Every year the Oscars are given out, and every year the Oscars do not represent a popular or critical consensus or anything approaching a deeply-considered, well-rounded review of the entire year in cinema. Instead, the Oscars rather infamously represent the views of a microscopic portion of the population, a group that bears little demographic resemblance to the population of the country or the world, and a group that has shown decidedly pronounced and distinct tastes for certain kinds of movies, certain kinds of performances, certain kinds of themes and certain kinds of categories. And, again, that’s nothing new.
What is new, though, or at least what feels new, is that while the Oscars haven’t changed — boy, they have not changed, as evidenced by Sunday’s Lifetime Achievement Oscar For Long-Overdue Actor and the Good Job Playing A Real Person and/or A Person With A Disability Oscar — the rest of the culture seems to have caught up to them, in narrow reflection if not in import. (Oscars can grant a movie a longer life at the box office and can help some of the people involved in their careers, so the import for those with financial or professional stakes is clear.) We live in a world where media consumption is diffused, and where every person with a phone and a Snapchat account is his or her own media outlet, and the notion of something that is seen or consumed by everyone has been replaced by something that is deemed as important or worthwhile by some people or at least enough people. This part is also not new; for years, there were television viewers and then there were the viewers that mattered, those in the all-important 18-to-49 demographic so coveted by advertisers.
But whereas a cult movie/show used to be just that — a cult thing, fiercely beloved by few and overlooked or unknown to most — modern media seems to be veering more and more into the direction of cult entertainment, something that is evidenced by how media organizations seek out audiences where they are as well as by how much of this process involves these media organizations repackaging and relating the work of others.
To be beloved and important no longer means commanding the largest possible audience, because that audience has been carved up into smaller and smaller segments and distributed among an array of platforms and devices. Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” ruled the airwaves with a reported 15 million viewers in the 1980s; Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which airs on a network that had just been born as Carson was retiring, averaged about 2.2 million viewers each night last year, a number that doesn’t count the video clips that are divided up among news organizations and social media platforms and scattered to the four winds.
The same transformation has already occurred for moviegoers, who have been freed from the tyranny of having to go to a theater and sit there surrounded by strangers, and instead went on to be able to obtain these same movies, albeit slimmed down and repackaged into a small tape or disc you could carry into your home. This entire process has itself largely been replaced by not needing televisions at all, because the best segments and clips and shows and movies can be sliced up and delivered to your pocket. (Jack Black’s cameo during the opening song Sunday night focused on this idea of an industry in flux as attention shifts from big screens to the smaller ones we carry around with us.) A similar process is occurring in the way we consume news and essentially everything else online, as the chaotic Rumspringa that is our daily amble around the Internet results in stumbling from site to site, ending up on some URL you were shunted to thanks to a link a friend of a friend shared on Facebook, never to be heard from again once you stumble farther down that bottomless rabbit hole.
These things are not universal, even though it may seem that way. Not everyone watches Netflix, which has more than 57 million subscribers worldwide. Not everyone tweets (most people do not tweet). Your media universe is your own, built upon your likes and dislikes, interests and obsessions, created by assembling the videos, images, GIFs, shows, books, plays, exhibitions, poems, movies, songs, articles and any and all ephemera that are obligated only to speak to you for as long as you deign to consume them. It has been thus for as long as there has been something to consume — some people read Voltaire’s “Candide” when “Candide” was published, some people did not — but as the universe has expanded and the options proliferated, so has the access to more and more things, things which can be judged and have their fortunes determined and qualities assessed by a fairly small segment of the population, only instead of that segment being network executives debating airing a show or a test audience gauging whether a movie needs to be reworked, it is now more in the hands of the consumer. As the audience moves between mediums, the idea of mass approval or success is slowly catching up.
Which bring us back (finally) to the Oscars. The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are really, really white and male, something that critics pointed to an explanation for this year’s very white nominees. There was something else worth noting about the movies nominated for the major awards: Few people saw most of them.
Year after year, the most popular movies often wind up nowhere near the major Oscar categories. Since 1980, just four of the 35 Best Picture winners were also that year’s biggest movie at the domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo. (The last time it happened was with “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” in 2003.) Popular movies do regularly make it to the ceremony, but very often they leave with technical awards or major losses that seem absurd in hindsight. There were years when movies that won big Oscars were popular, but they were popular precisely because they were Oscar movies, not because they seemed destined for box office success at the outset; some movies, like “American Beauty” or “Rain Man,” saw their domestic box office totals nearly double just after receiving Best Picture nominations.
There is a line of thinking that relates ratings for the Oscars to the box office success of a given year’s nominees, which was used to explain the Academy’s 2009 decision to expand the number of Best Picture nominees. Another way of putting it: “The Dark Knight” wasn’t nominated for Best Picture that year, so the change meant that nominees like “Up,” “District 9,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inception” and “The Help” — you know, movies people saw — could possibly drive audience interest. (All of those movies were nominated for Best Picture, but none won.)
The biggest financial success among this year’s major Oscar nominees was “American Sniper,” which alone was responsible for more than half of the $620 million in domestic box office earned by the most recent crop of Best Picture nominees. Because that movie became its own front in the culture wars, people were making arguments after it lost Best Picture that it was snubbed by liberal Hollywood (the same Hollywood that nominated it for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor, before it was widely released and a massive success). Plenty of people quickly pointed to the movie’s box office success, arguing that it had already won where it mattered. While the box office success of “American Sniper” was much, much bigger than anyone would have predicted, by the same logic the more popular “Guardians of the Galaxy” would have been the frontrunner for Best Picture (which is not an altogether unwelcome alternate universe, though this is only looking at domestic box office and ignoring what movies were popular overseas). In any event, “American Sniper” joins a long list of movies that only won one Oscar, including classics like “The Graduate” and “Goodfellas,” huge box office successes like “Spider-Man 2” and “Wall-E” and onetime Best Picture frontrunners like, say, “Boyhood.”
Many of us watch the Oscars each year and care and argue and debate and spend the hours and days afterward wondering if “Birdman” was really better than “Boyhood” (which, come on) (if “Birdman” was the exact same movie, but was instead about about the effort required to organize a really top-notch wedding or the heroism involved in helping someone file a really complex tax return, “Birdman” would probably not have been awarded Best Picture), and the Take Industry will be kept fed and happy while people (like me) digress endlessly about the relative merits (or lack thereof) of the awards, the speeches, the performances, the movies and everything else that can be chewed apart from the ceremony and its aftermath.
In the end, it matters because “Birdman” is now “The Best Picture-Winning Movie Birdman,” and it will be that way forever, just like “Crash,” just like “The Artist,” just like whatever Best Picture nominee you thought deserving of admiration or scorn. It matters insofar as any of this matters, as it helps cement a movie’s place in history, even if that place winds up being as one of the winners cited decades later as a mistake. But it also only matters if you choose to accept the import and status conferred upon a movie by an industry’s months-long process of self-selection and -celebration. In one or two or five decades, your personal favorite movie from 2014 may be “Boyhood,” it may be “Birdman,” it may be “Guardians of the Galaxy,” it may be “Too Many Cooks” or it may be a video of your friend’s baby taking her first steps. That will matter to you. What a bunch of people decided during a few weeks and months that ended in early 2015 may not matter as much, though that is, of course, entirely up to you.