The new Oscar math

By Felix Salmon
June 29, 2009

David Carr nails the financial implications of doubling the number of Best Picture nominees at the Oscars. It’s bad for the studios — which will now have even more films to market to the Academy in the hope of winning the award; it’s good for media outlets like Variety which get a lot of those marketing dollars; and it’s something of a wash for viewers:

Americans have tuned out the Oscars not because “The Dark Knight” didn’t get a nomination, but because the telecast is jammed with obscure awards that they have no say over — this isn’t “American Idol” — and no rooting interest in. What the Oscars need is fewer awards, not more nominees. As long as we are doing the math, does the academy really need three awards for short films and two separate awards for sound?

It is a bit weird that Hollywood types are “livid” about this move — one would think that they’re powerful enough to have prevented it from happening. In any event, they’re surely powerful enough to roll it back if and when it proves a dud. I give this experiment one year, three at the most.

More From Felix Salmon
Post Felix
The Piketty pessimist
The most expensive lottery ticket in the world
The problems of HFT, Joe Stiglitz edition
Private equity math, Nuveen edition
Five explanations for Greece’s bond yield
Comments
3 comments so far

I disagree in part but only because you focused on viewers, meaning the grand Oscar television program. The value of an Oscar within the community is high, no matter how little the general public cares. The television show is, IMHO, best viewed as a means by which the industry both promotes and reins in its star system. The studio system promoted stars but paid them within limits. It didn’t matter that the stars were the only public face, that most people who actually made the movie didn’t even receive a credit on film, because the stars were the public relations face of the business.

Now stars are free agents and films are made by stars – and star directors – so the industry needs the stars to be on stage and worshipped but they can’t let the stars control everything. One might see the Oscar telecast as a form of crumbs tossed to the real craftspeople who make the films or as the stars real effort to include these people, but I see it also as a statement about power, that the industry must retain a balance. The Oscar telecast is in some ways a revealing of the actual, limited and often humble role the stars play in the real making of films. They’re glorified on stage and at the end but the audience is repeatedly reminded that it’s all digital effects and makeup and lights. The movie goer accepts that people are flying through the air, dangling by one arm from a helicopter, etc. but the Oscar show is a not very subtle reminder that it’s fake, that the stars are essentially fake in real ways, that actors show up and do their lines and they’re a small part of what you see on screen. Balance of power.

Posted by jonathan | Report as abusive

wouldnt the studios want the expansion so now they have coud have more oscar nominated movies which would help boost box office takes. And even if an oscar nom doesnt help movies that much the studios dont have to spend money on marketing the movies

Posted by neil | Report as abusive

What jonathan Said. In response to Carr’s specific complaint: two separate awards for sound–absolutely. (And that’s even ignoring that those nominees tend to be the blockbusters that people saw, such as _Transformers_ or _ST:The Next Parody_.) Same as one award for direction and another for editing. (We all saw _The Sixth Sense_: a masterpiece of editing that overcame pedestrian directing in the most positive interpretation.)

Three awards for short films? Maybe not, but be careful. Certainly two (one documentary, one Pixar shorts–er, fiction). And be careful with this one: between YouTube and iFilm and the like, more and more of the potential audience will either (1) have seen the films or (2) want to see them afterward. From the perspective of getting some return on that investment, short films probably have a higher ROI than the 9th and 10th nominee for Best Picture ever will.

You and Carr are not wrong that 10 BP nominees is too many–although I’ll give odds that one of the pleasanter side effects is that the films that came out a month or two ago will get more attention (the ones that won’t have a Major Video Release before Thanksgiving but will have been gone from the theatre long enough that they might be overlooked). Again, from an ROI perspective, this might not be a bad move.

The question is what this does to the length of the show. There aren’t that many things that can be sidebarred from the current version–the Tech awards are already reduced from the old 3-5 minutes to a 45-second slot, the PwC announcement appears to be nowhere, the Best Songs were done as a boring medley this year, and even the Academy President speech was truncated this year. Unless they’re adding half an hour to the scheduled show time, everything else (the Opening Number, the Necrology, the Thalberg Award) is something that attracts people to the show. And how much time can you really save by cutting down, say, Best Foreign Film (which, again, lost time this year, iirc)?

Now, if the expansion to 10 also means getting rid of “the Pixar Category,” then it might even be a good idea. But it’s not going to make the show run short enough to still pretend it will be 3 or 3.5 hours.

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/