What's Really Wrong With Oscar Night

Last month, the Oscars were watched by 32 million people, an all-time low. This is remarkable for a number of reasons, but here are the two main ones:

1. One of the major reasons the writer’s strike ended when it did was that everyone wanted the Oscars to still take place. What better way to welcome entertainment-starved viewers back than a big, flashy telecast?
2. Even considering cable, there was nothing else on. The Oscars was the most-watched broadcast that night, but Fox snagged the second spot with a "Simpsons" re-run. NBC was just running "Law & Order" re-runs all night. Everyone gave up on the night, surrendering to the Oscars outright.

Journalists of all shades have given all sorts of theories for the struggles of the show, from the low-brow (“It’s so boooooring!”) to the over-thought (“We already saw Jon Stewart host once, so there’s no curiosity factor for Middle America”), without ever really giving thought to the accusations. Consider: the Oscars have always been this boring, and the highest rated Oscars of all time was Billy Crystal’s sixth time hosting. He won an Emmy for the performance.

No, allow me to explain, once and for all why the Oscars are sliding so dramatically these last few years: it’s the movies that are nominated. They don’t interest the viewers.

Ha! You almost clicked away there, didn’t you? That’s not a very interesting point. The idea that the films nominated are not in line with what America in general is watching is not particularly new. The solution is not that the wrong movies are being nominated, after all what popular movies would you nominate? Spiderman 3? Pirates of the Caribbean 3? Shrek 3? I thought not.

The problem is that the wrong movies are being made. Hollywood isn’t making the sort of movies that interest most viewers.

Ha! You almost clicked away again, didn’t you? That’s still not an interesting point. But this one is:

It’s the fault of independent movies. Independent movies are ruining everything.

Didn’t expect that one, did you?

Has anyone been a bigger proponent of independent movies than me? Yes, lots and lots of people have. But you know that I adore independent film, I adore showing a disregard for convention, I dig low budgets and good acting and bizarre camera angles and narratives all out of order and weird, unsatisfying endings. Love it. But it’s ruing everything.

Keep in mind that when I talk about “independent movies,” I’m not talking about, y’know, independent movies. I’m not talking about the sales rep from Columbus who writes a script on his laptop in his spare time after he sold the Miata and shoots it on a borrowed 16mm camera with his friends and a girl they hired from the local modeling agency downtown. I’m not talking about independent movies made by people independent of the film industry. I’m talking about “indie movies,” movies with $25 million budgets made by Warner Bros and Fox starring George Clooney and Rachel McAdams. I’m talking about the new wave of filmmaking. I’m talking about all my favorite movies from the last four years. I think we’ve opened Pandora’s box, and I don’t think we’re getting it shut again.

Look at the five films nominated for Best Picture this year, keeping in mind the studios that released them: No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Michael Clayton, and Atonement. Every single one of those movies was released by an “independent” studio, like Focus Features, Warner Independent, or Fox Searchlight. Indie cred and studio money. All (except Juno) had low box offices, yet between DVD sales and rentals and cable sales, all of them will end up making the studios a ton of money when it’s all over, without even having to be a success. It’s a good world to live in.

Now, let’s look at ten years ago, we had Best Picture nominees like Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love, huge movies that cleaned up in the box office. What changed?

The most popular movies in 1998 had to be popular in order to make money, they had to be popular in order to be successful. So there was a different process to making them – if a big-name director wanted to make a film, the film they made had to be palatable to the public. The film had to be meet certain criteria – it had to make sense, it had to have a strong ending, it usually had to have likeable characters. It had to be a movie that the average adult would want to see.

This is painting Hollywood with a broad brush, I will admit – David Lynch has never made a movie anyone close to average would want to see, and there is a long history of hundreds of directors forging their own path. So I’m not saying that filmmakers getting to make whatever the hell they want is all new. I’m saying it’s easier.

Given the option, good filmmakers will always chose the more unique, the more creative way to do things. That’s how they got to where they are. And if someone’s going to give them eighteen million dollars with very few questions asked, it becomes a lot easier to tune out the studio exec going “maybe the guy and the girl should get back together at the end.” When art beats commerce, filmmakers will denounce commerce for all they’re worth.

Once a film gets over a certain price to produce, things start changing. Tony Gilroy, who wrote and direct Michael Clayton, noted “Once a film costs a certain amount of money, the bad guys have to wear black hats.” George Clooney slashed his asking price in order to preserve the $20 million dollar budget, which gave Girloy final cut, a privilege he wouldn’t have had if the studio had invested more money in the picture.

I love this about movies, because suddenly we have dozens of creative, original movies that never would have seen the light of day otherwise. There Will Be Blood would never have gotten the backing it did. Same with Garden State, or Lost In Translation. Little Miss Sunshine and Juno were both Best Picture nominees, would they even have gotten made?

But just a decade ago, we had Forrest Gump, Good Will Hunting, Silence of the Lambs, and Schindler’s List, big movies that weren’t just popcorn – they were good, and they were popular. Everybody watched them and everybody loved them .

We don’t have movies like that anymore. The best movies we have now are small and divisive, and nobody goes to see them. The most popular movies we have are loud and obnoxious, and everyone walks out saying how disappointed they were. There’s no common ground in movies anymore – no one watches or likes the same things, we all just find our own taste. If we ever find something in common to talk about, it’s almost a miracle.

And that’s why, as long as indie movies control Hollywood, no one is going to watch the Oscars. No one went to see the movies in the first place, so why should anyone care?