Academy Awards: Do We Still Watch The Best Pictures?

Editor’s Note: With this article, we welcome the incredibly knowledgeable and talented Adam Charles to the FSR team. He’s decided to start with a very in-depth, insightful article, and we hope that you’ll take a moment to read the entire thing. We also hope that you enjoy reading his work as much as we do.

“Who cares?”

The above quote is the most oft-uttered phrase I hear whenever the Academy Awards makes its way into a conversation, implying that said person probably won’t be watching the ceremony. I’m intrigued as to the potential reasoning behind the response so I interrogate as to why they feel (at the very most) indifferent to the telecast that’s supposed to honor the best examples the year has offered of the most widely popular form of “art as entertainment” that we have.

“Because, I haven’t seen any of the films that are nominated.”

That seems to be the most common retort. for as long as I can recall, year in and year out, for the past twenty years or so (at least) the Academy Awards show has been generally a giant advertisement of film titles that the majority of the public didn’t care to see in the theaters; which is a fact that further adds fuel to the fire that movie critics and aficionados are completely out of touch with what kinds of films the general American public want to see.

I’m not so sure.

Before I tread further I should point out that it is indeed a fact that for the past twenty years (at least) the majority of the movie-going public has not been watching the Best Picture nominees during their theatrical run.

When considering what the majority of people are watching in the theaters one need only look at the respective box-office numbers for each given year. Per capita the average U.S. consumer purchases around 4 to 5 movie tickets in a given year, calculated as the number of tickets sold in a given year compared to the estimated population in the United States in that given year. It’s basically hovered around that mark for the past 40 years. So, if a film finished atop the yearly domestic box-office grosses within the top 5 then chances are relatively high that it was seen in the theater by the majority of the movie-going public, a top 10 finish meant that the percentages were still in good favor of that film being seen.

Given the figures of 5 movie tickets purchased per person per year and the top 10 highest grossing films of the year being the most likely candidates for an average filmgoer to have used their 5 tickets to gain admittance to this first decade of the new millennium had a total of 8 of the 55 Best Picture nominees crack the top 10 in terms of box-office gross for its given year. 6 of those cracked the top 5. Of those 8 in the top 10 only 3 went on to win Best Picture (thus far, as Avatar may win for the ’09 film slate), and 2 of which cracked the top 5 (again, Avatar may increase it by 1). In other words, roughly once every 2 years did the majority of the general public choose to use 1 of their 5 movie ticket purchases on an eventual Academy Award Best Picture contender for this decade, and only twice thus far this entire decade did the eventual Best Picture winner be easily pointed to as definitely viewed by the majority of the filmgoing public.

I did say “at least the last twenty years” earlier and while the comparative numbers for the 1990s and 1980s are higher than the first 21st century decade they’re still not incredibly significant. The 1990s had 16 of the 50 Best Picture nominees crack their year’s top 10 box-office, 12 of which cracked the top 5. Of the 16 nominees 5 went on to win Best Picture, and 4 of those winners cracked the top 5 for their year. So, whereas in the 2000 decade the average filmgoer saw a Best Picture ‘contender’ roughly once every 2 years, in the 1990s the average filmgoer saw a Best Picture ‘winner’ roughly once every 2 years and saw at least one contender every year.

The 1980s decade is almost completely identical number-wise to the 1990s. Going further back though, things get increasingly more interesting.

A lot of film buffs, movie critics, industry professionals, and others involved heavily in the film community view the 1970s as the pinnacle of American cinema. It’s when the landscape of film in terms of content and artistry made its most considerable and lasting changes. It was the decade when a good deal of our country’s most admired filmmakers made their masterworks, when our most gifted actors gave their greatest performances, and as you’ll see it would mark the last time that the American public consistently watched the films that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences considered the best films of their given year.

Rather than give an entire paragraph description I’ll just let the numbers speak for themselves:

DECADE BEST PICTURE NOMS TOP 10 BOX OFFICE BEST PICTURE NOMS TOP 5 BOX OFFICE BEST PICTURE WINNERS TOP 10 BOX OFFICE BEST PICTURE WINNERS TOP 5 BOX OFFICE 1970 27 21 8 7 1960 33 25 10 7 1950 34 24 9 6 1940 34 20 9 5

The 1970s don’t offer up the most impressive numbers in comparison to prior decades (the 1960s had every single Best Picture winner for the decade crack the top 10 box office), but they’re undoubtedly comparable and the last time that they would be. Roughly, for these four decades of American film the average American ticket purchaser was more likely to choose to see a Best Picture contender almost once for every two trips to the theater. Then, when you pile on top that during the 1950s the average number of tickets sold per person annually was around 14 instead of 4 to 5 the likelihood that a person saw a top 10 film increases dramatically. Think 14 tickets per person per year sounds insane? Try an average of 27 tickets per person per year during the 1940s, making the likelihood that its numbers shown in the above chart probably apply to the overwhelming majority of ticket purchasers.

The numbers for the 1940s decade are a little less impressive when you consider that for the first four years of the decade there were, like we’ll experience in this year’s Academy telecast, 10 Best Picture nominees each year instead of 5. So, instead of 50 total Best Picture nominees for the decade and 10 winners the 1940s had 70 nominees and 10 winners. Still good numbers put up during that time, but percentage-wise it doesn’t compare to the 50’s thru the 70’s, which is what makes the decision to move back to 10 nominees for the 2009 films appear to be masking a bigger issue.

They’re trying to expand the list to hopefully include more of the year’s financially successful movies, whereas in years past the most financially successful films were the year’s best pictures as decided by the AMPAS. In the 1970s 3 of the Best Picture winners were their year’s most successful at the box-office. Were they epics like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Gladiator? Try Rocky and Kramer vs. Kramer, the other was The Godfather. Most of the other winners finished in the top 5.

“Because, I haven’t seen ANY of the films that are nominated.”

So, all this data and we get back to the question. Why are people not choosing to see these best films of the year? Or, more accurately, why are Academy Award nominated films for Best Picture no longer the most viewed films of the year?

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Maybe the issue is that the AMPAS consistently got it wrong this past decade regarding what are actually the *best* films. Maybe the majority of the public did see the *best* films they just weren’t rewarded with an Academy Award nomination. Almost every single Pixar film released in the 2000’s cracked the top 10 box-office for their year, but only Up received a Best Picture nod and one could justifiably make the argument that almost each and every one of the Pixar films deserved a best picture consideration; but that’s no different than decades past which saw Pinnochio, Fantasia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi and other Disney classics overlooked by the AMPAS and almost all of the great Disney films cracked the top 5 box-office for their release year.

Jason Bourne, Harry Potter, and a bunch of super-heroes also consistently broke the top 10 box-office for the 2000’s and none received a best picture consideration (The Dark Knight inarguably should have been nominated) while each boasted some of the more impressive reviews for their year; but, again, that’s no different than the classic Bond films of the late 60’s and 70’s, the Dirty Harry franchise, or Superman which also were ignored for Best Picture consideration, all of them; not to mention such American classics as Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Singin’ in the Rain, North By Northwest, Rear Window, and countless other national film treasures. All broke the top 10 box-office and none received a best picture nod. If you think the AMPAS got it wrong this decade they got it extremely wrong in past decades.

So, by all accounts and purposes we’re still watching the great animated films as we did before, still watching the great epics as we did before, and still watching the great action films as we did before and they’re all still getting ignored by the AMPAS as they did before. What’s changed?

Gradually we’ve replaced dramas (the most common genre for a Best Picture nominee) with mega-budget action films. Why the replacement of the year’s best dramas and Best Picture contenders with big-budget action films as the preference of the majority of the filmgoing population? Are we just no longer interested in seeing great dramas or the films that critics say are must-sees?

As I said before, I’m not so sure.

Something that this decade has been privy to that prior decades really haven’t had the luxury of is rental facilities for home video. VHS was released for the public during the later 1970s, started to take off mainly during the 80s, and has become a major source for seeing films as it offers a lot of benefits over taking a trip to the theater. You don’t have to worry about people talking, you can pause the film to go to the restroom, and thanks to major online rental proprietors in the 2000s, like Netflix, you only have to walk to your mailbox to grab your movie. Now, with online streaming people can see films instantly on their computer or directly to their home media player. No mailbox necessary.

So, with such easy accessibility to films without having to leave your home people must be dying to see all of these giant blockbusters that everyone in the country is going to see, right?

Below are some of the titles in the top 100 all-time Netflix rentals:

Crash, The Departed, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, No Country for Old Men, Little Miss Sunshine, Babel, Michael Clayton, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, Million Dollar Baby, The Queen, The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Mystic River, There Will Be Blood, Good Night and Good Luck, Atonement, Sideways, Ray, Hotel Rwanda, Gone Baby Gone, Syriana, Doubt, The Last King of Scotland, Into the Wild, The Constant Gardener

Wait, what??!!

That’s 26 films out of the top 100. 19 of those were nominated for Best Picture, 5 of them won Best Picture, and 3 of those are in the top 10 of Netflix’s all-time. Absolutely zero of those broke their year’s top 10 most successful at the box-office.

A further look down the list and you’ll find these films that also didn’t crack the top 10 box-office for their year:

3:10 To Yuma, Inside Man, Knocked Up, Gran Torino, Burn After Reading, The Prestige, The Good Shepherd, Stranger than Fiction, Valkyrie, Flags of our Fathers, Dan in Real Life, Breach…

With those unimpressive at the box-office films we’ve now almost reached half of the top 100 Netflix titles.

When you look at these Netflix numbers in the top 100 you begin to see numbers that look similar to the 1980s and 1990s. Combine the Netflix numbers with yearly box-office top 10’s and we start to inch closer to numbers that rival the 1940s thru the 1970s.

So, is it that we’re not interested in seeing the Academy Award nominated films anymore, or are we no longer interested in seeing them in the theater?

One of the major advantages to home theater viewing that I left out up above is inarguably the largest benefit – the price difference. As of today one could subscribe to Netflix for less than $10.00 per month to rent out one film at a time. The average ticket price to attend a theater screening is currently around $7.35, which is a consolidation of child and elderly discounts, matinee prices, and evening showings. Roughly, during the most popular times to attend a theater show (Friday and Saturday night) the average ticket price is probably around $9.00. That number is the main reason why we can’t really look at actual box-office dollar amounts per movie to gauge success. $100 million dollars at the box-office doesn’t mean what it used to. We’re currently living in the steroid era of film box-office figures.

Even Adjusted-for-Inflation numbers are unreliable. Currently, Gone With the Wind stands as the highest grossing film of all-time when you adjust for inflation beating out Avatar (currently ranked 21st all-time, number 1 unadjusted for inflation) almost by $1 billion, which is like saying that if Babe Ruth took steroids he would have retired with 2,000 home runs in his career. The fact is not every person that paid to see Gone With the Wind in 1939, along with the 5 re-releases in theaters it received which is what makes its number so high, would have paid $9.00 by today’s standards to see it in the theater; just as if Babe Ruth took steroids his entire career chances are his body would have broken down probably before he even reached the 714 home runs he hit without steroids.

So, for the price of one ticket to a movie a person can have access to a library of thousands of movies and can watch as many as they want/can in a one month’s period. If a person watches one Netflix movie per week they’ve cut the ticket price down to see the movie to less than $2.00. Watch 2 per week and it’s down to less than $1.00. Even if one wanted to outright buy the dvd it would only cost an additional $6.00 – $10.00 to do so. $9.00 to watch it once, or $18.00 to own it and watch it whenever you want as often as you want.

It’s no big secret that a trip to the movie theater is now an expensive ordeal. Ticket prices generally increase each and every year and that isn’t new. The average ticket price has gone up each year almost since the beginning of the 1940s. It generally increases from around $0.10 to $0.30 per year, sometimes less. I’m not an economist so I can’t give good figures as to how a $0.46 ticket in 1949, or $5.08 in ’99 translates to the modern value of the American dollar, but I can say that this decade represents the first time in American history that the average ticket price to see a movie was higher than the Federal minimum wage each and every year. Before the 1980s it only occurred a handful of times and then it happened from ’83 thru ’90. It only happened one other time during the ’90s. However, from 2000 to 2009 ticket prices continued to rise while the Federal minimum wage remained stagnant until 2007. In 2006 the average movie ticket outweighed the minimum wage by $1.43.

Take into account also that unemployment is at an all-time high, and the fact that many of the retired elderly live on pension payments and social security and you have a population of Americans who can barely afford a trip to the theater in the classical sense of buying a ticket and paying for concessions. God help a gentleman trying to impress a lady and pay for her ticket too. A single income household with a wife/husband and child? There goes an entire day’s work spent in less than two hours and they could have just waited a few months to buy the dvd and enjoy it (or not, because it doesn’t even matter if they’ve already seen the film) for a fraction of the cost. If they end up liking the film then great because they own it now and can watch it whenever they want. If they end up hating the movie then great because they only paid $18.00 to see it at home with their family instead of $30.00 to see it in the theater.

What was an activity in the past has become an event in the present, and when you go to an event what is it that you want? You want excitement. You want big bangs. You want bells and whistles. You want all of the things the event can offer that you can’t get at home. It’s why people dish out hundred(s) of dollars to see their favorite sports team or musician play live instead of on television, because there’s no replacement for a roaring crowd of thousands who share your enthusiasm.

What can heartfelt dramas, marvelous performances, terrifying horror films, and intense thrillers offer you in a giant theater for $9.00 that it can’t offer at home for less than $2.00? Not much. Great acting on a big screen is great acting on a smaller one. An emotional heart-tug tugs just the same at home. A scary movie may in fact be scarier at home by yourself.

However, what can two-story tall robots that shoot tank-sized weapons at each other, sprawling epics with massive action sequences, and end of the world disaster films offer you on a giant screen versus an at-home experience? Bigger robots, louder bangs, and an excessive amount of destruction that captures the desired scope of the film.

We’re no longer paying for the movie anymore, we’re paying for the facility and what we want to see in that facility is something that will utilize the amenities to the max. We want to see the screen explode and speakers blow out. We worked all day to pay for this trip to the theater and we want to see what the big-bad screen and loud speakers can do. We don’t care if it’s a good movie, apparently, we’ll see the good films at home later.

We’ve now arrived at a point where the cost is playing heavily into our decision-making logic. The quality of the product is taking a backseat in priority to the visual appeal. The cute girl with thick glasses and the college degree that your parents love is losing out to the big-breasted gorgeous blonde who has trouble spelling words longer than 6 letters. Why? Because they cost the same, you can’t afford both right now, and the cute girl with thick glasses and a college degree will still maintain all her qualities later on while the blonde’s boobs will only get saggier or faker, the face will only get wrinklier or faker, and she still won’t be able to spell.

Back in the 1970s and prior you only had one shot at the love of your life before they could have been gone forever. It’s why films like Woodstock (a documentary) and La Dolce Vita (a foreign film) ended up as one of the highest grossing films of their year. Now, we’re overly-comfortable with the knowledge that the girl we’d want to spend the rest of our life with will still be there later that we don’t realize our viewing habits are causing the production of more empty blondes over the intelligent girls we want to spend all of our free time with. Before you know it you’re going to be 45 years old, finished with casual sex, and you’ve seen so many blondes that you’ve run off all of the potential all-time loves. If we stop showing interest they all, eventually, just go away. But, who cares, right?