Oscar the Grouch

I have been intrigued by the competing and sometimes contradictory narratives that have been used to frame this year’s Oscars ceremony (I referred to these issues earlier today). In Seattle Weekly, Tim and Brian introduce many of these narratives as they “bitch about the Oscars.” They note that box office fell by 5% in 2005 (which doesn’t account for how many people actually watched Hollywood or Indiewood films in other formats) and attribute this decline to the much larger video game market, concluding that “kids have better things to do than see movies.” They add that adults are bored by movies made to appeal to teens and then add that “everybody” is sick of ringing cell phones, crying babies, and other audience distractions. Others, such as Peter Suderman and Jason Apuzzo imply that the Oscars are simply “out of touch” with mainstream America, with Apuzzo arguing that the poor box office can be attributed to the Oscar films’ lefty politics. Finally, people have pointed to lower ratings for this year’s Oscar ceremony as another sign that interest in Oscars is on decline.

It seems clear to me that the number of articles debating the relevance of Oscar illustrate that the ceremony’s role as a tastemaker still carries a lot of weight. In short, despite the denials, Oscar still matters, even if the show itself is less than exciting (see Veronica, Lori, or Dylan’s liveblogging of the ceremony to make that call).

The “lefty” politics argument doesn’t seem to hold a lot of water, at least from my perspective. I find it incredibly difficult to read Crash as clearly a left or liberal film, and I’m not convinced that the film’s politics mattered as much as the clumsiness of the film itself (of course, Apuzzo’s snarky dismissal of the film’s $55 million box office take ignores the film’s $6.5 million budget, an impressive profit by any strecth). It’s also worth noting that four of the five nominees had an R rating, which always limits box office, so suggesting that the nominated films were ignored or irrelevant because of their politics doesn’t seem like a primary deterrent to movie attendance.

I’m willing to entertain the idea that people are less likely to attend movies because of the behavior of other patrons, who are described as talking loudly on cell phones and disrupting the moviegoing experience (not that there is an ideal moviegoing experience in the first place), but the idea of blaming the customer doesn’t seem quite right, either. Of these narratives, the most convincing one, in my reading, is the one that attributes box office decline to the increasing affordability of home theater systems and the availability of other forms of entertainment, many of which–such as games–offer more possibilities for interactivity, and movies, especially on the big screen, where you can’t stop, rewind or fast forward, begin to appear remarkably clunky and slow by comparison.

While I didn’t watch the Oscars this year, I likely would have if I hadn’t been 30,000 feet over middle America for most of the night (all distances are approximate and could be dead wrong), but as a film scholar interested in these issues of spectacle and marketing, I’m curious about whether these explanations for declining box office make sense to you or whether they are capturing the reasons that people are going to fewer movies than in the past. I’d also be curious to know whether you watched the Oscars and why you watched (or chose not to watch).

Update: James Wolcott has a wonderful rant about the claims that Hollywood is out of touch with Heartland America. As he points out, attempts to clean up Hollywood (or, in fact, the pre-Hollywood movie industry) have been around for some time and are not at all a recent phenomenon. In fact, the Fatty Arbuckle case, in which the talented comic performer was implicated in the death of a wannabe starlet, actually dates back to the 1910s. Wolcott’s read on this topic is a really good one that I missed because of my recent travels.

Update 2: Anyone know where I might be able to find a transcript or a videotaped copy of the Oscars? I’m working on some ideas for a paper I’m writing and having precise quottaions from Dan Glickman and others concerning the issues of piracy and Hollywood’s relationship to America’s cultural heritage would help considerably.

12 Comments »

  1. badger Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 1:24 am

    I watch a lot of movies, but I don’t go to the movies very often. When I do, it’s typically with my son, so I guess that makes me one of those folks who shell out $7.50 to see films that are never nominated for Oscars. (I think the last film I saw in the theatre was The Ringer.)

    I think your assessments are right about why people choose not to watch movies on the big screen (desire for interactivity, convenience, pause and rewind, etc.). Incidentally, I find the worst patron behavior occurs at our local art-house cinema. Here, the chatter — the running commentary — is nonstop. Maybe this is why indie films don’t do better at the box office?

  2. Something Requisitely Witty and Urbane Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 1:31 am

    Crashing the Party

    For whatever reason, in my real life, people come to me when they want to know about the current state of movies. Though I’ve been woefully unqualified for this duty in the past year or so, today’s conversations questions were

  3. Chuck Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 1:33 am

    I haven’t experienced that kind of chatter in DC or Atlanta art houses, so I wonder if that’s something specific to your theater. I see Hollywood films less often than I do indies, and that’s likely connected to my not having children.

    Cost does seem like a big factor, and I don’t know if I’d spend as much as I do on tickets if I didn’t see it as an investment of sorts. Of course, where I live, I’d love to pay $7.50 for a movie ticket.

  4. Chuck Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 1:57 am

    Passing thought: I wonder if “rude” audience behavior is a form of talking back to an unsatisfying theatrical experience. I know I’ve discussed my distaste for such pre-show “entertainment” ad nauseum, and part of that distaste comes from not really enjoying being treated as captivate audience for nearly half an hour before the actual previews start.

    But such pre-show entertainment seems to blur the boundaries between movie and not-movie, making it less clear when one should be silent (I went to see X-Men 2 a few years ago with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, but when the Twenty began, it made conversation a little more difficult to know when our conversation would become inappropriate.

  5. Jason Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 9:08 am

    >>>> attribute this decline to the much larger video game market, concluding that “kids have better things to do than see movies.”

    Well, yes and no. First of all, those video game figures account for not only software sales but also the sales of consoles and portable players. It would be like including the cost of a DVD player for the home in the sales figures of DVDs generally (if those DVD players were proprietary, but whatever). So those figures that say “games make as much money as the box office” are both right and wrong.

    More to the point, however, is that game sales have slumped a bit too, and the industry suffers from many similar complaints that plague other entertainment media – too many sequels, not enough innovative work, too expensive, too much marketing tie-in, etc. etc. On the other hand, a games slump isn’t uncommon during years of transition (new xbox, with ps3 and nintendo revolution coming out; plus new DS and PSP).

    This isn’t to say that games sales aren’t cutting into both time and money for cinema (or TV). There are just a ton of possible other factors, not least of which is piracy, rising expenses (gas), some pretty decent television, the convenience of Netflix. And I agree with you – with home theatre systems on the rise, the appeal of the theatre diminishes.

  6. cj Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 9:27 am

    What I thought was an interesting contradiction in approach was the selection of movies for awards and the staging of those movies as “issue-raisers” by an industry priding itself on its “bold sense of social responsibility” (which, frankly, seems incredibly ironic, considering how many of those same movie-houses make millions of dollars off vast stereotyping on the basis of sex, gender, race, and class)… and then having the President of the Academy come out and practially beg the viewing audience to “not pirate DVDs” and “go to the movies.” It was the strangest approach I’d ever seen… as if saying “we’re bold enough to make a stand… so long as you still come, and you don’t pirate the good ones.” I shouldn’t be surprised, but it was a usually quixotic Hollywood message.

    What I also found interesting was Jon Stewart’s moment (perhaps the only one) of non-teleprompter performance in which he pointed out the industry’s incredible hypocricy… demonstrating how “starving” the artists are in the theater… due to the “rampant” pirating of DVDs, that seemed to be the Academy’s *real* beef for the night.

    I’m rambling… but I thought this was particularly interesting.

  7. Chuck Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 11:27 am

    Jason, you’re right about games. I’d meant to complicte that point, but this entry changed directions something like eighteen times, and that got lost. Interesting that games are facing a similar slump. Your mention of gas prices is also significant–I’d imagine that entertainment budgets are probably tighter than usual this year due to gas/heating bills and filling the tank (luckily I don’t have either expense right now).

    CJ, interesting to see those hypocrisies (the self-congratulatory “social responsibility” and the “starving artist” lines) overlap in that way, as if Hollywood is the only (or primary) source for socially responsible filmmaking. Piracy was certainly a big issue last year, but it sounds like that was an even bigger issue this year.

    Stewart’s “unscripted” moment sounds really interesting.

  8. ahorbal Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 3:18 pm

    Why do I watch the Oscars?

  9. Chuck Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 3:22 pm

    Maybe because The Sopranmos weren’t on TV that night?

  10. Chuck Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 4:48 pm

    One version of “pimping the big screen” at the Oscars: Jake Gyllenhaal reading a scripted “[T]here’s no place to see [movies] but the big screen,” followed by a montage of spectacles such as 2001 and ET. Even Gyllenhaal had a hard time keeping a straight face, according the folks at Slate.

  11. aldahlia Said,

    March 9, 2006 @ 9:21 pm

    I love how conservatives fail to ever point out market considerations in Hollywood. I don’t go to the movies because it’s too damned expensive.

  12. Chuck Said,

    March 10, 2006 @ 12:05 am

    I think you’re right. Especially if you have children, movies can be an expensive habit. I’m single, so I sometimes forget that. Still, I spend much of my disposable income on movie tix and Metrofare to the movies…..

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