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Oscar's filter

Academy Awards | It's worldview, not artistic merit, that helps unpopular films dominate the Academy Awards

Issue: "Medical care circus," Feb. 25, 2012

Nine films are competing for the Best Picture award to be handed out at the 2012 Academy Awards extravaganza on Feb. 26-and the average box office gross of the nominees is one of the lowest in the last 20 years. Only one of the nine, The Help, could be considered a genuine hit. And, as with popular nominees of the previous two years, few industry insiders give it much chance of winning. (One Oscar betting site currently pegs its odds at 33 to 1.)

Since underrepresentation of crowd-pleasers prompted the Academy's decision in 2009 to have up to 10 Best Picture nominees each year rather than five, the natural question when sizing up this year's race is, what gives? The answer lies in a story that shows how worldviews make a difference both in making movies and choosing winners.

Let's start with that expansion decision, which followed years of sliding Oscar night ratings. The president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sid Ganis, said in a press conference that the Academy's goal was to expand the playing field for worthy films: "Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize."

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Yet while the move wasn't without precedent (prior to 1943, the Best Picture category often included as many as 12 nominees), many skeptical industry watchers surmised that while a desire to cater to the movie-going public played a part in the Academy's decision, the Academy had been shamed into it.

The 81st Academy Awards four months earlier saw the snubbing of The Dark Knight, one of the most financially successful, critically acclaimed films of the last decade: It was the highest-grossing movie of 2008 and also received a 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that averages the scores of film critics across the country. It received neither Best Picture nor Best Director nominations. Instead, less-regarded films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader, which received only 72 percent and 62 percent positive averages, respectively, and grossed only small fractions of The Dark Knight's haul, made the cut.

Speculation that its popularity and superhero subject matter caused Oscar voters to diss The Dark Knight sparked widespread outrage across the blogosphere. Awards Daily, in a piece titled Oscar Shoots Self in Foot, wondered what criteria could have possibly accounted for the Academy's choice. "They don't think about ratings, they don't think about critics, they don't think about the public anymore (they certainly used to). So what do they think about?" wrote Sasha Stone. The Chicago Tribune's Marc Caro warned that Oscar might be flirting with irrelevance: "When the Academy denies top recognition to such critically and popularly beloved movies as The Dark Knight and Wall•E ... it risks confirming the suspicions of those who think it has grown out of touch with mainstream tastes."

During the question-and-answer session following his 2010 announcement of the Best Picture expansion, Ganis admitted, "I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words 'Dark Knight' did not come up."

The new, enlarged 2010 ceremony featured indie productions like The Hurt Locker and An Education going head-to-head with crowd-pleasers like Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, and Up. The widely publicized insider wisdom was that Avatar, based on the seismic impact it had on the entertainment landscape, stood a good chance of winning, and the other three nominations were pure audience bait with little to no hope of taking home the big award. In the end, all the big box-office players lost out to the low-budget war drama, The Hurt Locker (which made less money at the box office than any Best Picture winner in modern Oscar history), and 5 million more viewers tuned in.

Why did that happen? Britain's Daily Telegraph argued that the Academy refuses to "bow cravenly to box-office success; instead it rewards serious, accomplished filmmaking." But here's another suggestion: Filmmakers with the talent and resources to make excellent movies (which usually means movies that treat ideas seriously) are choosing themes that the broad swath of Americans find uninspiring if not outright offensive.

Think about Best Picture nominees that also have big box-office numbers. They tend to be films in which the main characters struggle to overcome either their own inner weaknesses or outer obstacles to achieve a specific moral ideal. Gladiator, Erin Brockovich, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Juno, Up, Inglourious Basterds, Seabiscuit, Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Avatar-all of these high-grossing Best Picture contenders of the last 10 years, whether you ascribe to their worldview or not, present a fixed concept of virtue. Character development and the subtext of the story serve to reinforce, not deconstruct, that concept.

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