Recently, Claude Brodesser-Akner of AdAge wrote, "When Ron Howard's critically beloved but box-office-anemic "Frost/Nixon," which has a current domestic box-office haul of barely $17 million, received a best-picture nomination by edging out the second-highest-grossing film of all time, "The Dark Knight," this year's Oscar telecast's fate was sealed, many experts say."
Brodesser-Akner and many other business and show business observers insist that Hollywood is shooting itself in its ratings foot by nominating films like The Reader, Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, and The Wrestler instead of blockbuster movies like The Dark Knight. Oh, really? Let me see, now, which top picture nominees for smarter award kudos organizations were there for this year's, oh, let's pick one... Okay, the People's Choice awards nominees?: The Dark Knight, Mama Mia, and Sex and the City. And they gave top honors to The Dark Knight. DAMN! How could the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (the overseer of the Academy Awards) and the Academy voting membership of almost six thousand have missed those gems? Movie people. Go figure
The root truth is, from an artistic angle at least, were it not for the late Heath Ledger's rendition of the Joker, other than for nominations in areas like special effects or editing or set design, the movie itself was near-shlock in terms of artistry in areas such as script, character development, acting. In other words, The Dark Knight was not in any way Oscar-worthy for Best Picture and suggesting it should have been nominated rather than, say, Frost/Nixon is off any aesthetic wall and only sticks to the wall of ratings whoredom. TV ratings, AdAge should understand by now, is NOT the reason Hollywood gives Oscars to itself. Even Louis B. Mayer, late head of MGM and founder of what we now call the Academy Awards, understood that.
Gross popularity is the fertilized ground of award shows like People's Choice because that is where the vast movie-going audience gets to express itself. But to hold the People's Choice awards up as some standard to strive for at the Oscar telecast is like electing a candidate as our president because he'd be fun to have a beer with. We've already done that and where did it get us? None of the major craft guilds like the Writers Guild of America (WGA) or the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), breathed a word about the script with its customarily under-written Batman part or trotted out kudos and plaudits for its current inhabitant, the cranky Mr. Christian Bale.
Look, the movie industry is nothing if not crassly commercial but it has this little competition between studios and distributors that has existed (the awards ceremony began in 1929) as long as the Oscar (originally called the "Award of Merit.") That competition is the studio prestige factor. This generally refers to looking at a film from the angle of its manifest and multi-faceted art and artistry, not simply the angle of a film's business or popularity in the masses. It is a perspective that still survives and thrives.
Obviously, the network and the advertisers would like more people to tune in to Oscars on Sunday night; they can sell more expensive ad times and ads can reach larger audiences. And, yes, Oscar night ratings have dropped, sometimes substantially, over the past decade. But, in fact, virtually all TV viewership has dropped over the last decades. Why should Oscar be different?
TV is not going to drop "Oscar, Oscar, Oscar". The ceremony has become an international institution; its awards, the gold standard. Even if broadcasters like ABC, CBS or NBC dropped out of Oscar broadcast contention, there's always FOX, even WB and, in a worst case scenario, there is cable, perhaps, ultimately, the Internet. But, like Rick's memorable line to Ilsa in Casablanca, "We'll always have Paris," Oscar will always be with us.
Mass appeal films like The Dark Knight is where the filmmakers and exhibitors make their money It's a round robin of tent pole movies, block busters, sequels, prequels, franchises, popcorn flicks, etc. But the recipe for Oscar is something quite more. It includes a deep bow to art and to intelligent, dramatically solid films, often addressing social issues, great notions, expertly crafted screenplays. It even rewards finely crafted, occasional breakthrough mixes of direction, f/x and scripts or franchises (think Lord of the Rings:Return of the King, essentiallygetting the award for the entire trilogy).
Yes, money enters the equation, but with a subordinated nod to commercial potential or broad appeal. Independent and independent like-films have dominated the Oscars for years. This is one reason why studios began to buy up the indie mini-majors like Mirimax and Fine Line studios -- so they can cater to the non-mass audiences and be the source of prestige. After the domination of the 2008 awards with indie films like The Reader, Milk, The Wrestler and, of course, Slumdog Millioniare and Frost/Nixon, this formula is still working. Studios need both prestige and blockbusters to avoid disenfranchising large segments of the population.
Stars were never fated to align for The Dark Night. Like Quantum of Solace, ...Knight is neither aesthetically or artistically a good film in the glamour areas. It had some good things about it, to be sure, which is why it had some nominations and the one for Heath Ledger, who may obliterate the memory of Jack Nicholson as the definitive Joker by underplaying and deploying nuance and irony like WMDs. But a Best Film nomination for ...Knight, just to get eyeballs and Nielsens. Ridiculous! Academy Award night show runners will work the peripherary of the show, the edges. They will change hosts, cut out the science, add some hip hop, bring on the once and future stars to try to goose ratings and help ad revenues. But it won't fix the award outcomes.
Even if the studios were up to no good, the craft guilds related to different branches of filmmaking (e.g., acting, editing, writing, directing, cinematography, music, etc.) which both give their own awards AND nominate films for the Academy Awards, wouldn't cooperate. There are rules: For nominations related to Best Picture Award, all the members of the Academy submit their vote. The winners are determined by a second round of voting, in which all members are allowed to vote in most categories, including Best Picture. Nominees wan't to be judged by their peers in this context, not by an artistically undemanding public.
While The Dark Knight had numerous technical nominations (sound mixing, visual effects, sound editing, etc.), it was bereft of nominations for best picture, directing, male or female lead, female supporting role, or screenplay because the branches did not find it worthy of such recognition. Heath Ledgerjoker.jpg was it, and that was fair and just -- as was his posthumously winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But don't you agree that a picture SHOULD be more than the performance of one actor in one role?
Profits in block busters allow prestige to show its face at Oscar time. Still, I do wish there was less boom, boom and more "there there" in the Batman oeuvre. It can be done. But, as they say, it's no slam-dunk. Iron Man is a far better film in most respects than The Dark Knight, better written, a far more interesting hero, a less cliched plot and more novel special effects. Yet it is not an Oscar contender. Even with the industry adored Robert Downey, Jr. as point man.
Finally, and I may be wrong about this but, on sheer wit, talent, and technical ingenuity alone, I'm sure Iron Man could kick Batman's booty in a fight. Not a bad consolation prize if your name is not to be called at Oscar time.
P.S.: Oscar ratings were up 6% this year. I hope Batman is not disappointed. ABC sold 26 minutes of advertising time for about $72 million in its Feb. 22 Academy Awards broadcast, the most since 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence, reports TVweek.com.