards — reworked yet again, with various technical awards taped in advance and a trio of hosts added — have a particular sense of an ending about them. There are 10 best picture nominees, and many of them look like the kind of Oscar movies that the show so desperately needs. West Side Story: Steven Spielberg directing an update of a classic musical! King Richard”: a stirring sports movie lifted by a bravura Will Smith performance! Dune: an epic adaptation of a science-fiction classic! Don’t Look Up: a big-issue movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence! Drive My Car: a three-hour Japanese film about the complex relationship between a widowed thespian and his young female chauffeur!
OK, maybe that last one appeals to a slightly more niche audience. But the point is that this year’s nominees offer their share of famous actors, major directors and classic Hollywood genres. And yet, for all of that, almost nobody went to see them in the theaters. When the nominees were announced in February, nine of the 10 had made less than $40 million in domestic box office. The only exception, Dune, barely exceeded $100 million domestically, making it the 13th-highest-grossing movie of 2021. All told, the 10 nominees together have earned barely one-fourth as much at the domestic box office as Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Even when Hollywood tries to conjure the old magic, in other words, the public isn’t there for it anymore.
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True, this was a COVID-shadowed year, which especially hurt the kinds of films that older moviegoers frequent. Remove the delta and omicron waves from the equation, and probably West Side Story and King Richard would have done a little better. And many of the best picture nominees were released on streaming and in theaters simultaneously, while Don’t Look Up was a big streaming hit for Netflix after a brief, pro forma theatrical release.
But an unusual crisis accelerating a technological transformation is a good moment to clarify where we stand right now. Sure, non-superhero-movie box office totals will bounce back in 2022, and next year’s best picture nominees will probably earn a little more in theaters.
Written by Ross Douthat