Analysis | Oh, that’s what happens when the academy nominates popular movies

Analysis | Oh, that’s what happens when the academy nominates popular movies

What happens when people actually watch the movies nominated for the Oscars?

It doesn’t take many brain cells to guess: 19.5 million viewers — the show’s most since 2020. Even Ken could have probably figured that out.

The Oscars viewership has been generally declining since the late 1990s, when it routinely pulled in more than 40 million viewers for the whole show (often nearly double that if only counting those who tuned in for a bit). It finally cratered during its pandemic-flavored telecast in 2021, which averaged 9.85 million total viewers over the three-plus-hour telecast, a 58 percent drop from the 23.6 million in 2020 who tuned in.

It has been slowly clawing its way out of the pit ever since. Last year, about 18.7 million tuned in. A measly number compared with the highs of yesteryear, but an improvement nonetheless.

There might be many reasons more folks tuned in this year: an hour-earlier start time. A breathless announcement that Ryan Gosling would perform “I’m Just Ken,” more than a week before the show. The instant social media buzz around a nude John Cena onstage. And, later, of host Jimmy Kimmel reading former president Donald Trump’s Truth Social post lambasting him as “a less than average person trying too hard to be something that he is not and never can be.” The surprise of Emma Stone’s upset best-actress win, delightful to some, infuriating to others. Whatever the hell that In Memoriam segment was (but what’s new there?).

But if we’re to employ Occam’s razor, it might be simplest to focus on the popularity of the films.

Combined, “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” made nearly $2.5 billion at the global box office. “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Poor Things” both pulled in more than $100 million. Meanwhile, movies like “The Holdovers,” which earned more than $40 million globally, anecdotally performed well on streaming services — most of which don’t release viewership statistics.

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The academy has been chasing this white whale for a while.

In 2019, Washington Post graphics reporter Shelly Tan and I analyzed the popularity of previous best picture nominees and found that from 1998 to 2018, “we’ve had four years in which only one best picture nod topped $100 million. These numbers are remarkable when one considers that studios routinely spend $200 million merely on the marketing of summer blockbusters.”

Once again, two major outliers were Christopher Nolan pictures that received best pic nods: His 2017 World War II epic “Dunkirk” grossed about $526 million at the global box office, and “Inception,” his 2010 sci-fi movie about fancy suits and a spinning top, garnered more than $828 million worldwide.

Sounds like this Nolan guy has got it figured out!

The average moviegoer wasn’t seeing many of the films nominated for the big prize. As we reported, “for the most part, the movies the Oscars celebrate are not very popular. And the few noticeable spikes — 1997, 2009 and 2018 — tend to be on the shoulders of a single movie or two with such tremendous success, it’s an outlier. ‘Titanic,’ one of the all-time highest-grossing movies, was nominated (and won) in 1998, and ‘Avatar,’ which made more than $850 million, was nominated in 2010.”

That wasn’t always the case. Here are a few small 1970s movies nominated for best picture: “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men,” “The Exorcist” and “M*A*S*H.” Winners include massive hits such as “Rocky,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” “The Sting,” “The Godfather” — all of which earned more than $485 million in the United States alone (adjusted for inflation).

Meanwhile, viewership of the Oscars telecast has generally declined since its record high in 1998, when “Titanic,” one of the Top 5 highest-grossing movies of all time, took home 11 awards — including the big enchilada.

Eleven years later, the academy addressed the problem when 2008’s “The Dark Knight” — a Batman blockbuster by, oh hey!, Christopher Nolan — wasn’t nominated for best picture. Cue the usual backlash. In response, the academy expanded the number of possible nods for best picture to up to 10, in a bid to showcase “popular yet still respected films … and perhaps drive more viewers to the show as a result,” Variety reported.

It didn’t quite work. So in 2018, the academy introduced an awards category recognizing achievement in popular film, seemingly to get more blockbusters on the board and attract more casual moviegoers. Cue evermore backlash from fans and even critics asking why popular movies can’t also have artistic value. Once again, the academy listened and sheepishly retracted the idea.

Perhaps, though, we should sharpen ol’ Occam’s razor and look at the broader trend. Because an even simpler explanation might be that the public is ready to embrace awards shows again. The viewerships of several are up this year over last.

The Golden Globes, which featured human ratings catalyst Taylor Swift, saw an almost 50 percent rise in viewership. The audience of the Grammy Awards rose 34 percent, which may have something to do with Swift’s overwhelming presence and the realized hope of seeing Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs perform “Fast Car” together.

The fly in our tea here is that the Emmys telecast reached a record low. It also faced extenuating circumstances. The ceremony was delayed four months because of the dual Hollywood labor strikes, resulting in it competing against an NFL playoff game and the Iowa caucuses.

Whatever the reason, the Oscars viewership rose for the third year running. Which means the academy — and Hollywood as a whole — will probably try to figure out how to replicate the feat.

If the answer is to nominate popular movies, which seems to be a common thread here, it might not be easy. Barbenheimer, the colloquialism referring to the dual openings of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” broke numerous box office records, much like “Titanic” before it. All the challenges facing the movie industry, including the ever-present existential threat of streaming, remain.

On the other hand, if the answer is having Cena — an absolute statue of a man — wander the stage in the buff, then lights, camera, action.

Kyle Melnick contributed to this report.

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