This time of year, it’s not uncommon for my fellow conservative commentators to discuss the growing disparity between the Oscars and the average moviegoer. They bring up the 2016 winner of Best Picture, “Moonlight,” citing the film’s low box office as a clear example of this division. The Academy chose to proclaim a film that “nobody saw” as the best of the year. Many see this as the latest in a Hollywood trend, referencing the poor financial performance of recent Best Picture winners as proof of the Academy growing further and further out of touch.
As often happens in the conservative assessment of the film industry, the “good old days” are invoked; a time when the most popular movies were often given the coveted Oscar statuette. Past winners like “Ben-Hur” and “The Godfather” were the most successful films of their respective years and 1939’s “Gone with the Wind” is the most successful film of all time (when one takes inflation into account). So when did the Academy begin to stand in opposition to the financial will of the masses?
I think that this actually is the wrong question to ask. Rather than wonder when the opinion-makers stopped rewarding popular films, perhaps we should instead ask when people stopped being interested in better movies?
Yes, yes, I know that such a question will be viewed as somehow elitist, but that doesn’t mean it’s unwarranted. A cursory look at the history of American filmgoing will yield some unexpected results. Take the year 1979. In a year featuring a Bond movie and numerous science fiction outings, one might expect the highest grossing film of the year to be a big budget fantasy or an entry in a beloved franchise.
But no, the most successful film was that year’s Best Picture winner, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” a kitchen sink drama about a divorced father trying to take care of his son. With “Marriage Story” currently nominated for a number of Oscars, it’s not hard to picture a film like this being a modern Academy Awards contender. So that is fairly constant. But does anybody really think that a film like this would even crack the top ten of 2019, let alone be number one?
In 1988, Best Picture went to “Rain Man,” the story of a selfish young man getting to know his mentally disabled brother. It was also the highest grossing film of that year. Another story about an interpersonal relationship, it’s pretty unlikely that a film like this could top the box office these days.
And if we want to go all the way back to the 1940s, 1946 Best Picture winner “The Best Years of Our Lives” was a box office smash, despite it being a three-hour long film about the emotional and financial struggles of World War II veterans. This is hardly the stuff of modern box office dreams, but movies like this are still nominated for Academy Awards.
So what changed? Why is there such a chasm between the Academy and audiences?
The answer, I think, lies less with anything overtly ideological and more with changing technology. As films became more ambitious with their special effects – with movies like “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” leading the charge – spectacle became big business. And few movies were more spectacular than fantasies. Certainly, period epics like “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Braveheart,” or the aforementioned “Gone with the Wind” were popular, but they were rooted firmly in reality.
With directors like Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron pushing the boundaries of digital compositing in the 1980s, other worlds could be created and material previously considered too ambitious could finally be mined for box office gold. Richard Donner’s 1979 “Superman” was pitched with the tagline “You will believe a man can fly.” But with digital technology, not only could men fly, but aliens could attack, dinosaurs could return, and Hobbits could trek into Mordor.
As budgets inflated, it became important for studios to broaden their audiences as much as possible. Bringing in a mere $100 million would no longer suffice. Movies were greenlit with a wider audience in mind, trying to capture a younger demographic, so vital to the box office success of a film. And, just as a little boy will clap his hands and shout “Again, again!,” so younger audiences demanded more, prompting sequel after sequel to be produced.
Before long, remakes, kids movies, and franchise films dominated the box office, until the more adult fare of years past became total non-starters. What once were financially successful would now be touted as “prestige pictures,” made for an older audience looking for some kind of break from the barrage of CGI carnage occupying the multiplexes.
Occasionally, there will be some overlap, as when the Academy rewarded the third “Lord of the Rings” film with Best Picture, Director, and a slew of other awards. And sometimes an Oscar-caliber film will be embraced by a wide audience, such as “American Sniper,” “Hidden Figures,” or “Moneyball.” But, for the most part, the Oscars are doing what they’ve always done: recognize movies for grown-ups that feature thematically and artistically challenging components.
What is “Green Book” if not the latest example of a feel-good interracial buddy film, just like previous winners “In the Heat of the Night” and “Driving Miss Daisy”? “Moonlight” is in the tradition of intimate character portraits like “Marty” and “The Lost Weekend.” And if the current frontrunner “1917” wins Best Picture, it will take its place alongside past war movies like “The English Patient,” “Patton,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and even 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a World War I story from the German perspective.
So, as you regard this year’s Academy Awards and lament its dearth of box office hits, please consider that this isn’t a simple case of left-leaning Hollywood removing itself further and further from the mainstream. The current divide between the Academy and the average moviegoer has been steadily growing since the 1980s, the dominance of special effects, and the courting of a younger – less discerning – audience.