Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Films and movies:
The disappointments of Oscar 2015


WITH AN 18 percent drop in viewership this year from 2014, the Oscars telecast may have become the last, final cultural victim of the era of seriously lowered attention spans and seriously increased distractions that we live in. Or maybe it was something else, something deeper.

Thanks to a spate of nominated films that not nearly enough people saw (much less got passionate about); and a weak rationale for excluding at least one other well-received film that had clout with critics and audiences — a film whose racial undertone is the kind of thing that gives Oscar hives — the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may slowly be making the Academy Awards the niche event it apparently wants to be.

OK, that’s over the top. Anything that gets 36.6 million people around the TV fireplace for three hours-plus in the digital age can’t really be called “niche.” But Sunday’s broadcast was watched by that number of viewers, the Oscars’ lowest viewership since 2009 — this after recent years of steadily increasing eyeball counts (and in spite of Neil Patrick Harris’ tighty-whiteys). What the hell happened?

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Part of it was that Academy voters fell in love with films, while the rest of the country was trying to fall in love with movies. While the spiritedly eccentric “Birdman” won for Best Picture, and prestige period films in British locations did well (“The Imitation Game” won for Best Adapted Screenplay, “The Theory of Everything” got Eddie Redmayne a Best Actor Oscar), other films with wide populist appeal and a correspondingly healthy box office — “Gone Girl,” “Interstellar,” “The Lego Movie,” “Selma” — couldn’t get arrested.

“Gone Girl” has grossed $167 million domestically, and $368 million worldwide as of Feb. 19, according to Box Office Mojo. “Interstellar” has grossed $187.5 million domestic, $672 million worldwide. “The Lego Movie”? $257 million in the USA, $468 million worldwide. “Selma”? $49.6 million in domestic receipts since a limited opening on Christmas Day. These were the kinds of numbers that put butts in the seats, all year long.

But with the exception of Rosamund Pike’s nom for Best Supporting Actor in “Gone Girl,” those films were shut out of the mainstream Oscar competition. “Interstellar” was nominated for work in the technical categories (Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects, for which it won) but none in the more popularly anticipated creative categories.

Films that didn’t open that widely — Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” — got great buzz from critics and moviegoers alike. Alas, not much love from the Academy voters: “Unbroken” got technical nods for cinematography, film editing and sound mixing, but other than that? Bupkis. And Jolie, for whom the film was a deeply-realized passion project, didn’t even get a nomination for Best Director. It’s grossed at least $115 million domestic, $160 million worldwide, according to Investors.com.

“Guardians of the Galaxy,” a popcorn movie if there ever was one, garnered one nomination, for Best Makeup & Hairstyling, and winning nothing.

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IT’S SOMETIMES easy to forget that, at the end of the day, despite all the customer-facing razzle-dazzle, the Oscars are the movie industry’s celebration of itself. It’s not the raucous, quasi-populist bacchanal of the Golden Globes, and it sure as hell ain’t the People’s Choice Awards.

Since there’s a degree of exclusivity built into its infrastructure and history, we shouldn’t be surprised that the industry insiders populating the Academy voter rolls tend to reward their own. On that basis, we shouldn’t be surprised that “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s towering, powerful drama of civil rights protest in the crucible year of 1965, was largely ignored by Academy voters. For any number of reasons.

Some were logistical and technological; according to at least one report, the film was subject to editing that was too close to last-minute, snarling the process of getting physical screeners —the actual discs of films in contention— into the hands of members of the Screen Actors, Producers and Directors Guilds, the people most ready to make a difference in the fortunes of “Selma” and every film from Hollywood last year.

Tim Gray of Variety reported on Feb. 3: “It can cost up to $800,000 and take three to six weeks to manufacture, watermark and ship discs. This lag time was the reason guild voters didn’t get screeners of 'Selma’; a final print was delivered Nov. 26, so screeners were not available until Dec. 18. The 'Selma’ problem would have been solved with streaming: It takes only a few days to two weeks to encode and upload a title, at a fraction of the cost.”

One reason may have been historical: not longer after it was released, the film faced a concerted pushback by historians and editorialists who claimed that the movie’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson contained historical inaccuracies that largely sidelined LBJ’s efforts on behalf of the Voting Rights Act.

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But in a Jan. 15 analysis, Kyle Buchanan of Vulture offered up the elephant in the American room, that other possible reason, the one people don’t want to talk about:

“It’s true that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture last year, but it may be just as true that some Oscar voters, still recovering from that harrowing picture, were now reluctant to watch another important historical drama about race. Ninety-three percent of Oscar voters are white, and while the Academy is making a concerted effort to diversify its ranks — and is now presided over by its first black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs — progress has been slow.”

DuVernay’s film of protesters who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965, in the face of Alabama cops determined to keep that symbol of resistance from taking place, has been widely praised by critics and the public. Which raises the question of how and why a relatively minor, administratively procedural matter should scuttle the legitimate chances of such a galvanizing picture to vie for Oscar gold.

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THE ONE unalloyed triumph of Oscar glory for “Selma” was “Glory,” the John Legend-Common composition that took the Best Song Oscar on Tuesday. But despite this moment, and if we didn’t know it already, what the 87th Oscars ceremony showed us (along with the process that led to it) is that Oscar plays by its own rules. Always has, always will.

The problem is that this year’s golden-dude derby showed the industry’s mattering less to the people it should matter to more: the paying customers, the everyday people who go to the movies. That much is reflected in the viewership numbers just released.

There were some great moments at the Dolby Theater: Lady Gaga’s emotionally powerful, potentially redefining medley performance of songs from “The Sound of Music” (especially “Climb Every Mountain”) and her introduction of Dame Julie Andrews were riveting television, and you knew it as soon as you saw them. But in the main there was little truly inspiring about this year’s Oscars; it was defined as much by the films that weren’t there in a big way, or there at all, as by the ones that made it into competition.

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You might be thinking, ‘Is he commenting on the telecast or the institution of the Oscars?’ I don’t separate the two: the telecast is an enduring distillation of the identity of the Academy, the one reliable indicator of what matters to the industry in any given year, the one most visible connection to the public it solicits and charms.

But when you had the deeply scripted TV moment of Harris’ underwear modeling, it felt like a reach, a cheap bid for the outrageous, a willful distraction from everything else about the Oscars we’d been talking about, when we talked about the Oscars at all.

Yes, it’s Hollywood. Flagrant artifice and kooky flamboyance are the order of the day. But that doesn’t obligate the viewing public — the moviegoing public and the TV-watching public, which are pretty much the same thing — from buying into that which they don’t believe, or believe in.

And for the millions of people who loved “Gone Girl,” “Selma,” “Interstellar,” “The Lego Movie” “Unbroken” and more besides, the absence or near absence of those films in the nomination process, for the major categories, would only mean those films would be absent or nearly absent in the process of the telecast. What the hell was the point of watching?

Maybe this was just a blip, a momentary aberration in the upward trend already in place. The Oscars will matter again when Oscar decides the people in the dark matter again, too — not the swells in the dark of the Dolby Theater, but the everyday people in the multiplex dark of theaters across America.

Also published at Medium. Image credits: Harris: ABC. Oscar image: ® 2015 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Selma poster: © 2014 Paramount Pictures. 

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