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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Dena Dyer February 28, 2012 at 12:44 PM  

Well put as uaual, Sam. I watched the broadcast and enjoyed quite a bit of it...but I've gotten used to the fact that I usually have only seen one or two of the films nominated. It did seems to me that the nominees for BP were less negative and dark than other years--maybe a sign that we're longing to escape our current world situation and not re-live it so much at the theater?

Sam Van Eman February 28, 2012 at 2:22 PM  

Possibly, Dena. We do like redemption stories, don't we? A few years ago, I wrote an article about how the top-selling movies over the past decade told a very interesting story about what we long for. Many of them were dark, but they pointed strongly toward the light. It was helpful for me to see this. Gave me hope, in fact.

Megan Willome February 28, 2012 at 4:48 PM  

Gotta say, "The Artist" filled me with joy and delight. Without the Oscar nod, I never would have seen it.

Sam Van Eman February 28, 2012 at 5:02 PM  

That is one of the benefits, isn't it, Megan? The nods make us aware. Looking forward to seeing The Artist. It's coming up in my Netflix queue. Thanks for stopping by.

David Rupert February 28, 2012 at 10:25 PM  

I don't trust the masses either! If the reviewer says it's great, I dont' watch it. If it's quirky, I'm in...

Needless to say, I don't watch the Oscars.

Sam Van Eman February 29, 2012 at 8:07 AM  

David, that's the reason I take so long to catch up on pop culture. Most of it I ignore, and some of it I eventually get around to, though only after everyone has forgotten it. It was years after syndication that I finally watched my first episodes of Frasier. I ended up liking it and borrowed every season from the library.

Sam Van Eman March 2, 2012 at 4:28 PM  

Comment from Bradley @ Shrinking the Camel:

"Whoa, Sam. Thought provoking here. First of all, why are you watching streaming video while on a TV hiatus? :) It gets fuzzy, doesn't it?

Anyway, I have this saying with my wife: "People are stupid." Not that people are really stupid (although you must admit that with some...), but to your last point about the lowbrow standards of the masses, I mean, come on. You said it well.

I don't watch the Oscars, but I do pay attention to the winning films, and feel compelled to see them to get some sense of connection with the higher art forms.

I think what people watch most from the Oscars is the celebrity fashion lineup, not the movies. That's the only thing that will keep the Oscars popular. Maybe they should connect it with a pre-season reality show?"

Sam Van Eman March 2, 2012 at 4:31 PM  

Brad, movies aren't *technically* TV, so I've allowed myself to watch some, within reason. And I was good and didn't watch the Oscars, though I wanted to. In fact, I wish I could have hosted a party like my old friends do with costumes and score charts and a life-size cut-out of the Oscar award spotlighted in the yard.

Deidra March 6, 2012 at 9:56 PM  

With a son in the film industry, I may have to go on record as saying, "No comment." However - off the record - I watched the Oscars and told my husband, "I don't think I need to watch that again. The best part was Cirque de Soliel." My husband replied, "But what if our son wins an Oscar one day?"

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