But you can only crunch the numbers so much. After that, everything else is just a feeling. Here are my feelings about why best picture nominees and box office have diverged in this decade.
It feels like we've rarely been more divided as a country, and we're generally divided between those who believe in absolutism/nationalism and those who believe in relativism/internationalism, and the Academy, by aligning itself with the latter (Brokeback, Munich, Babel) is antagonizing the former.
It feels like after 9/11 we all got touchy in a hurry and the Internet allowed us to disseminate that touchiness as quickly and widely as possible (so Munich is attacked by neo-cons, Brokeback by homophobes, and Million Dollar Baby by Michael Medved), and it feels like the very fact of the Internet, the fact that anyone's opinions can get on it, is undercutting the authority of various aesthetic tastemakers, such as the Academy, so that, for some moviegoers, it's become less a matter of seeing a film when the Academy nominates it and more a matter of refusing to see it because of that nomination.
It also feels like the Internet has sped up the trend towards specialized, niche interests that cable TV enhanced, so now we all have our own food channels and sports channels, and right and left-wing Web sites, and these are our meeting places. It feels like we no longer have a national meeting place -- even a technological one -- to hash out the differences in our national story that would allow us to create a national cinema that the Academy could honor.
It feels, in other words, like we've been divided and conquered for both political and business reasons. And in that division, it feels like everyone's talking and no one's listening.
Is the Academy even listening?
Once upon a time, the voting members of the Academy nominated some popular but pretty fluffy films for best picture. In the 1970s they tapped popular romance (Love Story), horror (The Exorcist) disaster flicks (The Towering Inferno) and sci-fi (Star Wars). Apparently they've stopped doing this. Last year, when the Brits nominated Casino Royale for their best picture, the Academy went after smaller, more uneven efforts, such as Babel. In 2004, why couldn't the Academy nominate Spider-Man 2 over, say, Ray or Finding Neverland? Is nominating a great superhero flick dumber than nominating a great musical? Who knows -- maybe if moviemakers think they have a shot at an Academy Award nomination, they might actually make better superhero flicks. At the least, such a nomination would create a reality that didn't exist before. It would open possibilities and destroy barriers. It would mess with the minds of those who would divide and conquer us as a business model.
Let me put my cards on the table. I rarely agree with the Academy's choices -- who does? -- but I think they matter. I rarely agree with box office choices but I think they matter. The stories we watch matter; the stories we lionize matter. They say something about us. They give clues to future generations about who we are.
And this decade? Generally, the Academy Award's best picture nominees feel small, timid and dry (the dull descendants of Europe's New Wave), while the box office smashes feel big, bold and dopey (the brain-dead descendants of Star Wars). There's got to be some kind of middle ground. We used to be able to find it. Even a decade ago we found it. Every year in the 1990s at least one of the best picture nominees was among the top five most popular films of the year: Ghost and Dances with Wolves in 1990, Beauty and the Beast and Silence of the Lambs in 1991, A Few Good Men in 1992, The Fugitive in 1993, Forrest Gump in 1994, Apollo 13 in 1995, Jerry Maguire in 1996, Titanic in 1997, Saving Private Ryan in 1998 and The Sixth Sense in 1999.
Even in the most divisive of times, we found the middle ground. 1970 wasn't exactly a year for national unity but the Academy and the box office were never more united: The top four box office films were all nominated for best picture, while the fifth nominee wasn't far back in 11th place. And what a motley crew! It included both the respectful World War II film Patton and the disrespectful Korean War film M*A*S*H. It included both young people in love (Love Story), in aimless rebellion (Five Easy Pieces), and old people on a plane (Airport).
Sure, it's surprising that two of these films (Love Story and Airport) were nominated for best picture but that's exactly the point. Sure, it's shocking that two of these films (M*A*S*H and Five Easy Pieces) did so well at the box office, but that's exactly the point. We used to be able to do this.
Now? These are the five films we plopped down the most money for in 2007: Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
And the movies bandied about for best picture? As of January 17, American Gangster is at no. 18 in box office grosses, Juno is at 34, No Country for Old Men at 54, Sweeney Todd at 56, Michael Clayton at 65, Zodiac at 78, Atonement at 87 and Into the Wild at 115. There Will Be Blood and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly have yet to open wide enough to land in the top 150.