Staring Into the Maddening Abyss That is Oscar Irrelevancy

By  · Published on March 1st, 2014

Have you seen all of this year’s Oscar flicks? Probably at least a few, considering you’re currently reading the intro to a piece about The Oscars, on a website with “film” in the title. And if you haven’t seen any Oscar movies, chances are you’ve stumbled here by mistake. A wrong click here, an errant basketball slamming into your keyboard there. No big deal.

But then, if you haven’t seen any of this year’s Best Picture nominees, you’re also part of the overwhelming majority. According to a recent Reuters poll, 67% of Americans haven’t seen a single one of this year’s potential Best Pictures. Granted, Reuters only polled 1,443 Americans, and there are no details on which Americans they polled- did the survey stick to the typical Oscar night audience, which is predominantly women in upper income brackets? Did they shy away from that particular group? Aim for an even mix of all races, creeds, colors and genders?

No idea. But it’s one more chunk of evidence for a thought that’s been on the public’s mind the last few years- that the Oscars are a thing of the past. Recent pieces in the New York Times and USA Today give the argument backbone: this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees have pulled in significantly less money in total than last year’s; the overall Oscar Bump (that is, the added box office draw that comes when a film gets a Best Picture nomination) is smaller than last year’s; the amount of campaigning is so extreme that both nominees and general audiences are completely burnt out.

And yes, complaining about the Oscars being irrelevant is about as unique as complaining about Congress being inefficient, or young folks today being completely out of control, because in my day we had respect for our elders and also that music they listen to is just a bunch of noise. But if this year’s Oscars really are shrinking, does that mean they’ve finally run their course?

This Year’s Oscars are Shrinking

Everything stated above is true. This year, the combined Best Picture gross is $782.4M, whereas last year’s was $1.002B. The average Oscar gross in the past five years (ever since the Academy upped their Best Picture numbers from five to ten) has been $1.09B.

Campaigning has been just as bad- Michael Fassbender shrugged off the entire process, announcing, “I won’t put myself through that kind of situation again.” Then there was that “Alone Yet Not Alone” fiasco, where a song no one had ever heard of in a movie almost no one saw recieved a Best Original Song nomination. People started to examine the campaign process, and the difference between “I’m Harvey Weinstein, so vote for my movie,” and “I’m the head of the music branch of the Academy, so vote for my movie.” It didn’t take long for the song’s nomination to be rescinded.

Cate Blanchett’s nomination got sucked into Woody Allen’s recent terrifying family woes. 12 Years a Slave was hit with claims of historical inaccuracy. People accused The Wolf of Wall Street of glorifying Jordan Belfort’s terrible, terrible life choices rather than ironically decrying them. If a film was nominated for Best Picture, chances are someone has accused it of something unspeakable, and something that would almost certainly hurt its chances of winning the gold (and if a film was produced by Miramax, chances are Harvey Weinstein has trotted it out alongside the freaking Pope to gain a little publicity).

But wait, there’s more! When the Academy broadened the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten(ish) in 2009, it was in an attempt to widen the scope of the Oscars, and give smaller, less traditionally Oscar-worthy films the opportunity to take home a tiny golden man with no visible sex organs. But astoundingly, it’s had the opposite effect: the Oscars are actually less inclusive than they’ve ever been. Mark Harris, of Grantland, discovered that since opening up the Best Picture nom, the total amount of films represented in the big awards (Picture, Director, the acting and the screenplay categories) has been consistently shrinking.

“Between 1984 and 2008, an average of 18.3 movies were represented in the top eight categories each years – sometimes as many as 22, and never fewer than 16. A drop in the last two years, first to 14 and then to 12, can’t be written off by dismissing the quality of the movies that were available to nominate; it represents the encroachment of an all-or-nothing mentality that has, I would argue, been fueled by the Academy’s misguided approach to its biggest prize.”

Essentially, now that the Academy has to nominate nearly twice as many films, they’re cutting corners and only focusing on the movies that look like guaranteed Oscar success stories. The films they’re supposed to be scouting for- off-the-beaten-path indies and not normally recognized flicks- are even less likely to receive a nomination than before, because it’s too much work to have to sift through more movies when there’s a perfectly good stack of nine or ten that everyone knows will probably be nominated anyway.

Given all this, it really does seem like the Oscars are on their way out. Except for one fact:

This Year’s Oscars are Growing

Yep. Box office may be down this year, but TV ratings are most certainly not. Last year’s ceremony was the most-watched Oscars in the past three years. That same ceremony was also the highest rated non-sports anything in 2013, and the highest-rated entertainment telecast of any kind in the past three years. Not coincidentally, ABC sold out on this year’s Oscar ad space super early, and for the highest price in Oscar history at nearly $1.9M per 30-second spot. That’s happening even with rumors that Hyundai, the Oscars’ biggest sponsor, may be dropping out of the usual Oscar night ad game. The Oscars’ social media presence is also crazy huge, with millions upon millions of Tweets being tweeted (twoted?) during the last two ceremonies.

Here’s why: the Oscars are one of the last true pieces of “appointment viewing” TV left today. Like the Super Bowl or the last episode of Breaking Bad, people are still willing to sit through actual, live commercials to find out which movie ekes out the big win. Plus, the vast majority of the Academy’s profits come from Oscar Night revenue, and they’re sticking with ABC at least through 2020. Both know that the Oscars are somehow a constant cash cow, and both will continue to profit hugely from the yearly ceremony- even as the entire planet claims to be sick and tired of it.

Because if the Oscars were really becoming irrelevant, people wouldn’t be watching them… right? Unless people are just tweeting and watching in record numbers out of spite, or so they can more accurately complain about how the Oscars are less relevant than ever. Somehow, the Oscars have massively shrunk in terms of public appeal, but have also become more popular than ever in terms of public appeal. How?

The Truth About Oscar Relevancy/Irrelevancy

I’ll put this in the plainest terms possible:

The Oscars don’t change. Good press, bad press, major shakeups to the ceremony or the nomination system- nothing phases them. They just sort of exist, like those jellyfish that never die, and keep re-living the same life-cycle for centuries.

Here. Look at the Oscar Night ratings for the past decade.

2013: 40.3 million
2012: 39.3 million
2011: 37.9 million
2010: 41.3 million
2009: 36.3 million
2008: 32.0 million
2007: 40. 2 million
2006: 38.9 million
2005: 42.1 million
2004: 43.5 million

No discernible pattern. The occasional blockbuster might drive up ratings- Avatar for the 2010 broadcast, The Lord of The Rings: Return of the King for 2004- but other, times big-ticket pictures do absolutely nothing. 2011 had both Toy Story 3 and Inception on the Best Picture list, but whiffed with the Nielsen ratings. And 2013 was a solid night for viewers, yet it had nary a single box-office titan among its nine biggest nominees (the highest draw was Lincoln, which was plenty successful in its own right, but no giant crowd-puller).

Hosts, too, seem to have little effect. Seth McFarlane brough controversy and a potential Family Guy audience last year, and although he had the biggest Oscar draw in three years, 2013 was actually the middle of the pack when you consider the whole decade. And a similarly hip-with-the-young-people choice like Jon Stewart did little for the 2006 and 2008 ceremonies (2008 was kind of a disaster, ratings-wise). 2013’s high viewership might make for snazzy headlines, and it might prove that the Oscars are growing in popularity- solely in the context of two or three years, that is- but otherwise, Nielsen ratings don’t really mean anything for Oscar relevancy.

A decade of Oscar Bumps has just as much (that is, zero) connective tissue.

(Year: Best Picture Nominees Gross, Post-Oscar Bump / Percentage of Total Gross from Oscar Bump)

2013: $137.2M / 17.5%
2012: $323.3M / 32.3%
2011: $86.5M / 13.8%
2010: $130.4M / 9.6%
2009: $151.2M / 8.9%
2008: $104.4M / 29.5%
2007: $111.0M / 31.0%
2006: $47.5M / 16.0%
2005: $49.2M / 20.1%
2004: $139.6M / 34.8 %

The percentages have ticked up steadily since 2009, which might mean the Oscars are becoming more popular. But then, they sunk this year, which might meant the Oscars are becoming less popular. And the numbers before 2009 are a just a jumble. In the grand scheme of things, does a change in the Oscar Bump mean anything for the Oscars themselves? No, not really- especially not when this year’s drop is only a few points shy of the decade’s average (21.35%).

Ultimately, though, all these numbers do prove one thing: numbers are useless in trying to define the Oscars. There might be highs and lows from one year to the next, but Oscar ratings and Oscar box-office are in a constant state of flux. One high or one low means nothing when the stats jump around every year for next to no reason. And as long as the numbers continue to behave like a kangaroo on PCP, our only quantitative way of measuring Oscar relevancy is basically useless.

Sadly, the same goes for the qualitative. All those cries of irrelevance? They’ve always kind of existed- at least during the 70s. Oh, and the 80s. 90s too. And, of course, the 00s. This current campaign craziness is a little newer, at least, having been started by Harvey Weinstein back in the early 90s. So maybe (and that’s a veeery slim maybe) enough public outcry might end the current campaign-’til-you-die-of-exhaustion fad, but what would that really do? The Oscars have been considered a “meat parade” for the better half of a century. At this point, they’re kinda stuck with that image.

So yes, the Oscars are sort of irrelevant. They’re also sort of relevant. They’re a gigantic, incomprehensible clusterfuck of good and bad that can’t really be measured and will probably always exist, in roughly the same state they’re currently in. Consider the Academy Awards as you would a roommate who happens to be an H.P. Lovecraft-esque, eyeball-covered goo monster. You can’t change it, you can’t think too hard about it (lest you succumb to the madness), and it’ll still be around long after you’re gone. Just go with the flow, and hope it doesn’t get mucus on too much of your stuff.