The Academy Awards are losing viewers, and there are various theories as to why. I can offer my own ideas, but I think the Oscars might benefit from my own suggestions as to how to make things better for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Awards of Merit.
A chief complaint about the Oscars is that no one has seen the nominated films. This is a perfectly valid complaint. Back when the Oscars were THE dominant film prize, everyone knew the nominated films because they were all major releases from the major studios. People knew Best Picture winners and nominees because they'd seen them.
Take 1952 as a prime example. The five films nominated for Best Picture were all released across the country, so when the competition emerged between the Western High Noon, the Irish romantic comedy The Quiet Man, the lavish medieval epic Ivanhoe, the lavish Belle Epoque romance Moulin Rouge, and the big-budget spectacle The Greatest Show on Earth, the public was well aware of which films were up for the Top Prize. The eventual winner: The Greatest Show on Earth, was the biggest hit of the year (perhaps not with current-day critics, but I think it's an entertaining picture even if I think The Quiet Man should have won).
Compare that with the 2007 awards. The nominated films were box office failures with the possible exception of the comedy Juno. The others: Atonement, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, and that year's winner, No Country For All Men, were roundly rejected by the public. However, the Academy, enthralled with a parade of critical praise for little-seen films, lavished praise and awards on films that not only weren't popular with audiences but that were very dark, depressing, almost nihilistic.
Academy, Academy. People want to go to movies to be entertained, not to come out thinking life is meaningless and absurd. The Academy was completely surprised that it was the lowest-rated telecast in its history. How could they honestly be surprised? If you nominate films few have seen and even fewer want to see, why would you care who wins? Think about it: more people wanted to see Norbit than wanted to see No Country For Old Men (I fall in the 'I wouldn't want to see either' category). I'm not advocating a Best Picture nomination for Norbit, but I am advocating that the Academy has got it all wrong.
Their answer was to broaden the nominees to Ten, then to a number between Five and Ten (I can hear them now: Pick a Number, Any Number...). I would argue this does not resolve the main issue: people simply don't know the nominated FILMS. Changing the number to "include" more popular hits like Avatar or Toy Story 3 won't fix the problem. It's not size, but access that is the problem
At the moment, to receive a Best Picture nomination, a film must play in a Los Angeles theater in a qualifying year (from January 1 to December 31) for one week. This is why many potential Best Picture nominees are given a quick one-week release in L.A. to be considered before being rolled out across the country. That explains how Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close received a surprise Best Picture nomination when it had barely been released everywhere else.
This rule made sense when all major films were released simultaneously across the country. Since that no longer happens, and the smaller "art house" films sometimes never make it to the smaller markets, the potential viewers (of both the film and the Oscar telecast) may never know about said film.
Allow me a digression. Long ago, America was primarily a rural country. As such, children were allowed three months off from school (June, July, and August) to help out in the harvest. In other words, school policy was dictated by local circumstances. America is now an urban country, but yet we still have those same three summer months off from school. It is traditional, but is now thoroughly illogical. I know it's considered sacrosanct, and granted when I was a child I enjoyed time off from school. However, I didn't spend those months locked in my home. I went to the park, definitely the library, and perhaps a week of actual travel. It no longer makes sense, but no one has either the sense or the courage to say, "let the kids stay during most of the summer", with the possible exception of year-round schools.
In the same way we should eliminate summer vacation (what adult gets three months off from work?), we should reform the policy of having films play for one week in Los Angeles for Oscar consideration. With that, I offer this solution:
A Requirement that Any Best Picture Nominee Play for Three Weeks in the Top Twenty Cities in America.
That means in order to be considered for a Best Picture Oscar, a film HAS to play for nearly a month in the following cities:
- Los Angeles, California
- New York City, New York State
- Chicago, Illinois
- Houston, Texas
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Phoenix, Arizona
- San Antonio, TX
- San Diego, CA
- Dallas, TX
- San Jose, CA
- Jacksonville, Florida
- Indianapolis, Indiana
- San Francisco, CA
- Austin, TX
- Columbus, Ohio
- Fort Worth, TX
- Charlotte, North Carolina
- Detroit, Michigan
- El Paso, TX*
- Memphis, Tennessee
Another point of contention is in the so-called 'minor categories' such as the short-subjects (Documentary, Live-Action, and Animated). People, it has been argued, don't care about those, and the idea of eliminating them will help attract more people. I see this as a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Again, people don't care about these categories because they simply don't know about them. Long ago, when one theater would show one film the feature would be included with a secondary movie (the B-Picture), a cartoon, a newsreel, and a short film (maybe a one-reeler lasting fifteen minutes, or a two-reeler lasting thirty). Therefore, when those films were nominated or won, the audience at large would have seen them.
Today, an audience is overwhelmed with commercials that one skips on television. I love the little piggy from the GEICO commercials as much as the next guy, but I didn't pay to see HIM, nor local ads pushing breast enlargements on me. I'd rather see a short film or an animated short (like the Toy Story animated short Small Fry that played before The Muppets).
The rules to be nominated for Best Documentary Short-Subject are more antiquated: it has to play for one week in Los Angeles and New York, play twice a day between noon and ten, and have a review published in either the New York or Los Angeles Times with ads announcing it in those newspapers and a few others in the New York and Los Angeles area. No television review (and I figure no online review) will be accepted.
I won't quibble with their requirement that it not be shown on television before being shown in a theater to be considered, but everything else insures that a Documentary Feature or Short-Subject simply won't be seen by anyone outside the Documentary Branch (and if allowed, I think it shows the Academy has its head up its ass when it comes to documentaries). Their rules for Animated Shorts is even more ridiculous: the running dates are October 1 through September 30 to qualify, with three straight days and two screenings a day.
Talk about byzantine...and stupid.
Does the Academy really want to make the nominated films that unavailable to people? The reason no one cares or knows the nominated animated/short-subject/documentaries is because they've set the system up to insure the smallest number of people see them.
AMPAS, You Are Officially Stupid.
To fix this problem, first, allow us critics a wider say. There are many qualified film reviewers across the country, not just LA and NYC (case in point, me). Perhaps this is why Hoop Dreams, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Senna (my Number 2 film of 2011) all failed to receive nominations when they certainly were all brilliant films. Therefore, expand the location of reviews beyond the coast to "fly-over country". How about, again, the Top Twenty Cities?
My own suggestion is to tie them in to major releases. Will it really kill people to have to sit through The Fantasic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore rather than have them watch a commercial for Rizzoli and Isles? I'd sooner watch Laurel & Hardy's The Music Box (one of the funniest films I've seen, long or short) than have to endure ads for dentists or those damn boob jobs or a trailer for The Closer (is that show still on?).
I've long argued that it's the lack of exposure that keeps people away. Once you introduce them to short-subjects and documentaries, they will embrace them. I think Undefeated is a better and more moving film than the revolting The Hangover Part II, and if people were given a chance to see it, they would get into it as much as those who were fortunate to see it either in a theater or a screener sent to critics like myself. I'd rather see Undefeated than Green Lantern simply because the former is a masterpiece, the other a piece of junk. Yet, the studios think people won't watch a documentary because it's "too high" for the general public's 'small minds', and thus something like Green Lantern might be more palatable to the mainstream audience's intelligence.
In short, they think you are too stupid to follow along or appreciate a film like Undefeated or If A Tree Falls, Hell and Back Again, or Senna.
With that, my suggestion:
a requirement that potential nominees in all short-subject film categories also play three weeks in the Top Twenty Cities.
Tie them in to the major releases, and I think studios and filmmakers will be amazed at the reaction...and these categories will be 'minor' no more. Expand the critical reviews to include said cities (including television, radio, and online), and maybe even allow the short list of potential nominees to come from outside LA and NYC. They won't vote for the winner, but they could submit their choices to allow a wider selection. Finally, the film has to be watched from beginning to end.
The Dean of Film Reviewers, Roger Ebert, was apoplectic about how Hoop Dreams was turned off after fifteen minutes. The people watching didn't give it a chance. Still, despite being a major critic, under today's rules, he has little sway: he doesn't write for the Los Angeles or New York Times.
If Roger Ebert can't sway the Documentary Branch, how does a little ol' kid from West Texas do it? Well, he does it by speaking out, by taking the idea that one person can make a change, and taking it from there.
In any case, those are simple suggestions coming from someone who loves movies, all movies: animated, documentaries, foreign-language. I don't claim great education or wisdom. I only claim a different view and some common sense.