Oscar Night: A Call for the Good and the Popular

by Sam Van Eman  

Transcript of this recording:

I missed the Oscars Sunday night because I’m on a TV hiatus. But I didn’t really miss the Oscars. I watched a couple of the nominees via Netflix but wasn’t too impressed. Then I read a recap this morning in the New York Times about how the Oscars needs to deal with its antiquated formula: extensive advertising, long months of telling potential viewers about the show, countless blog posts and movie trailers and pre-vote casting opportunities. As the article goes, nearly five months of marketing are aimed at one hopefully spectacular, star-studded, entertaining, successful celebration.

Yet many think it fell flat this year.

Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply wrote the review that caught my attention. It’s entitled, Fears Grow That Oscars’ TV Allure May Be Resistible. They said, “With films that most of America hasn’t seen continuing to dominate the Oscars—“Hugo,” a winner of five trophies on Sunday, has been a box office dud—the Academy seems to have effectively eliminated one of the crucial measuring sticks of the past: the ability of a picture to move the masses to buy tickets.”

For me, this is the crux of the matter. Good vs popular. On one hand you may have good films which weren’t popular but win Best Picture. On the other hand, you may have popular films which weren’t exactly good but win Best Picture anyway. The former highlight the power to amaze us or shift our worldview; the latter, the power to fill seats.

But good vs popular creates an interesting dilemma. If all of the Oscar nominees are good but not popular, viewers have to force themselves to preview the line-up prior to Oscar night or else they won’t have a clue about who’s in the running, and therefore have no real buy-in to the show. If, however, all of the Oscar nominees are popular but not good, viewers will naturally tune in like sports fans to see if their pick will win. (But then people like me end up questioning the voting system and wonder why such-and-such an incredible no-name movie didn’t get noticed.)

I have to confess. My peculiar tastes aside, I don’t trust the masses. They are—and don’t take this personally; I share it as what I think of as basic sociology—ignorant, emotionally driven, and generally lacking in good taste. Crowds follow each other with a certain blind excitement that dampens objectivity when it comes to valuing cultural artifacts. What is popular is not always promising. What is mass is not always remarkable. But without, as the article said, “the ability of a picture to move the masses to buy tickets,” the Oscars—at least in its current format—will eventually die.

Preachers know this. Marketers know this. Authors know this. TV show producers know this. You can have a great message, but if you aren’t filling seats, it’s going to be an awfully poor and lonely road ahead, if there even is a road ahead.

I ask whether the Oscars’ TV allure was resistible this year because a handful of the nominees were neither good nor popular. Such a combination does not bode well for anyone.

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