The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This year’s Oscar nominations made the art-vs.-popularity divide murkier than ever

With its theme of unity, this Oscars underscores just how fragmented the film audience is

Best picture nominee “West Side Story.” (Niko Tavernise)

“Movie lovers, unite!”

Those were the words with which David Rubin, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, kicked off Tuesday’s announcement of nominees for the 94th Oscars. Coming on the heels of a year in which filmgoers seemed more fragmented than ever, what was intended as a stirring call to arms couldn’t help but sound like someone whistling past a graveyard.

It’s not that the best-picture nominees weren’t popular with audiences: “The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s western-tinged psychological thriller that earned 12 nominations (including Campion’s second for best director), drew viewers from more than 1.2 million households during its first week on Netflix in December; “Don’t Look Up,” a climate-change satire by Adam McKay that debuted Dec. 24, has become the streaming service’s third most popular film ever.

Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog” collected 12 Academy Award nominations on Feb. 8, including those for best picture and best director. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

This year’s best-picture list — which was required to include 10 movies, a return to academy policy in years past — hews to a common mix of critical darlings and more mainstream favorites. At three hours, the mannered, deliberately paced “Drive My Car,” Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of a Haruki Murakami story, is the kind of movie that’s catnip to cineastes, if not to general viewers. “Licorice Pizza,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy, digressive valentine to the San Fernando Valley of his 1970s youth, was far more beloved by reviewers than by the people who bought tickets.

“Dune,” the sprawling first installment of Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious adaptation of the 1965 science fiction novel, was the only nominated film that could claim to be a classic box office success, having earned more than $100 million in bricks-and-mortar theaters. The movies that literally united movie lovers — “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “No Time To Die” — were almost entirely snubbed, save for nods in visual effects, sound and best song. (“House of Gucci,” which became a campy sleeper hit over the holidays, was also shut out, including for Lady Gaga’s lead performance.)

Still, even movies that enjoyed a modest reception in theaters — “CODA,” “Belfast,” “King Richard” — were well-liked by the people who saw them, raising the philosophical question of whether a movie can be described as a crowd-pleaser when the crowd is dispersed over millions of individual living rooms.

Where to watch this year’s best-picture Oscar nominees

Put another way: The definition of success has become more slippery than ever. Gone are the days when box office is the only metric; streamers calculate their investments not based on conventional monetary returns, but in gaining and retaining subscribers — or at least stemming churn. Similarly, the old art-vs.-popular binary that used to characterize the Oscars doesn’t fit quite as neatly, as films like “The Power of the Dog” and “Nightmare Alley” seem determined to be both or neither all at once.

“West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg’s remake of the beloved 1961 classic, offers a poignant case study in the shifting standards: Although it’s been well-received by filmgoers who ventured out to see it, its release coincided with the omicron coronavirus variant, which has kept its core audience of over-55 adults out of theaters this winter. With seven nominations to its credit, including for best supporting actress, best director and best picture, the strategic question for “West Side Story” is whether its distributor, 20th Century Studios, will keep the film exclusively in theaters in the hopes of a post-nom bump, or hurry it to streaming to capitalize on heightened awareness there.

Regardless of where “West Side Story” heads next, the movie has an uphill climb to earn the reported $300 million it needs to recoup its production and marketing budget. Seen purely through that lens, it’s been called a flop. But it has done impressively steady business since its release in early December — maybe not on the order of “Spider-Man’s” billion-dollar payday, but entirely in keeping with a season in which non-franchise movies drew only a fraction of the audience they would have attracted in pre-pandemic times.

Best movies of 2021: Almodóvar just gets better, family films make a comeback

When it comes to uniting movie lovers, the academy’s best move would be to heed the advice of millions of fans and enlist “Spider-Man” stars Tom Holland and Zendaya to host the March 27 telecast (a good idea in any year). That gesture would not only acknowledge the movie that arguably saved Hollywood during an otherwise ruinous period, but it would convey the hard truths of what united movie lovers in 2021. To attain its massive success, “Spider-Man” had to attract not just young spectators who were unafraid to return to multiplexes, but also their more hesitant parents and grandparents — people with more complex decision-making when it comes to gathering in indoor spaces — who decided it was worth the risk to take the family to a bona fide spectacle.

As pleasant as films like “Belfast,” “CODA,” “King Richard” and “West Side Story” are, none of them conveyed an urgent need to be seen on the big screen. Their core audiences coalesced around another principle: that, at least for now, they were more than happy to wait and watch them at home.