The Real Problem with the 80th Academy Awards
by Ken Evans
March 2, 2008
A little less then a year ago, I wrote my first article for FirstShowing.net, an editorial titled The Paris Hilton Effect. It was all about mediocrity and the decline of appreciation for the examples of truly great filmmaking. Unfortunately not much has changed in the past year and this issue must once again be revisited. This time we will specifically be taking a look at the recent Academy Awards and the negative comments that have surfaced in the weeks following.
The morning after the Academy Awards I was driving and listening to a morning talk show on the radio. The radio hosts were discussing the events from the weekend like updates on Britney Spears and her sister Jamie Lynn. Unable to bear any more news about Britney, I was about to change it when they brought up the previous night's Oscars awards show. Hoping to hear their opinions on the winners, I turned up the volume and to my dismay, heard only negative remarks about the whole show. After bashing the awards ceremony they turned their comments to the films themselves. This is where I started to get agitated. The female host asked the male host, "Have you seen any of the Best Picture films?" with his response being, "No." Then she asked another question, "Now, knowing which films were nominated and the winners, would you go see any of them?" to which he responded, "No, not really."
Since that morning I have noticed magazine articles, news clips, and internet blogs all discussing the lack of interest in this year's Academy Awards. Everyone seems to be focusing on the show itself, calling it boring and uninteresting. It had the worst viewer rating in the history of televised Oscar ceremonies, with only 32 million viewers compared to last year's 40.2 million (Hollywood Reporter). What is the real reason behind the lack of interest in this year's show? Did people tune in and then tune out due to lack of entertainment value? I don't think the problem was the show itself, but more of a detachment by the general public from the films that were nominated. It goes back to the radio host's comments of never having seen any of the best-picture nominated films.
In my opinion, the 80th Academy Awards had more exceptional films nominated than the last decade of Oscars. On top of that, this year's films included No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, which were two of the best movies I have ever seen. Although there were a few upsets, this was the first time that I felt that the majority of movies nominated were a perfect sampling of the greatest films of the year. If I were asked to give someone some recommendations of films to see from 2007, I would just tell them to look at the films nominated for Oscars. You can't really go wrong with any of them.
The problem with the Oscars this year wasn't the show. The problem was that not many people had seen the films nominated for the major categories. I relate this to a film and the character development it should have. If you know nothing about a character and don't care about them, then you won't feel anything when they die. The same is true with the nominated films. If no one sees them and isn't given time to think about them and fall in love with them, then no one cares if they win or lose the Oscars.
Just ask your friends if they have seen No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, The Assassination of Jesse James, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, La Vie en Rose, Juno, Once, The Savages or Sweeney Todd. I'm sure you might find a few friends that have seen one or two, but most people didn't see any of those.
Most people when given the choice saw Rush Hour 3, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Bee Movie, Saw IV, The Game Plan, Resident Evil: Extinction, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, 30 Days of Night, Good Luck Chuck, Mr. Woodcock or Hitman. Almost all of these films were number one in the box office when they came out. So what does all of this tell us about awards and Oscars and the general public?
There isn't just one problem, but more a combination of problems that lead to the majority of moviegoers choosing to watch National Treasure: Book of Secrets over any of the films nominated for Best Picture. Besides Juno, the Best Picture films were horribly marketed. They were advertised very little. The trailers, although appealing to me, gave no indication as to what the plots were about. The studios didn't give anyone a reason to see the amazing films that got nominated. It's almost like they don't even give people a chance to see them, especially when they open in so few theaters on their opening weekends. Juno opened in 7 theaters, No Country for Old Men opened in 28, Michael Clayton opened in 15, Atonement opened in 32, and There Will Be Blood opened in 2. Compare that to Ghost Rider, Norbit, and The Game Plan which all opened in over 3,000 theaters.
As much as I would love to only blame the studios, I can't. They are interested in making money so that is what they spend most of their effort on. The blockbusters are what they spend most of their time on. Films like Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. These are the top 5 money makers of 2007 and to be honest I have nothing against them. The problem is that the average audience has equated entertainment and personal pleasure with quality. These top 5 films were a ton of fun, but that doesn't make them the best movies of the year.
This concept is best explained by using Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List as an example. Schindler's List is an exceptionally made film, a masterpiece of filmmaking. While I would say that I enjoyed the quality of the filmmaking, I wouldn't say that I enjoyed it like I enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. That is a movie I might watch over and over again, but Schindler's List is far and above a superior film, although I could only watch it once or twice every few years.
The Oscars are not about awarding the film that had the most viewers or made the most money. It is about a group of experts in the many different categories, voting for what they thought was the best example from their area of expertise. This isn't "American Idol" where the American public votes for who should win. To be honest, that would be terrible! Most people don't know what art direction or sound editing entails, so how could they vote for what was best that year?
There needs to be a re-education of the movie going public. I understand the desire to see a film that doesn't require any thought. Most people want to escape reality and watch a bunch of eye-candy for an hour and a half. I love doing that too, but if that's all I watched, I would be missing out on the great artistic side of cinema.
For those who love film as much as I do and know how to watch a movie and appreciate the different aspects of it, I present you with a challenge. Take the nominated films from this last year and educate your friends. Sit down and watch them and then discuss them afterward. Figure out how to distinguish good film editing from bad film editing. What made these films stand out enough that they were nominated for Oscars?
Then as 2008 progresses, stay on top of the buzz from critics. Watch the ones they suggest as the truly great ones and see if you can see the greatness they saw. Film is fun and enjoyable, but it is also an art form that is supposed to be appreciated for its quality and detail. Hopefully this year the standout films will be more widely seen and interest in honoring the individuals who made those films will be better realized.
My friends do not like discussing films afterwards. I can barely get them to sit through certain movies. But they are always first in line to see the next Will Ferrel flick. It's frustrating because I want to talk about some of these movies (Jesse James, TWBB, No Country) but no one sees them or tends to care. I do get giddy when I get a group together and we watch a phenomenal movie. It's a great feeling expanding someone's horizons.
Sam on Mar 2, 2008
While the audience is not completely without blame for the success of a few of those #1 box office winners you mentioned, some fault lies at the feet of overtly competitive studios who stack the deck with "prestige" pictures at the end of the year to be eligible for Oscar nominations. For the average movie goer, the responsibilities of the holidays plus closing out the end of the year prevent them from seeing a lot of these films. If they DO get an opportunity, who can blame them for enjoying more populist fare rather than the films that make them think? They want to decompress. The simple fact of the matter is when you have downer films like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood released at the end of the year, people aren't going to be lined up to see them. Nevermind the whole scheduling clusterfuck that makes it impossible for people to find the movies they DO want to see! I wanted to see Juno when it was advertised back in mid-December. Well, that was only for larger markets. Around Christmas, the television ads said it would be "everywhere," but I couldn't find it in any of my local theaters. It didn't premiere in my town until mid-January. So if I get frustrated for being forced to chase down a film that's being released into larger markets for Oscar consideration and fail to see the film, it's not entirely my fault. See what I'm getting at? I think at the core of your debate, you're lamenting that there aren't as many HARD CORE film fans out there to support these quality offerings. I agree. But, again, is that the fault of the audience when there is so much media out there competing for our attention? Video games, digital cable, the internet, even home theater cannibalizes the theater experience somewhat. I might not feel guilty about missing There Will Be Blood in theaters if I know it'll be on DVD in four months anyway. Studios are all about turning a profit by turning over as many mediocre films as possible. Mid-budget, first time (re: less difficult) directors and screenwriters, CGI instead of the insurance risk of practical effects.... so on and so forth. It's all about the bottom line. And that's why you don't see more prestige flicks dotted across the landscape during the year. If you do, they're completely forgotten. What about Zodiac? That was an AWESOME film. Great performances, direction, editing and even seamless special effects (recreating 1970's San Francisco). But it gets completely ignored - why? - because it was released in March. Juno was a great film and all. A fun character piece with some sharp dialoque. But you'll never convince me in a million years that it was better than Zodiac. Juno gets the nod because it's end-of-year and the last thing people remember before nominations.
Tom Brazelton on Mar 2, 2008
"As much as I would love to only blame the studios, I can't. They are interested in making money so that is what they spend most of their effort on. The blockbusters are what they spend most of their time on." I disagree with this statement entirely. Juno started on 7 screens but eventually played on over a thousand. Why? Because it was marketed correctly. Studios market movies. If studios were to pump more marketing dollars into films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, they would have much bigger box office revenues. You have to spend money to make money. And while No Country for Old Men was never ever going to make 250 million dollars, had it been marketed more aggresively, it could have easily passed the 100 million mark. But then again, would you have the same opinion about the film if it would have been advertised for on Myspace? I am not trying to make the claim that a piece of crap movie like National Treasure 2 is on the same level as No Country for Old Men, but the level of respect that a film like No Country commands will be greatly diminished if you could have a Josh Brolin themed Myspace profile. So what if the Clear Channel (most likely) station you were listening to had not seen the movies. Find NPR and listen to what they have to say. When I listened to their post Oscar coverage, everyone talking about the previous night's award show had seen the movies or at least heard of their excellence. The problem is not with society, but the part of society you are listening and watching. If you don't want to be exposed to American Idol and the Top 40 morning radio chatter, turn the dial, or click the remote to something far more rewarding. That is why I read this website and not Moviefone; I prefer to get my movie news from a webiste that doesn't feature Hollywood gossip or idle chatter about the weekend in celebrity fashion. It really is the difference between thinking that everyone is conforming because you are, or doing your own thing and realizing that everyone is capable of deciding for themselves.
John on Mar 2, 2008
Great article, Ken. You're absolutely correct in everything that was said. I don't want to say it, and I could get bashed for it, but the lack of interest in such artful films, such as There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, Zodiac, and The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, quite possibly could be because of the dumbing down of America. The general public simply can't appreciate a movie like There Will Be Blood, and will call it boring, because they love big explosions like in Transformers and big names like Will Smith. I really hope the lack of appreciation for such great films doesn't continue and become more and more common. I worry that 10, 20, 30 years from now, truly great films will be a rarity because they simply will not make back what was spent on the making of them because the general public will just ignore those films completely. Let's hope that never happens.
Nick O. on Mar 2, 2008
Wow, I read your whole article Ken. Well written. I do agree with you, film is an art form and usually when you say that to people they laugh. Why? Because all anyone can think of is Michael fucking Bay movies or Will fucking Ferrel movies. In fact I would go as far as saying that it is more capable an art form than anything, because it can communicate so much with such subtlety, some films can and will be talked about forever. It is also very accessable, which helps. Its funny. You mentioned the top films (TWBB, NCFOM, MC, etc.) and I think I've seen all of them except La Vide En Rose, because I cant fucking stand biopics, but thats a different discussion for a different time. Anyway, I dont think I've seen any of the big box office movies, save Transformers (which I knew I wouldnt like) and National Treasure Book of Secrets (mostly because I wanted to laugh at Harvey Kietel, Hellen Mirren, Nicolas Cage, John Voight and Ed Harris for being complete sellouts. And it was hilarious in that sense). So I guess I'm the anti-American public. I really cant stand movies that are just entertaining and have no camp value. Its a waste of my time. I'm not really sure how it works in Hollywood, but it would make sense that the studios would want to promote their blockbuster flics, but its becoming ridiculous when a movie like Grindhouse becomes a box office failure. I could not believe noone wanted to see it. Even less people heard about it and it becomes the director's fault. Thats bullshit. Also, I will be perpetually annoyed with the retarded American public. I wanted to punch my computer when I read that story about the radio hosts. The ceremony itself did have some problems though. 3 fucking Enchanted songs? That movie looked like shit when I heard about it and now after hearing those boring, uninspired, formulaic modern musical shit songs I know its shit. And I had to sit through 3 of them. And only one Once song? Glad it won, but still it should have owned that fucking category. Still though, Juno did get nominated, I think that was the Academy trying to reach for viewers. It was nowhere near the top movies of the year. Zodiac comes to mind in a big way. This is a huge problem Ken, and something big needs to happen to legitimize film, but this past year's Oscars are making me nervous. Desperate for viewers, I'm afraid we may be seeing some shit nominations next year.
Vega Bro on Mar 2, 2008
wow, you all have a lot to say. "There needs to be a re-education of the movie going public." Amen.
craziemutant on Mar 3, 2008
Well written, Ken. Great article. I'd love to do what you said about watching these films with a group of friends and trying to discuss them afterward. I've seen all of them except Juno. The problem is, I don't think any of my friends would sit through many of these movies, and they definitely wouldn't sit through a discussion afterwards, because most movie-goers are as you described them: they don't want to think of movies as art. They want to be entertained and then go back to real life. If a movie lingers with them, it probably feels foreign to them. I have to ask Vega Bro a couple of things, though. First of all, your whole "watched National Treasure for the camp value" thing doesn't ring true at all. You're trying to sound "smart" and "elitist", but end up sounding "misguidedly arrogant". Alex's point is not that you can't enjoy a dumbed-down, escapist entertainment for just what it is, as long as you can appreciate a well-made film on its merits, also. So don't act like you watched because you got some sort of high-minded fun out of it. You watched it for the escapist entertainment, which is ok. Secondly, the Enchanted songs: Dude, did you even listen to the songs? Did you really not GET the sugary sarcasm? "Formulaic modern musical shit songs"???? WHAT? These songs are totally riffing on, and making fun of Disney musical cliches. Not only that, even if you somehow were too "intelligent" to be bothered to notice how tongue-in-cheek they are, there's no way in hell that they sound anything like "modern musicals". What modern musical sounds like a 1950's Disney fairy tale ripoff? And then there's this jem: "I can't fucking stand biopics"? Dude, stop taking yourself so seriously. You really, really want to be a stuck up elitist, but it sounds like you only have the balls, not the brains.
MeToKnow on Mar 3, 2008
I agree with Ken's article, and as much as I like to be able to watch or rather 'read' a good film... I too enjoy eye candy and sometimes just wanna sit back and watch the action unfold - it all depends on mood and wanting a little change... but I still fear this had nothing to do with the fact that the oscars was just a poor show... hacked together far too quickly. And it can not be taken seriously given that the people who vote - the oscar certified actors and film makers dont even need to see the movies they vote on - now discuss that fact given that the article talks about the publics lack of knowing a good film when it comes to voting! Disgusting... I'll alwyas prefer the Baftas. Not sure if anyone else agrees with this, but aren't we getting fed up with stars in general yet! I couldn't give a flying shit if britney dropped off the edge of the earth tomorrow - or who did what on the red carpet.
nha on Mar 3, 2008
The family of Jesse James have posted their own 5 page review of this movie on their family web site, together with stories about the James family’s former experiences with Hollywood and Jesse James movies. http://www.ericjames.org/Reviews/AssassinationofJesseJames/index.html
Eric on Mar 3, 2008
I agree with your opening assessment, Ken, in which you suggest that it wasn't the show itself that turned the audience off but rather that they weren't interested because they don't care for the nominated films. I may also add that you do trust the numbers. I don't. #2 Tom has made a valid point: It sucks when at year's end tons of new films come into theaters. At a time when Joe and Jane are busy with Christmas and feelin' the love - perhaps not in the mood for a downer film, either. However, the rest of the article annoyed me, quite frankly. Film is an artform - of course it is. Every movie is a miracle. So many people participated in its creation! True that studios don't market smaller films the same way they do their tentpole investments. But once in a while a small film hits the big time. Like Juno just did with amazing box office. What's your answer to that? Mine is: word of mouth. Simple as that. If people pay for their entertainment, they have a right to choose what they want to see. So they happened to be in the mood for a smart little comedy about a pregnant teenager. And they really really liked it! They told their friends how much fun it is.... how cool... So they happened to not care for an over-hyped British soap-opera that was uneven, to say the least. (I did watch Atonement - twice - and still can't fathom how it got nominated for Best Picture.) At any rate, there is no right or wrong, there are only opinions. And the opinions of the audience are as valid as those of "the experts". It's subjective, that's all. If the audience doesn't want to support the Coen Bros. because they simply aren't interested in the stories they are telling, so be it. I've watched all the nominees except NCFOM. So shoot me. They are paying - they have the right to choose. (BTW: If "they" want to pay for "an education" I hope they choose college. Nice classes on film history etc.)
moviegoer on Mar 3, 2008
Thanks for the additional info re: Juno screenings. Hopefully, studios take note and help more of their "little" films along - they may just realize it makes good business sense. (Coming to think of it, Diablo Cody's sorta-celebrity might have helped the project, too). Perhaps now more folx go and rent Hard Candy, which I did like quite a bit. Re: crappy made pieces of art Can't tell you if "Norbit" was well made or not - saw the trailer and it didn't interest me. It is, however, your argument to view films as art that led me to my statement. Plus the collaborative nature of the medium. You were talking about sound editing, art direction, etc. etc. all of that is sub-par in a film like "Norbit"? I'm usually hesitant to call a film "bad" out of respect for the people who did do a great job, be that the sound people or make-up department or the actors or... There's just something odd about the term "bad art". I admit that I, too, did call one or the other film a "crapfest" or "insulting" or "lousy" (to mind come "The Heartbreak Kid" , "Daddy Day Camp" or "Invasion"). Others I loved to death ("Sweeney Todd", "3:10 to Yuma", "American Gangster" - notice how none of them got nominated for Best Picture?). Don't think I could be objective. I don't think "objective" is a term one could use when it comes to art. I'm boring myself to death now. Btw, thought of more reasons why more people weren't interested in the Oscars show ... off to the blog.
moviegoer on Mar 3, 2008
Finally, Someone who actually knows the difference between a film and a movie. I spend so much of my time arguing with my friends about films vs movies. While Harry Potter, Transformers, and pirates were good MOVIES, they don't compare to the great FILMS of the year like no country, or TWBB. By the way speaking of films. were was Into The Wild, this in my opinion was a fabulous film, and deserved more play than it got. But We'll never get through to the mindless people who make it possible for lions gate to shit out a saw movie every year.
J.D. k on Mar 3, 2008
"I really cant stand movies that are just entertaining and have no camp value. Its a waste of my time." Wow, that's really pathetic. What are you watching movies for if not to be entertained? Acting like only the types of movies you enjoy are "worthwhile" is ridiculous snobbery of the highest order. If you want to get right down to it, damn near all movies are a "waste of my time." For most people that is all they are interested in, and if that is what they want, there isn't a damn thing wrong with it.
Joel on Mar 3, 2008
You were doing really great until you said: "wouldn't say that I enjoyed it like I enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. That is a movie I might watch over and over again". I have no problem with entertaining family popcorn films, but seriously, that is an awful example. One of the worst films ever made. How anyone would choose to sit through that more than once is beyond me. I'm absolutely baffled, you seemed to be making such a good point, then Bam! you've succumb to the idiocy that you're complaining about in other film-goers.
Jon on Mar 4, 2008
Ken, I think you've hit on "problem" with pop culture and it's relation to art. The common pop culture consumer hasn't developed the taste needed to find good art enjoyable much of the time. People who slurp up pop culture have a rather narrow view of what makes art "good" (that said, high culture types tend to also have a narrow view I think). If it makes them feel good inside, dazzles the senses, and is a more family-friendly substitute than a frat party with everyone lit drunk, they are convinced they've found good art.
Kyle on Mar 4, 2008
Great article! It's so frustrating when people (who aren't in the industry) complain to me about the Oscars going to obscure, stupid movies every year. People need to realize (as Ken pointed out in the article) that the nominees are chosen by the people who actually DO the jobs they are honoring. So my question is, how can some guy working at Best Buy or Target or wherever, complain about the nominations for editing, visual effects, or even best picture? Perhaps the real question should be, why are the complainers giving so much weight to the Oscars? And should art be judged by those who MAKE the art, or by critics? I think that's a legitimate question. The reason that actors, directors, etc. place so much value on the Oscars, is because they are being judged by their peers. You can believe that when an editor shows a scene to John Q Audience, he or she probably isn't worried what they'll think. But if they show that same scene to a producer, or another editor (who can see right through all the cheap tricks), that editor will begin to sweat. Next year, keep in mind that you are not watching absolute judgements as to which films were the best--you are just watching to see who the Industry has chosen to honor.
Mark P on Mar 4, 2008
"So my question is, how can some guy working at Best Buy or Target or wherever, complain about the nominations for editing, visual effects, or even best picture?" I don't think I understand this comment at all. Are you saying that no one can have an opinion on a topic unless they have first hand knowledge of the topic? If that is what you mean I really think it's a ridiculous argument. I've never been a chef, but I know what I enjoy eating, what wine I like, how I like my steak, etc.
Joel on Mar 4, 2008
"Are you saying that no one can have an opinion on a topic unless they have first hand knowledge of the topic?" No. I'm saying that the Oscars are given by peers. I can enjoy food by a chef, but I don't know what went into the making of the food. To clarify what I meant--there is a difference in the way an architect looks at the work of another architect, and the way I look at the work of an architect. The average moviegoer is most likely qualified to judge a film simply on whether or not it moved them. Most critics are qualified to pick a film apart more thoroughly than the average moviegoer. And most editors are more qualified to appreciate the art and degree of difficulty involved in the editing process. Most cinematographers are more qualified to appreciate the use of different lenses and film stock in a film than the average person. I don't mean that the average person CAN'T know if a movie is good, but they don't have a place in judging the merits of a job they know little about--in the CONTEXT of an industry award. If anything, those within the industry are too close to the people and films they are judging be impartial. In many ways, the average critic and audience are much better judges of a film's quality, since they are the reason the films exist in the first place. The Oscars are simply a way for those in the Industry to recognize in each other what critics and audiences can't see--the work that is done behind the scenes.
Mark P on Mar 4, 2008
This was a great editorial piece and has definitely inspired some good discussion in the comments. I've gotta say that I agree with Mark P about the fact that the actual Academy members are not impartial. They have favorites for sure. I mean, look at the trade papers and all the ad space bought up by studios around Oscar time. It's hard for Academy members to ignore stuff like that. But I'm ok with those people voting and showing me who they think is the best at those categories. For people who complain about the Oscars only featuring movies that haven't been heard of, that's why the People's Choice Awards are around. If you want your turn to tell Hollywood who you think is good or what film was the best...there you go. That's just always how it's going to be I think. I mean, look at museums and art galleries...if it wasn't for private donors and tax money, a lot of those places wouldn't be open today. Art holds a very small place in the lives of most the American public. To me, films like No Country and There Will Be Blood are just as moving and stirring as certain paintings and sculptures I've seen. (and don't even get me started on the beauty of Cormac McCarthy's novel) Great article Ken. Spot on.
Ryan on Mar 4, 2008
"I don't mean that the average person CAN'T know if a movie is good, but they don't have a place in judging the merits of a job they know little about–in the CONTEXT of an industry award." Gotcha. That makes perfect sense to me, thanks! 🙂
Joel on Mar 5, 2008
My friend, I do believe that this is an age-old discussion that extends well beyond that of moving pictures. You see, it is rather difficult to grade anything related to art; being that the value of aesthetics is different from person to person. Now, there is a technical/scientific side to movie-making, zzzz's, which by all means should be judged by a governing panel. However, that is only half.....the other half is art. And art begs objectiveness.....objectiveness may be obtained by anyone. If given the opportunity, you should check out this book: "Critique of the Power of Judgment", by Immanuel Kant. Jack
JackDublin on Mar 5, 2008
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