It’s official: last night’s Oscar telecast laid an egg. According to A.C. Nielsen estimates, the ABC broadcast will go down as the least-watched in history, with 14% fewer viewers than the 2003 Academy Awards telecast, which had an audience of only 33 million.
By comparison, Super Bowl XLII, broadcast by Fox earlier this month, attracted a record 97.5 million viewers. Last week’s running of the Daytona 500 (also on Fox) had an average audience roughly half that of the Academy Awards, and the race was broadcast on Sunday afternoons, when viewership is a fraction of the Sunday night audience.
Whenever Oscar bombs, there is inevitable finger-pointing in Tinsel Town. After all, the annual awards show is Hollywood’s big night, and quite naturally, the film community wants to reach the largest possible audience. So, don’t be surprised if Jon Stewart doesn’t return as host next year, or veteran producer Gil Cates gets the boot. And there will be the inevitable tinkering with the show’s format, regardless of who’s in charge of the broadcast, or handling the hosting duties.
But that ignores the dirty little secret of the Academy Awards: with a few exceptions, most Americans have lost interest in the movies, particularly those held up as the year’s “best.”
Quick, how many of you can name the films nominated for this year’s “Best Picture” award? And, how many of you have actually seen all five? If you don’t fall in either category, don’t feel bad—you’re not alone.
With the exception of “Juno” a comedy about a pregnant teenager, none of nominated films grossed more than $65 million at the box office. In other words, they bombed, in part because many of the films are dark and violent in their outlook. “Atonement” tells the story of lives and relationships shattered by a lie; George Clooney, the title character in “Michael Clayton” is a fixer for a powerful, but sleazy law firm (is there any other kind in the movies?), desperate to protect its evil corporate client.
Still not depressed? “There Will Be Blood” is the portrait of a ruthless oil tycoon, and “No Country for Old Men” has been charitably described as a study of incomprehensible evil. In case you missed last night’s broadcast, “No Country” took home the Oscar for best picture, and Javier Bardem, who plays the merciless assassin in the film, was named Best Supporting Actor.
We understand that the Academy Awards aren’t a popularity contest, and there’s no requirement that nominated films be encouraging or uplifting. But, given the relentlessly bleak tone of those pictures, is it any wonder that most Americans didn’t see them at the multi-plex—or watch last night’s Oscar telecast?
Fact is, Hollywood’s view of America, as depicted in its most “serious” films, is largely devoid of reality. It’s a world populated by relentless killers, corporate criminals, robber barons, shady lawyers and half-witted cops. And, if that’s not bad enough, check out the string of anti-war documentaries that dominated that category. No wonder “Alvin and the Chipmunks” did $212 million at the box office.
Does the film community have a problem? Conventional wisdom says no --not as long as teenagers shell out $10 (or more) for a ticket to “Transformers,” or there’s another sequel in the “Harry Potter,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Spider-Man” franchises.
But the real numbers tell a different story. Ticket sales at theaters in North America grew by only four percent last year—but attendance was flat. That followed a narrow increase in 2006, and three years of declining attendance between 2003-2005. It's also worth noting that the 2007 rise in ticket sales was influenced by a large crop of popular sequels: Pirates, Spider-Man and Shrek, to name just a few. Without a similar boost in 2008, totals for ticket sales and attendance may remain flat.
John Hinderaker at Powerline summed it up well: the attitudes and values evident in the telecast--and the nominated films--suggest a film industry that has lost touch with much of America, and has no interest in reestablishing those ties. And many of us who once sat enthralled through Saturday matinees or double-features are returning the favor. Regarding Hollywood and the Academy Awards, our sentiments can be summarized in a line from the Best Picture winner from 1940. When it comes to the motion picture industry of today--and its annual awards orgy--most of us in flyover country simply don't give a damn.