It happens every winter: A beautiful starlet wakes up at the crack of dawn to read a list of movies that will vie for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and millions of people around the country groan. "Never heard of them," America says.
But this year — for the first time in many, many years — not only will a majority of the public have heard of most of the films likely to be nominated, they may have actually seen them, too. Yes, the annual tradition of griping over the disconnect between the Academy's affinity for little-seen arthouse fare and the public's taste for mass-appeal blockbusters may finally be interrupted — at least if precursor award organizations' rewarding of bona fide box-office hits like Argo, Lincoln, and Les Miserables continues. (And it will.)
Years of discontent over the snubbing of well-made, populist films finally came to a head in 2008, when The Dark Knight, one of the best-reviewed and most audience-cheered movies of the year, was excluded from the Best Picture race. Not only did Christopher Nolan's second Batman flick score over $500 million at the domestic box office, but its 94 percent approval rating on review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes trounced eventual nominees The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (72 percent) and The Reader (61 percent), bested Frost/Nixon (92 percent), and tied Milk and Slumdog Millionaire — all while being exponentially more popular with movie audiences. Backlash to The Dark Knight's omission was so vitriolic that it seems to have spurred the Academy to expand the Best Picture category to 10 nominees the very next year. The idea, presumably, was to make room for Dark Knight-like movies released each year that are habitually dismissed by Oscar voters for lack of space.
This was only a moderate success. While films like Avatar, The Blind Side, and The Help have made it in since the change was enacted in 2009, those extra slots have typically been taken by quiet indies: A Serious Man, Winter's Bone, The Kids Are Alright, The Tree of Life. But this year, that's about to change.
Earlier this week, the Producers Guild Association, considered one of the more accurate Oscar predictors, nominated the operatic (and cash-guzzling) new Bond flick Skyfall for its Best Picture award, marking the first time that any of the 23 Bond films have been (seriously) in the Oscar conversation. Skyfall has been a mammoth commercial success, raking in $290 million in the U.S. alone. Oscar gurus currently have it ranked number 10 among likely nominees. If it does manage to scrape a Best Picture nod, it would join Argo, Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Lincoln, and probably Zero Dark Thirty as films that, by the time the Oscar ceremony takes place, will have crossed the $100 million threshold at the box office. In addition, likely nominee Life of Pi has already made more than $85 million, and will build on that total in the weeks to come.
That means that six likely Best Picture nominees (seven if you count Skyfall) will have made more than $85 million at the box office. Annoyingly complex new rules make it so that as few as five and as many as 10 films are nominated. But the upshot is that it's possible that those six (or seven) commercially successful films will actually be the only nominees. Compare that to last year, when only one nominee made that much at the box office (The Help). And really, for most of the last decade, the Best Picture race has been dominated by teeny-tiny indies. (Remember those box-office juggernauts Capote, Letters From Iwo Jima, and In the Bedroom?)
Water cooler conversations this winter are zeroing in on Anne Hathaway's stunning turn as Fantine in Les Miz, Daniel Day-Lewis' seamless portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, and Ben Affleck's second life as a first-rate Hollywood director — a rare occasion in which buzzy awards films are also just buzzy films in general, irrespective of their Oscar chances. Tuning into the Oscars this February 24 will finally become an active experience, with audience members actually being able to root for and judge nominees instead of shrugging the standard "haven't seen it" when contenders are introduced.
There could be several explanations for this shift. Perhaps after suffering years of blockbuster dreck — Transformers, Twilight, the latter Pirates of the Caribbean films — moviegoers are becoming more discerning with their box-office dollars. Or it could be that after producing years of blockbuster dreck, studios are wising up and making mass-market films that are actually good — The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Ted, 21 Jump Street, and The Avengers are among 2012's rapturously reviewed commercial smashes. Or maybe Oscar voters are finally catching on to the growing frustration with out-of-touch awards picks each year.
Whatever the reason, it's a win-win situation. Oscar viewers want to be entertained and engaged by the telecast. Just look at how hosts' performances are mercilessly picked apart each year. Often, these performances are the only one Oscar audiences are familiar with. But when viewers have actually seen the nominees, they're far more likely to enjoy the broadcast.
As for the Academy: Its mission is rewarding art, yes, but it's also producing a television show. Thusly, it wants as many people as possible to watch its television show. Historically, viewership spikes when hugely popular movies up for major awards — the years of Titanic, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and Avatar saw upticks in viewership — and falls when most of the nominees are little-seen movies — the year of No Country for Old Men is the lowest-rated ever.
Certainly, no one's arguing that the Oscars should turn into the People's Choice Awards. No one wants The Expendables 2 and Madagascar 3 to get Best Picture nods just because they were popular at the box office. But a year in film in which the general public and the exclusive Academy seem to be seeing eye to eye is something to celebrate.
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