The nominations for the 90th Academy Awards were announced early Tuesday morning, and for the most part there were no surprises. The likes of Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri have dominated the film awards season leading up to the Oscars, and they all garnered plenty of nominations. But there's another aspect to the nominated films that's really no surprise at this point - the vast majority of people have not seen most of the nominated films.
That's not due to some sort of public bias against arty films - other than Dunkirk and Get Out, none of the films nominated for Best Picture have been in wide release for more than a few weeks. Some are being shown in fewer than 1000 venues nationwide, following initial limited releases in elite, media-friendly markets like New York and Los Angeles. Until just a few days before the Oscar nominations were announced, Call Me By Your Name had only been shown in four theaters nationwide - despite having premiered at Sundance a full year prior. Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread was released the same weekend - again, following a limited release in L.A. and New York in December.
This is not a new trend; in the modern era, the Oscars - as well as all the other film awards ceremonies - have been populated by small scale, little-seen movies that are ostensibly of higher artistic merit (but narrower audience interest) than the massively budgeted, four quadrant tentpole films that now populate cinemas year-round. The Oscars made a concession to the latter category of movies in 2009, when they expanded the Best Picture nominations from five to a possible ten - essentially a direct result of Christopher Nolan's critically hailed The Dark Knight being snubbed in favor of the little-loved Nazi romance The Reader in 2008.
It wasn't always like this. As recently as the early '00s, massively successful genre films like Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won the Oscars' top prize, and the '90s saw audience-pleasers like The Silence of the Lambs, Forrest Gump, and Titanic take home the gold. But somewhere along the line, a shift happened. The Oscars are no longer necessarily intended to honor what both audiences and critics might agree are the year's best films; rather, they've become an elaborate marketing tool to promote lesser-seen films that critics and industry professionals believe should be viewed by a wider audience.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. There's a convincing argument to be made that films like Logan and Wonder Woman don't need the Oscars, but films like Lady Bird and Phantom Thread do. Oscar nominations for big-budget superhero films aren't going to raise their profiles and introduce them to wider audiences in the way they will for smaller scale, less flashy films like the latter pair. It's hard to imagine that Lady Bird would have pulled in nearly $40 million at the box office without the benefit of serious Oscar buzz. Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, and The Shape of Water have all benefited from the same basic pattern - where Oscar buzz, strong reviews, and a desire to be part of the awards season conversation push people to see movies they may not otherwise have considered.
But the problem arises with that last point. The long prestige film promotional process of festival screenings and extremely limited theatrical releases means that critics and insiders have not only seen these films months in advance of everyone else - they've already engaged in long, cyclical conversations and debates about them. A film can be critically hailed, experience a backlash, and then a counter-backlash before it's ever made widely available to general audiences. Only when Hollywood and its adjacent media have already come to a conclusion about what the "best" movies are, are general audiences finally permitted to see them and actually weigh in with their own opinions. But if the Best Picture nominees have already been voted on at that point, it sends a strong message that what the average person thinks of these movies doesn't really matter. General audiences become spectators of the conversation, instead of participants.
This results in a disconnect that's only becoming more prominent as the way we discuss pop culture shifts away from our living rooms and onto Twitter. Ironically, it's also eating away at the very process it's supposed to be supporting - it's no coincidence the Oscars ceremony's ratings continue to decline as the categories are increasingly populated by films that few people have seen. What exactly will be the point of an Oscar campaign if nobody is watching the Oscars?
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