Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Interesting Commentary by Michael Medved--Can 'Avatar' save Oscar?

An interesting take on the Academy Awards and the Oscar by Michael Medved for CNN on February 2, 2010.

Editor's note: Michael Medved's daily, syndicated radio show on politics and pop culture has drawn top-ten audiences for more than a decade. Author of the newly published "The 5 Big Lies about American Business," Medved is the former chief film critic of The New York Post and former co-host of PBS' "Sneak Previews."

Seattle, Washington (CNN) -- While dramatizing the against-the-odds rescue of a noble, harmonious alien society called the Na'vi, James Cameron's "Avatar" may also effectuate the rescue of a nasty, contentious alien society known as Hollywood -- or at least save Tinseltown's annual Oscar extravaganza from its long-term ratings slump.

The annual Academy Awards telecast used to be one of the big, unifying cultural events that most Americans shared and talked about -- like the Super Bowl, or presidential election night, or Christmas Eve. As recently as the 1990's, more than 40 million U.S. viewers -- according to The Nielsen Company -- watched the broadcast in whole or in part, and spoke the next day about the best and worst gowns, the dumbest acceptance speeches, and the biggest surprises in the major categories.

Beginning with the awards for the film year 2003, however, the ratings for Hollywood's big show took a sharp turn for the worse, dipping consistently below the 40 million figure (despite sharply increased population) and reaching an all-time low in 2008, according to Nielsen.

The problem wasn't the quality of the hosts or the clumsiness of the big musical numbers, but the year-after-year nature of the top nominated films, with deeply depressing, art-house fare ("Million Dollar Baby," "Crash") reliably crowding out more popular releases.

The infamous 2008 Oscar telecast experienced a crash all its own, with just 31.76 million viewers -- or barely one out of ten Americans, according to Nielsen. As The Hollywood Reporter observed, the collapse in the size of the audience had everything to do with the gloomy nature of the leading nominees, all of which scored high on "the depression meter. ... 'Atonement,' 'Michael Clayton,' 'Juno,' 'No Country for Old Men,' and 'There Will Be Blood' were the bedsheet-noose best picture nominees."

The ratings last year rebounded slightly, with the relatively upbeat "Slum Dog Millionaire" delivering some old-fashioned uplift with its reassuringly familiar poor-boy-makes-good and love-conquers-all messages, despite the exotic (and sometimes brutal) Mumbai, India, settings.

For this year's March 7 broadcast, however, industry insiders tell me they expect a spectacular increase in the size of the TV audience -- perhaps even surpassing the huge 1998 ratings that set a recent record: 55 million viewers, nearly twice the viewership for 2008, according to Nielsen.

Sure, Billy Crystal's sprightly humor helped attract the hordes who viewed the '98 spectacle -- but the big attraction was a very big movie: "Titanic," the ultimate winner of 11 Oscars and, at the time, the top grossing motion picture ever released. No wonder James Cameron proudly proclaimed himself "king of the world" while scooping up his gold baldie for Best Director.

Well, 2010 will witness the "Return of the King" (you should pardon the expression), with "Avatar" replacing "Titanic" as history's top money-maker and listed as a heavy favorite for numerous Academy Awards (particularly in the technical arena).

The Oscar telecast will get a huge boost from all the avid "Avatar" fanatics, many of whom have seen the movie over and over again. Popular favorite Sandra Bullock, odds-on favorite to win Best Actress (she's already won the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and tied for the Critics Choice Awards) will draw additional viewers who made the heartwarming, faith-family-and-football saga "The Blind Side" one of last year's most successful surprises.

Ironically, the presence of such populist fare on any list of sure-thing nominees makes the much-ballyhooed reform of the Best Picture category largely unnecessary when it comes to insuring a successful telecast.

Instead of five nominees as in the past, this year the Academy selected 10 films as candidates for the top prize, hoping to guarantee at least a few popular box office winners to go along with the usual dark, despairing and little-seen indie offerings on the ever-popular theme of "Life Sucks." (Actually, Mel Brooks directed a 1991 film originally entitled "Life Sucks," later released as "Life Stinks," which won no Oscar nominations and garnered the worst box office returns of his long, distinguished career.)

The good side of doubling the number of nominees involves increasing the chances for worthy films to get additional recognition, like the superb animated Disney/Pixar release "Up," which was nominated for Best Picture.

There is, however, a downside to the expansion of the Best Picture category: By swelling the number of nominees, the Academy contributes to the ongoing fragmentation of our culture. In recent years, only a handful of ferociously committed film buffs (and professional critics) could claim to have seen all five of the top nominees, and with ten choices now for the top prize, the number of moviegoers to have seen them all -- or even able to talk about them all -- will shrink even further.

In a similar vein, the expansion of television into innumerable cable networks (way beyond the traditional big three broadcast operations) may have vastly expanded the number of worthy offerings, but greatly reduces the cultural impact of any one of them.

"Mad Men" or "The Sopranos" may be great, but can't compare to the ability of old shows like "I Love Lucy" or "Mash" or "The Cosby Show" to bring Americans together for a few moments of entertainment across all demographic divisions.

Because of "Avatar's" phenomenal popularity, it may look like this year's Oscar show will have recaptured that unifying potential; but once the Na'vi send the corporate invaders back to Earth and recede into movie history, the centrifugal force of too many choices and ever-multiplying niche audiences will kick in once more and dictate the further atomization of our civilization. Not even James Cameron can fight the long-term trend.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Medved.


Anonymous said...

I don't agree with all Michael Medvad said, but I agree that the number of viewers have declined over the years. K.

petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Understand, K.! It's his pov, but I found it very interesting. That the Academy has increased the Best Picture Category to include ten films instead of five reflects the diversity of the audience. I think that's a good thing. It'll be interesting to watch! :))

Mama Zen said...

It will be interesting to see if Avatar makes that big a difference.

petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

There seems to be one movie every decade which makes an impact globally, MZ. I think it'll have followers such as in Star Wars or Star Trek. Only time will tell, MZ.

I thought that Michael Medved's commentary about the Academies' current state of affairs was pretty right on!

ChaChaneen said...

I remember seeing Titanic as I was a newlywed at the time and going out was often! ha ha Today, not so much, but that's okay because we have Netflix... gosh I lurve that business.

Anyway, all that to say... I have yet to see Avatar and probably won't until it comes to DVD, like most everything else. We air-pop our own popcorn, eat M&M's and drink fruit punch for much less money. Just can't justify the expense at the moment.

jay said...

I'm not sure why it matters if the top choice 'unifies' Americans or not, but I do agree that the choices for 'Best Film' can by mystifiying, and yes, depressing. I think a lot of people are puzzled by the fact that a nicely made, well acted, extremely popular movie can get overlooked in favour of some 'guaranteed to make you miserable', idiosyncratic offering many people have never even heard of, but in my opinion, it's even more bizarre that they committee seems to be deeply prejudiced against comedy and musicals. Are they not films too? Why don't they count?

Or maybe fun films are not 'worthy' enough? If that's it, then perhaps we need to split 'Best Film' into two, and have 'Best Worthy Film' and 'Most Enjoyable Film'.

petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Wholeheartedly agree, Janeen, that it can be just as fun for the family to gather around a great film at home, then going out! :))

You're right, Jay! The musicals and comedies are often overlooked! I can think of many off the top of my head which did receive the academy such as the King and I, Showboat, West Side Story, etc. but not often enough! :))