Simple answer: The coy “We’re doing viewers a favor by offering them more choices” talking point. Now I’m not so naive as to think that anyone who works for the Academy Awards is in anything but the business of the Academy Awards. I also know that actors want the public to see movies in which they appear and producers want those movies to turn a tidy profit so that they can keep making movies, and grips and electrics want productions to work on so they may earn a living. Yeah, yeah.
But see, this season’s awards cycle has been so cynically rendered by the Academy — and I can’t believe I just wrote “the Academy” without throwing up in my mouth — that it’s just particularly wretched to observe. It’s no conspiracy theory that movies are more expensive to make, market and distribute than ever, and that admissions are middling even if the dollar amounts they rake in get bigger. The good numbers for 2009 hide sobering facts: DVD sales took a shit while consumers saw more movies in theaters at any time since 2002. The result is that the overall dollar count is down, and since movie tickets are more expensive in 2009 than 2008 (and IMAX is more expensive than regular cinema), revenue is falling, at least from those two avenues.
And let’s not forget that the Academy Awards aren’t doing so hot themselves, ratings-wise. The 2008 show, which saw No Country for Old Men win Best Picture, was the least watched Academy Awards show ever. Look at Oscar’s history and you can see that years in which challenging films such as No Country for Old Men — think about the graphic violence and sort of nihilistic theme — win Best Picture, the ratings drop. For example, Titanic — big romance! tearjerker! — wins Best Picture and 57 million people tune in. Slumdog Millionaire, which has a boy get his eyes burned out with acid, wins Best Picture and 36 million watch.
Solution: Spectacle! Flash! Bang! Zoom! A sacking of Hugh Jackman! (Really, who wants to watch that fucking guy do anything?) Ten Best Picture nominees! Assume for a minute that any film — and assume the whole notion of the Academy Awards Awards is not a farce — deserves a Best Picture nod, and take a look at the nominees and their box office grosses:
“Avatar” — $600,000,00
“The Blind Side” — $238,000,000
“District 9″ — $115,000,000
“An Education” — $8,800,000
“The Hurt Locker” — $12,671,000
“Inglourious Basterds” — $120,000,000
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” — $45,000,000
“A Serious Man” — $9,200,000
“Up” — $293,000,000
“Up in the Air” — $73,500,000
Now if 2010 were any year between 1944 and 2009, there would have been five best picture nominees and they would have been Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious, A Serious Man and Up in the Air. Sure, Avatar is a huge film and it’s groundbreaking and blah blah blah and it all but eclipses the other four. Maybe people talk about The Hurt Locker because its director, Kathryn Bigelow, was once married to James Cameron. And all the indie people and critics talk about the three other films. And the rest of Fat America takes a powder.
But now? Big money! Big gambling in Las Vegas! This year the Academy has something that everyone loves! A white person saving a black person (The Blind Side)! A Dances With Wolves remake (Avatar)! Serious black drama (Precious)! Respectful-of-soldiers-but-questioning-the-morals-the-Iraq-war (The Hurt Locker)! Serious queer film (A Serious Man)! Popular writer tackling a serious subject (An Education)! Movie star learning sensitivity (Up in the Air)!
You get the idea. That’s not to say that none of these films is good or deserving of water cooler talk or accolades between peers who made them. Except Inglourious Basterds, which is simply one of the worst films ever made.
But c’mon. Are you you really going to appeal to the same bumpkins who bought tickets for Transformers by offering them up Sandra Bullock with bleached-blond hair in The Blind Side? Yes! Are you fucking stupid? It’s all about the money! Academy President and corporate shill Sid Ganis said as much last June when the announcement was made. “It’s going to give the public the possibility of being more interested in the show this year, just because it might very well include more populist movies,” Ganis said. “And because it’s 10, not five, there will be a larger group of people who will be interested.”
Problem: The public is fucking stupid. So let’s be honest and dispense with the rigamaroll of saying these are the best pictures. Because if they were the 10 best, would Inglourious Basterds really be in there? These are the best pictures that made money.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Just be honest about it. All the time. In everything you do. If Avatar had made one-sixth the amount of money it’s made, would it be in this list? No! Because then it would have been a big-budget box office flop, and Hollywoods HATES those.
Of course, one could argue that the Academy has taken steps to make sure we know that it’s really all about the money. Look at this year’s hosts: Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. Inspired choices, right? They even come with a pre-packaged advertisement for their Oscar performances. Nancy Meyers’ shitty “comedy” It’s Complicated. It can only be a matter of time before the Academy turns the telecast into a Pay-Per-View event.