So why have best picture nominees gotten so unpopular in this particular decade?
Is it the DVDs?
In the past, the Academy and box office often worked together. A film got nominated and people went to see it. It won and more people went to see it. The Academy mattered; word-of-mouth mattered; quality, such as it was, mattered.
In 1975, to give the most obvious example, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest became the first film since It Happened One Night in 1934 to be awarded the big five: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. According to Susan Sackett in The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits, "This shot in the arm saw the take at the box office increase by 70 percent as moviegoers came to see what all the fuss was about." By the time the counting stopped, Cuckoo's Nest, a dark film about mental patients that, today, would probably get a limited release and play in art houses, finished second only to Jaws in 1975's box office.
Sixteen years later, Silence of the Lambs became the third picture to win the big five, and in the ensuing hubbub its box office shot up, well, zero percent. It had already been released on video and the studio didn't see the need to put it back into theaters.
So: In the absence of box office surges, is the buzz from Oscar nominations winding up in video rentals and sales?
Generally, no. True, according to Rentrak, an information management company that services Variety among others, most of the 2004 best picture nominees ranked higher in year-end video rentals than in box office -- with three pictures actually cracking the top 20: The Aviator at 17, Million Dollar Baby at 12 and Ray at 11. But when it came to video sales, which are more lucrative than rentals, these movies fell back down the charts again. Ray stayed in the top 20 (at no. 15), but Aviator slipped to 45, Baby to 46, and Sideways wound up an even 100th. None approached the top 10.
The 2005 nominees fared worse. With the exception of Crash and Munich, the best picture nominees' video rentals actually ranked lower than their already low box office rankings -- with both Capote and Good Night and Good Luck finishing out of the top 100. As for the lucrative video sales rankings? With the exception of Brokeback Mountain, every movie dropped even further -- with both Capote and Good Night and Good Luck now finishing out of the top 200.
So if it's not DVDs, is it distributors?
Box office rankings of the nominees have gone down since 2000, yes, but so have their distribution numbers. The trend in distribution is generally up: the most popular films keep showing in more theaters. The top box office film for 2000, for example, The Grinch (yes, The Grinch), maxed out at 3,256 theaters, while 2007's top film, Spider-Man 3, wound up in 4,324 theaters -- an increase of nearly 33 percent. Meanwhile, of the last 15 best picture nominees, only The Departed showed in more than 3,000 theaters, and, taken as a whole, the screen numbers for the nominees have gone down. In 2000 they reached their high point: 11,968 theaters for the five films. Over the next four years they held steady -- 9,935, 10,515, 11,840 and 10,576 -- but then plummeted: 7,660 theaters in 2005 and 8,501 in 2006.
But these are merely numbers. They don't answer the larger questions: Are distribution numbers down because theater owners know people won't see these films or are they down because distribution systems are risk-averse and unimaginative? What's propelling the system in this direction? Us or them?
OK, let's ask it: Is it us?
Yes, we love our blockbusters and their never-ending sequels. But haven't we always? Or at least since the late 1970s?
Yes and no. It's generally known that sequels have been popular since the late 1970s, and it's generally known that the Academy rarely nominates sequels for best picture (just five since 1944: The Bells of St. Mary's in 1945, the two Godfather sequels, and the two Rings sequels). Here's what's less known. In the 1980s, in an average year, sequels amounted to 1.3 of the top 5 box office films, and 2.5 of the top 10 box office films. These numbers actually went down in the 1990s (1 and 1.6, respectively), but in this decade they're way, way up: nearly half of the top 5 box office films (2.25) are sequels, while sequels average 3.875 of the top 10 box office films.
Again, these are merely numbers. They don't answer the larger questions: Are movie studios simply better at giving us the sequels we want -- the so-called tentpole films: Spider-Man, X-Men, Bourne, Harry Potter -- or are we clinging to the familiar and escapist more than ever this decade, because, in this decade, we have more to escape?
You can crunch numbers all day long, but the numbers only tell you so much. After that, everything is just a feeling.
TOMORROW: Part III: My feelings.