Assessing Oscar and Hollywood

The hand-wringing going on right now about the state of Hollywood and the Oscars is a bizarre mix of long-overdue self-awareness and stubborn self-delusion. Observers have noted with much shock that people aren’t going to movies that much and that none of the Oscar nominees is a genuinely popular movie. But these are long-standing trends.

In a year dominated by headlines of a (largely fallacious) box-office slump, the reality is that movies have been losing audience — in both absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population — to television and other entertainments for more than half a century.

And then there’s the belly-aching about the Oscars, about how the nomination for Best Picture of five relatively small-scale films means that the general public will be less interested in the ceremony. Folks seem genuinely concerned about the health of Oscar, and the movie industry as a whole.

Edward Jay Epstein does a fine job of deflating the Academy Awards:

“Take this year’s Best Picture nominations ... . What all of these films have in common is that they have virtually nothing to do with the real business of the Hollywood studios.”
In other words, the Oscars are notable most years for celebrating films that are anomalies in the marketplace. Nominees are rarely popular movies.

David Thomson, in arguing for a major overhaul of the Oscar ceremony, is more cynical about the Academy Awards but seconds Epstein’s thesis about the movie industry:

“It was humbug and flimflam from the start, and so it has always been. ... There was never a directing Oscar for Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Robert Altman.”
Yet this fundamentally crass perspective — that Hollywood has never been about “art,” and has always been (and will always be) about money — isn’t shared by everybody. Some folks see this shifting marketplace, this death of the widely shared cultural experience of a movie, as an opportunity for Hollywood to break out of the business model described so thoroughly by Epstein in his book The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood.

Jim Emerson notes that this year’s Best Picture nominees represent the triumph of the niche:

Brokeback Mountain provided a perfect object-lesson in low-budget, profitable, not-for-everybody filmmaking. Really, how much of a risk is $14 million when you attract the kind of talent that made this movie? Or Good Night, and Good Luck? Especially compared with risk and expense of a generic gamble like The Island or [Fill in Title of Costly Factory-Tooled Flop Here]?”
His conclusion:
“Finding and selling to more narrowly defined markets (something besides ‘everybody’) is proving to be a less risky, more reliably profitable enterprise than the old, media-intensive scattershot approach.”

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