Oscars Show Growing Gap Between Moviegoers and Academy - Washington Weekly
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Oscars Show Growing Gap Between Moviegoers and Academy


2015.02.24 04:22

 LOS ANGELES — In the end, it was the audience that got snubbed.

Following the best picture win on Sunday night by “Birdman” — a brainy film seen by fewer than five million ticket buyers in North America — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences woke on Monday to soft television ratings for its Oscar telecast and fresh signs that its movie awards have become hopelessly detached from movie viewers.
According to Nielsen data, the Oscar broadcast on ABC drew about 36.6 million viewers, down 14.9 percent from roughly 43 million last year. It was the lowest-rated show since 2009, which had about 36.3 million viewers for a ceremony hosted by Hugh Jackman, with “Slumdog Millionaire” in the winner’s circle.
 
Going into Sunday’s show, the headlines were about the dearth of racial diversity among acting nominees. That gave Neil Patrick Harris, the ceremony’s eager, if ultimately ineffective, host, his first joke of the night, as he opened what he called a celebration of “the best and the whitest — sorry, brightest.”
 
But the large number of black presenters and performers — including John Legend and Common, who also collected the best song prize for their “Selma” tour de force, “Glory” — helped to douse that controversy. The most honored artist of the evening was notably Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the Mexican director of “Birdman,” who accepted the best picture statuette with a plea for immigrant respect. He also was a co-writer and producer of the film, which is formally titled “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.”
The bigger problem, as the results came in, were indications — visible amid a confusing tangle of awards that went in many different directions — that both the Academy and the echo chamber of Hollywood’s awards-system machinery have nearly broken their connection with the movies that many millions of people buy tickets to watch.
“It’s sad, but most people have to finally accept that the Oscars have become, well, elitist and not in step with anything that is actually popular,” said Philip Hallman, a film studies librarian at the University of Michigan. “No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time.”
The audience clearly cast its vote for Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” a reality-based Iraq war story that has taken in about $320 million at the domestic box office from nearly 40 million viewers. Box-office analysts predict that “American Sniper” will easily take in $340 million before its run is finished, making it the No. 1 film released last year, as measured in domestic ticket sales.
Another telling statistic: “Birdman” collected about $11 million in ticket sales between the time it was nominated and Sunday; “American Sniper” took in $317 million over the same period.
But “American Sniper,” one of eight best picture nominees and with six nominations over all, went home with nothing but a sound-editing statuette.
“The Imitation Game,” the second-ranked ticket seller among the best picture nominees, with about $84 million in domestic sales from about 10 million viewers, did no better. After months of intense prize campaigning by the Oscar-savvy Weinstein Company, it lost in seven of its eight nominated categories, winning only for best adapted screenplay.
In the visual effects category, all five nominees, including the winner, “Interstellar,” were the sort of grand blockbusters that keep Hollywood working and give it sheen around the world. Not one of them figured in a field of smaller-budget, little-seen best picture contenders that for months had dominated the awards conversation.

Photo
Dana Perry, left, and Ellen Goosenberg Kent were played offstage.CreditMichael Yada /Ampas/European Pressphoto Agency

Even the “In Memoriam” sequence gave viewers the cold shoulder. The wildly popular Joan Rivers, a red-carpet fixture and occasional actress, was noticeably not included, while multiple little-known former film professionals did make the cut.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way: In 2009, Academy officials increased their field of best picture nominees, from five to a maximum of 10, in a bid to embrace large, world-spanning films — “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” — that are the pinnacle of populist art. The plan was to shift the Oscars back toward relevancy, “a history where most of the winning films were also popular with the audience,” as Mr. Hallman put it on Monday.
 
With the occasional exception of an “Avatar” or a “Gravity” among the nominees, however, the larger field of contenders has only brought in more little movies. The trend was particularly noticeable on Sunday, when one of the big winners was “Whiplash,” which won three Oscars but has been seen by perhaps 1.4 million ticket buyers since its release more than four months ago.
The slow drift from the audience, film historians say, is almost certainly rooted in the Academy’s admissions process, which leans heavily toward the inclusion of each year’s nominees. Those nominated for making small films join the ranks and nominate more small films. A recent move to expand the documentary branch probably added a few more indie-minded voters with an eye for the esoteric. (Academy membership is generally around 6,000; last year, 271 candidates, a relatively high number, were invited to join.)
The creation of a casting director branch in 2013 almost certainly added still more voters with a penchant for character and performance, and perhaps not much interest in the colossal visual-effects-driven films by which much of Hollywood makes a living.
For many in Hollywood, the net result became painfully visible on Sunday, as Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the Oscar ceremony producers, created a razzmatazz variety show with some movies in tow — almost as an afterthought.
At least a half-dozen times, Mr. Harris, the host, promised that Lady Gaga, the evening’s big draw, was just around the corner. She overwhelmed some of those small winners: A surreal moment in the press room found her performing to “The Sound of Music,” from 50 years ago, while Laura Poitras, the director of the documentary “Citzenfour,” about the whistle-blower Edward J. Snowden, tried to make her points about the government’s devouring of personal privacy.
 
Another awkward moment came when Dana Perry, a winner with Ellen Goosenberg Kent for a documentary short about suicide hotlines, dedicated the award to her son, saying: “We lost him to suicide. We should talk about suicide out loud.” At that moment, the orchestra began to play her offstage, and Mr. Harris arrived to yank the show back toward mirth.
“I love that dress,” he told Ms. Perry as she was ushered into the wings.
As the ratings demonstrated, the audience was not impressed. Perhaps they went to the movies instead: Box-office analysts noted that ticket sales on Sunday, normally a slow day at theaters, were unusually brisk.
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