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No popularity contest

Entertainment | A blockbuster does not an Oscar make

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Is popularity an excluding factor to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? That was the question moviegoers had after the 81st Annual Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 22.

Over the last decade the academy has seldom aligned itself with audience sentiment, and many of Hollywood's biggest moneymakers find themselves ignored come Oscar night. But it is rare for films that are both popular and critically hailed to go overlooked. The 2009 nominations stand to buck that trend.

The biggest snub was the absence of any major nomination for The Dark Knight besides a posthumous Best Supporting Actor nod for Heath Ledger. Many believed the comic-book blockbuster was a shoo-in for the Best Screenplay and Best Director categories and a dark horse for Best Picture after the Director's Guild, Writer's Guild, and Producer's Guild all nominated it for their top honors. It also had the nation's critics overwhelmingly on its side, receiving a 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that averages the scores of critics across the country. For comparison, the year's most nominated film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, received only a 72 percent positive rating.

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With so many factors on its side, the shutout left even competing filmmakers implying that snobbery may have played a part in the nominating process. Producer Frank Marshall said he was surprised his film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, would not be going up against the latest Batman epic in the Best Picture category, adding, "The fact that The Dark Knight did so well at the box office was probably a good thing and maybe a not-so-good thing. People tend to think films as successful as that are not well made, but certainly, The Dark Knight is exceptionally well made." Michael London, executive producer of Best Picture nominee Milk, echoed Marshall's sentiments: "It's difficult for successful popcorn movies to get serious attention from the academy. It's a knee-jerk thing where smaller movies are perceived as more artistic."

Though The Dark Knight was certainly the biggest crowd-pleaser overlooked by the academy this year, it was by no means the only one. Clint Eastwood has long been an Oscar favorite, with seven nominations and two wins in the last five years alone. Yet while Gran Torino has given the actor/director the highest-grossing launch of his career (and is likely to give him his highest-grossing picture overall by the end of its run), Oscar voters were not as impressed as audiences. Eastwood did not receive the Best Actor nominee most insiders expected, and the film was a no-show in even minor categories. Once again the snub flew in the face of critics who, on average, preferred Gran Torino far more than another Best Picture nominee, The Reader.

That said, audience favorites still occasionally make a showing, but usually when they grow from underdog status like 2008 winner Juno or are foreign contributions as is the case with one of this year's biggest contenders, Slumdog Millionaire.

The trend poses an increasing problem for the Oscar telecast, which has seen its ratings dwindle in recent years as viewers conclude that the ceremony has grown irrelevant and out of touch with mainstream tastes. In recent years the only Oscar ceremonies to post high viewership were those where major blockbusters like Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King received numerous nominations.

In contrast, the Oscar broadcast for 2008, a year in which only one Best Picture nominee (Juno) managed to reach the top 30 in box-office numbers, reached only 32 million viewers, the smallest audience since Nielsen Media Research began tracking ratings in 1974. Slumdog may be cherished by many moviegoers, but, like Juno, it is unlikely to have the clout to bring in serious numbers come Feb. 22.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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