Analyzing Oscar

Analyzing Oscar

I knew installing Microsoft Excel three years ago would pay off.

But there’s another possibility–maybe the Academy’s been consistent in rewarding quality work, but the public is becoming less and less willing to see it. The rise of VHS, DVD, and HDTV has definitely changed our viewing habits, skewing the box office towards blockbusters and other event pictures. With tickets pushing $13 in some places, people are going to the movies less, and they’re more likely to catch the smaller, indie films on video. So maybe when we’re looking at these charts, what we’re actually seeing is the moviegoing public gradually becoming less likely to shell out for a ticket unless the film contains explosions.

This woman is like The Dark Knight.

This woman is like The Dark Knight.

But personally, I do think the Academy has become more highbrow. They could have easily recognized The Dark Knight and/or Wall-E, which were both widely hailed as two of the greatest pieces of pop-art ever. But they went with the exact kind of films you’d expect to be nominated: “Prestige Pictures,” which probably only got greenlit in the first place because the producers thought they sounded like the kind of movies the Academy loves.  Popcorn films, no matter how good, need not apply. I’m reminded of last fall’s San Francisco marathon. 24-year-old Arien O’Connell had the fastest women’s time of the day, finishing the race in 2:55:11. But she didn’t win. Arien hadn’t entered in the “elite” group of marathoners, and so she wasn’t eligible for awards, even though she’d crushed the official trophy winner by eleven minutes.

So here’s my question for you readers who have made it this far: why? Not why did you make it this far–why has the Academy been nominating less popular movies? Is it because studios are spending more money campaigning for those nominations? But The Dark Knight and Wall-E had giant ads in Variety too. Do the voters, all Hollywood insiders, have a narcisstic impulse to see Hollywood as a place where they make Serious Art about Important Things? (“We’re the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular.“) But then how come the trend has emerged only in the past decade?

We’ll discuss it during our special Oscar podcast this Sunday, and we’ll try and mention your theories.

And as promised, here’s the spreadsheet, for those of you who want to crunch the numbers for yourself.

28 Comments on “Analyzing Oscar”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Movies like Wall-E and The Dark Knight (and, I think, Slumdog Millionaire) are becoming huge exceptions, because studios are now pushing movies from column A (art house films with lots of angst but little plot) and column B (blockbusters with lots of plot and explosions but little character development or theme).

    I predict that soon the columns will diverge even more: the Oscar-baity movies will get Oscar-baitier, and the big budget blockbusters will get dumber, because why bother writing a decent story when Transformers will still make a shitload of cash in the box office, anyway?

    It seems to me that’s what happened to the publishing world, where authors usually need to have different agents and publishers if they want to write “literary fiction” (aka Pulitzer-bait: lots of theme and character but no plot) and if they want to write “genre fiction” (aka money-bait: lots of plot and tropes but what the hell is a theme, anyway?). There is really little incentive to cross over and try to write a fun/gripping page-turner that also has literary value. Literary fiction with a plot automatically becomes less literary. Genre fiction with real meaning might do well (especially if it’s science-fiction), but Dan Brown is still going to make much more money without having to worry about pesky details like theme and character development and the aural quality of his writing.

    Soon Pixar is going to be the only production house continually making movies that are both fun/interesting to watch and “literary.” Too bad Pixar films will never be allowed to be nominated for Best Picture.


  2. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Shana – I totally disagree with you. Hollywood has gotten the message that people like good movies – just look at how Iron Man beat Indy IV. I think studios have started putting more effort into creating higher quality blockbusters, and that trend will only continue thanks to the success of The Dark Knight. Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire is writing Spider-man 4, Darron Aronovsky is signed to direct RoboCop, and Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) is getting the zombie epic World War Z up to speed. Or just look at ALL the Harry Potter directors after Chris Columbus – none of them were big Hollywood names, and they all made great films that were wildly successful. Michael Bay is a dinosaur – the future belongs to art house directors who make the jump to blockbusters.


  3. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Blinks: Eh, maybe you’re right. Probably I’m just in a bad mood :)

    Maybe it’s also the time of year. Right now you have all these art housey Oscar movies + Friday the 13th/He’s Just Not That Into You/Confessions of a Shopaholic/Hotel for Dogs/etc. I guess I just need to wait for Watchmen (hopefully) and then the summer stuff.

    As for your examples, I’m not saying those movies are bad. Iron Man was well made. The Harry Potter movies after Columbus were well made. The Spiderman movies were well made. But none of these movies seems to have any real depth. While Harry Potter is a lot of fun, is there really anything more to it than “Hooray for the power of love! Boo racism”? Spiderman is, and I bet will continue to be, just a rehashing of “With great power comes great responsibility.” Some might argue that Iron Man was deep, but I don’t think the movie actually dealt with any of the issues it brought up in any sort of depth.

    The movies you listed all have well made plots and high production values. They have A-list actors and cool high-concepts. But are they “literary”? Are they “high art”? Are they Best Picture worthy? I’d argue no.

    To me, The Dark Knight and Pixar films are in a different class because they have the actors, plots, and production values plus they are genuinely ABOUT something. Obviously, I have my own criteria for movies that others won’t agree with.

    Hey, I hope we get more Dark Knights. It’s just hard to see that happening in the deserts of February. Plus I’m hungry and haven’t eaten lunch yet! That always puts me in a pissy mood…


  4. fenzel #


    “The movies you listed all have well made plots and high production values. They have A-list actors and cool high-concepts. But are they “literary”? Are they “high art”? Are they Best Picture worthy? I’d argue no.”

    You are incorrect and ruled by prejudice.

    _Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban_, while not an especially awesome movie, has literary quality, subtext, and artistic ambition comparable to, say, _Atonement_.

    It just also happened to be a popular film in a popular genre.

    Now, was this why people saw it? No.

    Was it _quite_ as fancy? No.

    Could you make an argument that, if the two were nominated for Best Picture, _Atonement_ should win? Sure.

    But does _Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban_ have significant form? Yes. Does it have rich and layered thematic and aesthetic values? Yes. Is the eye of the camera governed with a comparable eye to detail and composition? Defintiely.

    Is it in the same ball park? Yes.

    I’m no huge fan of that movie, but I don’t see where you come to the conclusion that it isn’t “high art” or “literary” except due to prejudice associated with subject matter and genre classification.

    Now, granted, I may be dismissing these things prematurely by some people’s systems for this sort of thing. Aristotle, for example, would say that a play that isn’t about people with a lot of money, status or importance – a play that isn’t about important people – can’t be artistically important or successful.

    I personally think that is bullshit, and I venture to say that, for me, calling bullshit on that is one of the primary driving energies behind why I write for this Web site.

    Nothin’ but love for ya, Shana, but I’m throwing the gauntlet down on this one.


  5. fenzel #

    Also, I think movies are generally held to a higher artistic standard than books, because the marketplace for them is more competitive; there are more people who consume them, and they consume more of them, so they have more refined tastes (even if they like to eat poop); and, most importantly, their production is a broader collaboration of a wider variety of skillsets, so getting them done at all requires a broadly based artistic competence that is not required to publish a book.

    A book can have some typos in it and nobody really cares. But a movie with much more subtle continuity goofs in it gets written up on multiple Web sites for its troubles.

    Filmgoers have higher standards than readers, and even the most philistine ones are are better at watching movies than readers are at reading books.

    So, for all these reasons, trashy genre-fiction movies are likely to have more artistic hidden gems than trashy genre-fiction books.


  6. donn #

    It seems like in a normal year there was one, possibly two, movies that did well at the box and the rest didn’t ( Take 1993 for example:

    The Fugitive: $179m
    Schindler’s List: $30m
    The Piano: $26m
    In the Name of the Father: $7m
    The Remains of the Day: $20m

    If you throw out The Fugitive, that year’s not so good. Throw out LOTR from 2001 to 2003 and the graphs are starkly different as well. If The Dark Knight had been nominated this year with it’s number one ranking/$500+ million gross we might be asking if the Academy had gone low brow.

    What I’m saying is most years if you throw out the outlier you have a year that’s pretty much like every other year, but this year there is no outlier.


  7. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Donn – See, now I wish I had done a graph where you toss out the high movie and the low movie! Anyone want to tackle that?


  8. Nathaniel R #

    this is really interesting and Donn has a point but i think Schindler’s List nearly hit 100 million so those numbers are off.

    the problem — as i’ve identified it in the past is that oscar tastes have not changed whereas the public’s taste has. Oscar still likes dramas best and period pieces and biopics. none of these genres are particularly popular with the public anymore (though they used to be) so when people complain about the oscars being elitist… it’s a lot more complicated than that. the public got less willing to sit through character driven thematically resonant films and they prefer action and superhero stuff and animated films now (which sometimes have these elements yes)

    terms of endearment is an excellent example as is the MEGA 70s hit kramer vs kramer which is about a nasty divorce. Could a movie about a mother and daughter or a movie about a nasty divorce make hundreds of millions of dollars today? I highly doubt it. The public seems to hate drama as much as the oscars seem to hate action films.

    so i think it’s a case of both public and oscar being tunnel visioned and therein likes the problem


  9. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Fenzel: I don’t think I’m being snooty, but you can sure argue otherwise :) I honestly haven’t seen Prisoner of Azkaban for a while. You may be right about it. But I don’t think it’s fair to say I’m being prejudiced by genre distinction and subject matter when I just said that I thought Wall-E (sci-fi, animated, ostensibly a movie for children) was Best Picture worthy, just like The Dark Knight (based on a superhero comic, full of explosions). Same goes for Return of the King. Please please please don’t think I’m deriding the Harry Potter movies because they are of a certain genre (YA fantasy) or subject matter (wizards). Guess what kind of book I just wrote. Hint: it’s a YA fantasy. With wizards.

    I’m just arguing that Harry Potter, while being fun, well-made entertainment, to me, is not the deepest thing ever. I only ever left one Harry Potter movie deep in thought, and that was the first one. I was thinking, “Why was that movie so mediocre?” I’m not sure any one Harry Potter movie would sustain a five part series on philosophy like The Dark Knight did. But, hey, we can sure try!

    For the record, I’d watch any Harry Potter movie over Atonement if both were on TV at the same time. So there!


  10. mlawski OTI Staff #

    For clarity’s sake, let me just re-explain what I was trying to say before. You can judge a film on many things, but I think most can agree the most important criteria are:

    -plot (is it an interesting concept? does it hold my attention? does it make sense? is it paced properly?)

    -character (are the characters interesting? are they stereotypes or three-dimensional? do they have good dialogue? does at least one character change over the course of the film in a meaningful way? if the characters don’t change, is this because the filmmakers made them static for a specific reason, or where they just bad at character development?)

    -production values (good sets? good special effects? good, appropriate music? good costumes? etc)

    -theme (does this film have something to say about humankind? is it saying something obvious or something more subtle? does the movie make me think or question? does this movie seem to have another layer to it, whether the audience completely understands that other layer or not?)

    To me, it seems like movies nowadays generally fall under two categories:

    1. Oscar bait (aka Important But Not Entertaining). The good ones in this category are good on theme, production values, and good character. Plot doesn’t matter as much. Pacing is usually slow. Doesn’t usually have a high concept. Doesn’t usually fall under a “genre.” May put audiences to sleep.

    2. Blockbusters (aka Entertaining But Not Important). The good ones in this category have good production values and plot. Sometimes they have decent characters and character development, but you get the idea that the characters are just archetypes. Which is fine! I love archetypes. The good ones will have a little bit of theme, but these themes are simple morals that can be summed up in one sentence, usually stated explicitly in the film. (With great power comes great responsibility.)

    The movies I like and that I want to win Best Picture are those that are good at everything. Interesting plot with good pacing, realistic or at least highly-interesting characters who have good dialogue, good production values, AND a complex, interesting theme. Movies that achieve all four goals go from good to great in my book. It has nothing at all to do with genre.


  11. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Nathaniel – Agreed, hard to imagine people flocking to a movie like Terms of Endearment nowadays. (Hell, they even made a Terms sequel, and there was little flocking.) So yeah, maybe it’s less the Academy changing than the Public changing.

    On the other hand, let’s say that in earlier decades, the Academy and the Public had similar taste in movies. Gradually, the Public falls under the sway of popcorn movies, whereas the Academy continues to like what it always liked. Doesn’t this STILL mean the Academy is elitist? It’s just been RENDERED elitist by the changing times, rather than drifting elitist on its own.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by, sir! You run a fine ship over there.


  12. Neil #

    As far as I can see, this study neglects to take into account one factor: The financial effect of an Oscar nomination on a film’s box office.

    An Oscar nomination means a big windfall in ticket sales from the film itself for studios, which is an added incentive for studios to want to produce “Oscar-grabbing” films for public consumption. Second runs in theaters as well as increased DVD rentals mean additional bucks for the films involved.

    Essentially, the test group that you are studying (Oscar nominated films) immediately gives us compromised data the minute it joins the test group (ie, a film’s box office is sure to rise following a nomination/win). Therefore, comparing an Oscar-nominated film’s box office to the rest of the field is already skewed data.

    I don’t know how to solve the problem (Perhaps analyzing box office results before award nominations? Comparing median per-week box office?), but I just thought it should be mentioned.


  13. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Oh my God, I’m approaching Fenzel’s qua-qua-quadruple post milestone!

    @Nathaniel: I wonder if audiences today would see something like Terms of Endearment. I often think of my mother. She really has very little to see. Hollywood seems to think “entertainment=explosions/violence/sex jokes for men and shallow, unfunny chick flicks for women.” My mother abhors violence (she walked out of Iron Man) and isn’t huge on sex jokes. So she goes to see shit like Mamma Mia, which Belinkie will have you remember is the highest grossing film in England.

    I bet if Hollywood made more good movies about and for middle aged and older women, they’d have a goldmine on their hands.

    (PS No more comments for me today. I’m done… unless someone else throws down the gauntlet :)


  14. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Neil – Nice catch. Yeah, I mulled over this, and eventually gave up. Some movies nowadays don’t even release widely until AFTER the nominations. There’s just no way to disentangle a movie’s box office gross from its Best Picture nomination (at least not in all cases). But if YOU can figure it out, I’m pretty sure that would earn you a Masters degree, easy.


  15. Trevor #

    I think the real problem is that movies released earlier in the year proper (speaking in terms of January to December) are often overlooked by the time the nominations come out because the Oscar Bait stuff comes out in December and distracts the academy (much as a shiny toy distracts an infant). I was looking at the release date for Annie Hall, the one and only comedy to win Best Picture in recent memory, and it came out in April of ’77. Going by the recent trend in film-releasing, AH would be a distant memory by the time the nominations are announced. I blame ADD.

    One good thing about the Oscars being so stuffy is that they can nominate a film and put some buzz behind it that it might not otherwise get (at least out in the real America, as the Repubs are so fond of calling us flyover states). I know a film like Slumdog wouldn’t even get played down here in SC if not for the Oscar buzz. So sometimes it’s okay to be snooty.


  16. donn #

    Alright, I don’t know if anyone’s right but I’m wrong – I grabbed the pre-nomination data from box office mojo, adjusted to 2008 dollars, and threw out the highest grosser.

    In the chart on the spreadsheet you’ll see that the average for the bottom 4 grossers, pre-nomination, in 2008 dollars, is generally < $100m (the average of the average is $61.5m). The numbers for the past five years have been exceedingly low, and this year’s average is a *record* low.


  17. Gab #

    I’d like to throw a small monkeywrench into the works and remind everyone that _Beauty and the Beast_ was nominated, although it didn’t *win*, BP. Keeping that in mind, I tend to think that, whether it’s because the Academy is doing its own thing or that viewers have strayed from what has always been done, the Academy is, either way elitist. _Wall-E_ is also a “kids” movie, and just as good as _Beauty and the Beast_. Now, again, _BB_ didn’t win, no, but at least it was acknowledged as a friggin’ good movie- and it is, really, a genuinely good film (the UNFINISHED version got a standing ovation at Cannes); not the case with _Wall-E_, since it got completely ignored in The Big Cheese category. But my point there is if _Wall-E_ was snuffed for being a kid flick, _Beauty and the Beast_ wasn’t, not completely, anyway- pointing at a trend toward that elitism, and implying that it’s getting stronger.

    Shana, the films you prefer are getting ignored- and it blows. Call me crazy, but TDK had everything you want in a movie, and look at all of the places it was snuffed. It was nominated for a few techie awards, but not enough meriting the caliber of film it is.

    This reminds me of a rather tongue-in-cheek moment in the first _Wayne’s World_ movie.

    When you think about it, Mike Meyers is making a VERY valid point here- that there is just a certain “expectation” in what gets nominated for an Oscar in general. Obviously he’s satirizing it, but it comes down to the same basic idea every time- “high drama,” whatever the hell that means. Have you ever sat and watched a movie and thought, “Okay, that’s the Oscar clip” during some monologue? Or even, “That’s the Oscar shot,” during some huge, “epic” sweep of the scenery? “High” doesn’t always lead to quality, though, and therein lies the elitism- if it’s different and of high-*quality*, it’s still not worthy; if it’s compliant and of *low*-quality, it’s acceptable. Take comedy, for instance. A quick glance at the list on Wiki of all of the nominees and winners for BP EVAR shows how comedies every so often get nominated, but they hardly ever take home the prize- and that no “kid” movie has ever won*. From what I see in that list, the general trend is if it’s not a drama that wins, it’s a musical. Of course, there are a couple exceptions, but they are few and far between. Hell, it has been thirty years since a comedy won (they count _Shakespeare in Love_ as a comedy, but I take issue with this classification, personally- it was funny in some parts, but was it REALLY a comedy? and its period nature sort of gives it a leg-up, too, since, as someone said on the most recent podcast, they go for that sh*t).

    (And I realize _The Sound of Music_ and _Wizard of Oz_ are both musicals and the former won BP, but I think while both are both family-friendly, the latter is more kiddish than the former- _The Sound of Music_ is a bit more… mature, for lack of a better word, dealing with some harder themes and plot-points, like the betrayal of Rolfe.) (Just covering my bases.)

    *I would thus argue adamantly that THIS is why _The Wizard of Oz_ lost to _Gone With the Wind_.


  18. D #

    Here’s the reason that the Academy has refused to reward audience pleasers over the past few cycles. About 5 years ago the Academy decided to expand its voting membership to include a slew of younger and “hipper” voters (almost all of them actors) in order to give a boost to deserving “indie” flair that was going unnoticed by the old guard. The effect of this wasn’t immediately obvious because the high grossing LotR movies (which were based a piece of classic English literature) were regarded as “highbrow” enough to warrant consideration for major awards. However, once the Tolkien movies were finished the problems started. The newly franchised hipsters (who believe that the Oscars should only reward art house flicks and view box office success as a net negative) formed an unofficial coalition with the greybeards who had no problem rewarding hit films but regard animated movies and genre films as inherently unworthy of recognition. This has lead to record low ratings for the presentation (this years will be even worse that last years) and less regard for the Oscar brand by the public. Oh, and it’s also why crap like The Reader can nominated for Best Picture while two of the three best reviewed feature films of the year got shafted. (The Wrestler was the other and it should have been nominated as well)


  19. mlawski OTI Staff #

    It’s almost tomorrow, so I’m breaking my silence. Sorry!

    @D: I was thinking about what you said about “best reviewed,” so I went over to Rotten Tomatoes to see what the best reviewed movies of last year were.

    If Best Picture nods were based on Rotten Tomatoes rankings, the nods (not counting foreign films) would be:

    1. The Wrestler
    2. Let the Right One In (indie vampire flick)
    3. Wall-E
    4. The Dark Knight
    5. Slumdog Millionaire

    If you take out Let the Right One In ’cause it’s too indie, #6 is a tie between Iron Man and Milk.

    The Reader, Benjamin Button, and Doubt are not on Rotten Tomato’s Top 100 of 2008.


  20. mlawski OTI Staff #


    Metacritic’s Best Picture List (minus the foreigns and super-indies) would be in this order:

    1. Wall-E
    2. Slumdog Millionaire
    3. Milk
    4. Happy-Go-Lucky
    5. The Dark Knight

    If you take out Happy-Go-Lucky for being too indie, the next is The Wrestler.


  21. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Shana – Yeah, I’d be much more excited by either the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic Awards. But I suppose one of the things that makes Oscar-predicting so fascinating is the perennial quirkiness of their choices and snubs, and the mysterious nature of the selections. If it were just a popularity contest, you’d have the MTV Movie Awards.


  22. Andrew #

    Of course some of these films also received a post-Oscar bump, as one can expect will happen this year after a winner is chosen. I wonder, is there any way to compare Pre-Oscar grosses instead of total grosses.


  23. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Donn – You are a badass.

    Okay, so you just used the grosses of these movies right before the nominations came out? But that doesn’t seem fair at all. The movies released earlier in the year will have completely finished their runs. The movies released very late in the year will just be beginning their runs. Right?


  24. Maria #

    Hi, I reached here because of a recommendation in Film Experience blog and I found very interesting stuff. Keep it up!


  25. donn #

    @Matthew Belinkie – I’m noticing that Oscar-bait movies aren’t widely released until after the nominations are announced. Frost/Nixon was in 153 theaters the day before the nomination and 1,099 the day after. The Wrestler, 144 before 566 after. Milk for some reason took a week to jump from 250 to 882. There are three types of movie we’re dealing with:

    1. Immediate saturation release movies, which are more than likely non-snooty, make their money at the beginning of their run. The Dark Knight, frontloaded movie with legs. Iron Man as well. Benjamin Button, even though released late in the year, was front loaded opening in 3000 theaters and making the bulk of its money up front.

    2. Non-blockbuster non-oscar bait movies. Might gather steam on actual word of mouth. Possibly snooty, possibly not. Theater count grows or falls on performance.

    2. Oscar bait movies, definitely snooty. So snooty they only let people in cities with nominators in them watch the movie until after the nominations. See above for examples.

    So the box office before nomination might still be valid as a measure of snootiness if we’re looking for a purely monetary measure of academy snootiness.


  26. Ryan #

    What would be interesting is if you put a straight horizontal line on some of these charts for the median or average for the entire period.


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