The Last Five Years (of the Oscars)

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If you asked me why I care so much about the Oscars, why I watch every minute of the overlong broadcasts, why I spend so much time writing about them beforehand on a blog that few people follow, why I know so much about their history that I’ve won both the Oscar trivia game and the awards predictions game at the last two Oscar parties I went to (You could say I’m bragging, but is that really something to brag about? [YES IT’S COOL I PROMISE]), my answer probably wouldn’t satisfy you. I’d tell you the Academy Awards are the truest system of awarding the arts and sciences of making movies, because it’s the people in the industry awarding who they think was the best that year among their peers. But you’d know that’s not entirely how it works.

Every year, there are complaints about snubs and smear campaigns. There are people like Harvey Weinstein, who run “Honor this man” campaigns for their movies about historical figures (because of course a dead Alan Turing will be honored by Benedict Cumberbatch’s winning the Best Actor Oscar), or like Melissa Leo, who paid for full-page “For Your Consideration” ads out of her own pocket to campaign for her Supporting Actress turn in The Fighter, which she eventually won.

What’s funny about the Oscars, though, is that all the extraneous noise surrounding the ceremony is lost to history once the awards are handed out. Looking back at the history of the movies, everyday people will really just see who won, and they’ll draw their conclusions from the winners.

The Dark Knight

In this way, the Oscars function as a way for the filmmaking industry to tell its story to the future. When I first got into movies and started looking back at who won which award to see what movies I should watch, I learned (either directly or indirectly) what Hollywood valued about its own history.

The story the Academy has been trying to tell so far this decade is one of inclusivity. For the 2010 ceremony, the Academy changed their voting rules for their premiere statuette, the Best Picture award. Now, members could nominate more than five movies and up to ten, expanding the field above the previously sufficient five. The idea was to allow in more populist movies, like 2008’s snubbed The Dark Knight. The Academy was concerned about its image, since they had awarded more and more Oscars to movies that the wider population had never seen or, worse, heard of.

The rule change was an intriguing idea, but it hasn’t exactly worked. Sure, more populist movies have since been nominated for Best Picture, like Up, Inception, The Help, and American Sniper. But when people tune in to the ceremony, the movies they’ve heard of are still being passed over for the under-the-radar films. Mainstream movies are being nominated, but they’re not winning.

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In fact, the average domestic box office of the Best Picture winners this decade is $82.7 million. The average domestic box office for the Best Picture winners in the 2000s was $142.6 million. That’s a huge drop. Just for funsies, the number for the ‘90s was $185.8 million- so it’s been a steady drop. Those numbers include post-Oscars grosses, but they also include inflation, so the decrease in popularity might be even more precipitous than the numbers suggest.

All that is to say that history is going to look back on these last five years as faux-inclusive. The effort will be apparent, but the payoff won’t be. On top of the lack of popular Best Pictures, history will surely see the commonalities between the Best Picture winners, similarities that have garnered backlash from movie critics. Three of the five (The Artist, Argo, and Birdman) are movies about the movie industry, which is a trend that seems especially auspicious in light of there being zero in the Academy’s entire history before 2010. It may be a crude comparison to draw between the three movies, but the similarity is there, and the navel-gazing only adds to the Academy’s failed inclusivity.

Worse still, this year brought complaints of an overwhelmingly white nominee pool for the four performing Oscars. No people of color were nominated, which sounds damning, but is actually pretty rare for the Academy. People who aren’t white are generally represented among the performing nominees. But history will really just look at the winners, and only 10% of the winners this decade have been black. That’s not a terrible percentage, relative to the Academy’s larger history, but it’s not great either, and it looks a lot worse when you consider the awards were given to performances of a maid and a slave (Octavia Spencer for The Help at the 2012 ceremony and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave at the 2014 ceremony).

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I’m not arguing with the quality of who the Academy has chosen as its image-bearers for the first half of the 2010s. I love all the Best Picture winners (the only one I haven’t seen is Birdman, and I’m really excited to see it), and most of the acting and directing winners have been well-deserved*. The problem is that the Academy, with the Best Picture rule change, has clearly given off the notion that they want to be more inclusive. But every award they’ve given out has painted a faux-inclusive picture. I still love following and watching the Oscars, but the story is getting harder to listen to.

*Interesting sidebar: Only three black directors have ever been nominated for directing (John Singleton for Boyz n the Hood, Lee Daniels for Precious, and Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave), but three of the five directing winners this decade have not been white. Ang Lee (for Life of Pi) is Taiwanese, and Alfonso Cuarón (for Gravity) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (for Birdman) are Mexican. The other two are from England and France, so no Americans have won Best Directing in the 2010s. It’s a nice counterpoint for a rough five year sample from the Academy.

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