As the nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards were announced it was hard not to feel that the Oscars, like the industry they represent, are in an odd place.
It’s not that there were many surprises. In fact, none of the more interesting possibilities came to pass. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ignored box office reality and skipped over Star Wars. Michael B. Jordan and Creed were left out in the cold. And the Academy’s response to the hashtag protest #oscarssowhite was to nominate another slate of all white people. In other words, business as usual.
Except business in the film industry is anything but usual. On one hand, the box office has been very kind to Hollywood. Star Wars, Jurassic World and the Avengers sequel all raked in big bucks. But since the fall, there’s been a creeping sense that the “prestige pictures” -- the kind of movies the Oscars ceremony loves -- have fallen flat on their faces with audiences. From Steve Jobs to Spotlight, thoughtful dramas that combine social justice with good old-fashioned stage acting to produce works that will invariably described as “life-affirming” and “powerful” have failed to catch on with mass audiences.
This left the Academy with some tough choices. It could acknowledge the reality of its industry and nominate the box office winners, or it could continue its march towards irrelevance. It chose the latter.
From an audience’s point of view, this is largely an irrelevant point, and hardly a new one. The 1980s were filled with stately bore-fest winners like Chariots of Fire and Out of Africa. (Seinfeld based an entire episode around Elaine’s boredom with The English Patient.) But in those years, the box office winners were nominated alongside the “serious” pictures. Indeed, (the original) Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Forrest Gump, Titanic, Avatar, and all three Lord of the Rings films were all nominated for best picture. Three of those films won.
The Oscars unquestionably have an aura about them, both genuine and self-perpetuated, that often obscures the reality of what they are. They are industry awards. Granted, they are industry awards for a glamorous, public facing industry, but that does not change the reality of what they are. Can you imagine, say, a medical supplies sales award going not to the top seller but the salesman who sold with the most “integrity”?
There are certainly some squishy Art vs. Commerce conversations to be had around that point, but when your industry is so clearly in crisis, the luxury to make “art” is growing thin. (And this assumes those middlebrow “tasteful” films are actually more artistic than more popular movies, which is certainly debatable.)
The problem is that audiences are fleeing the theaters in droves. It’s not that there isn’t an appetite for Hollywood-style entertainment, it’s that increasingly audiences would prefer to watch it at home. And often in 10, 13 or 24-hour chunks, not compressed into the Hollywood mandated two to three.
Last year’s battle between 78th place Birdman and 100th place Boyhood (in terms of box office) drew record low audiences for the ceremony. This year does not promise any better. In this year’s batch there are two different stories about the consequences of severe sexual abuse (and you could easily argue Mad Max goes there too, but no one would call that film stately or dull). One film deals with the struggles of a lesbian couple in a more repressive era. Another features an incredibly graphic bear attack and lots of snow.
Those films are a lot to ask of an audience who’s just shelled out a lot of money for popcorn, sat through half an hour of trailers and now has to pay attention through text messages, crying babies and amorous teenagers. Despite all of Hollywood’s desperate pleas to remember the “magic of the movies,” the actual experience of being in a theater in modern America is hellish enough without sitting through a civics lesson.
So why do they keep making these movies? Because so many actors, directors, writers and even some producers do not think of themselves as craftspeople in service of an industry but rather as “artists.” And, by and large, they do not want to perform in front of green screen dragons. Instead, they want to continually recreate the thrill of their childhood drama camp and recite “meaty” dialogue with other human beings. Who cares if there’s no audience for it? Very few other industries are so subject to the whims of their employees.
If the 88th annual Oscars show draws any kind of audience, it will be about the meta-drama of Leonardo DiCaprio, who at the ripe old age of 41 has become the Oscar’s version of Susan Lucci. His nomination marks the 5th time he’s been nominated, and he has yet to win. But it’s looking like the Academy has already ordained him the winner.
This is partially due to the lack of competition. In a year in which no “actor’s movie” really stood out, DiCaprio’s method commitment to his role in The Revenant was much discussed in the press before the film came out. It was almost as if the content of the film didn’t matter. Did you hear he slept in a bear carcass? Did you hear he ate raw meat and nearly froze to death? And did Bryan Cranston do any of that stuff? No? Then give the Oscar to Leo.
There’s also the sense that DiCaprio’s career itself is at a turning point. No longer the young pretty boy of Titanic, he has come to be regarded as another rich 40-something who dates 20-something supermodels. The pitchforks and torches have come out, and he may have difficulty escaping the angry Twitter mob.
Chances are, DiCaprio will take home the Oscar, and he will drag Revenant with him, and honestly it might be the only reason to watch.