It’s that time of year again. The Weinsteins are whining, and the red carpets are rolling! In the enormous mess of DVD promotions, star interviews, magazine spotlights, and blogger rants, it’s easy to forget that the Oscars are no longer the biggest movie event on the planet. Viewership has been steadily declining over the last decade, largely thanks to the increasing indifference from the next generation. It may be said that the last time teens showed up to watch the Oscars was 2004, which saw the epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King win eleven awards and ratings of a record 55.2 million people.
Since, the name of Oscar has largely been deprecated among teens and young adults. In today’s Internet-hate society, the Academy has been a favorite mockingbird of many a teenage troll, no doubt aided by the Academy’s poor (and largely unsuccessful) attempts to pander to the younger class of cinema-goers. No doubt many remember the 2011 Oscars, in which the producers enlisted the very energetic Anne Hathaway and the very lethargic James Franco to youngify the night. It was both a critical and financial fiasco, as neither star, it seemed, had big enough wattage among the target fourteen to thirty demographic the Oscars so crave.
The great schism between teen and award show is largely due to two other, related breaks: the break between adult, teen, and kiddie fare, and the break between awards films and blockbusters. If there was ever an age where it was possible for mom, dad, brother, and sister to pick a movie they all genuinely liked with a gestation period lasting less than an hour, it passed a long, long time before the twenty-first century began. One look at a film’s MPAA rating tells us if we’re the target demographic or not – G and PG denote “family” films that, with the exception of the rare Disney or Pixar release, are in actuality bearable only if you’re still awaiting your twelfth birthday; PG-13 films are acceptable diversions for teens and adults; R-rated films are exclusively for adults. If you’re a teen, odds are you won’t deign to see something as uncool as a G-rated movie, and generally only the most permissive of parents let their kids see R-rated movies – though they have to accompany their kids to the movie, another major turnoff. Most teens see – almost exclusively – PG-13 movies, and it’s no secret that the Academy likes their pictures to be serious, adult stuff, which almost guarantees an R rating for the majority of awards contenders.
The second break, between awards films and blockbusters, effects not only teen viewership but general viewership as well. A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, crowd-pleasers from the likes of Woody Allen, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Zemeckis were able to easily garner nominations, and it was a no-brainer to deem films like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Godfather frontrunners. Many eminent awards commentators have noted – some with panic, others with triumph – that the Oscars have increasingly shifted toward the artsy and prestigious. The last three Best Picture winners – The Artist, The King’s Speech, and The Hurt Locker – were all made for next to nothing, and for the most part earned around around that figure (The Hurt Locker became the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner of all time, though The King’s Speech was able to gain some steam at the box office following its win.) All three had largely untested directors and little-heard of cast members; the most well-known actors – The King’s Speech‘s Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter – were known primarily for their supporting roles in previous years’ nominees. The divorce of multiplex and Nokia Theater has never been more perilous, and odds are that only teens like me (and, if you’ve read this far, probably you) have actively sought out and liked such critically-fawned-upon films like Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, and The Master.
It is true that the Academy has made a conscious effort to recognize genuinely great films that have managed to straddle the line between teen and adult (and, in the cases of Up and Toy Story 3, “family,” teen, and adult) demographics. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen youth-oriented films – like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar, Inception and, to a much lesser extent, Juno, The Social Network, The Help, and Moneyball – make the ballot. Still, that’s only nine out of seventy-four films nominated for Best Picture, and none of them, it seems, have had the irresistible pull that the Academy hoped would return the Oscar ratings to the 50 million viewers range. There was much hope for the critically-acclaimed and bank-breaking finale to the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, to garner nominations for Best Picture and possibly Best Supporting Actor for Alan Rickman, but neither manifested and the great collective force of the Internet pulled no punches in letting the Academy know their displeasure.
Now we come to the 2013 ceremony. The producers have already made the controversial decision to give Seth MacFarlane the hosting gig, in another blatant campaign to pull in teens and young adults. Whether or not the viewing public recognizes MacFarlane as the creator of their favorite animated show is questionable, though no doubt the Academy will fixate on “creator of Family Guy and Ted, Seth MacFarlane!” in their advertisement blitz this January and February.
Going into the year-end critic awards, there are six locks – Argo, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty. That leaves the field wide open for as many as four additional nominees, though if there’s enough widespread support for Argo or Zero Dark Thirty the ballot could be restricted to only six or seven films (there can be anywhere from five to ten nominees, based on the number of films that achieve at least five percent of the votes.) Vying for the last couple of spots are indies Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Impossible, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Sessions, Quentin Tarantino spaghetti-comedy-gutburster Django Unchained, aviation biopic(!) Flight, polarizing head trips Cloud Atlas and The Master, and foreign language dark horse Amour.
Enter five films that could change the course of the Oscar race. The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Skyfall. All five have connected with teen audiences worldwide in both the mainstream media as well as the nerd blogosphere, and all have received numerous nominations in the latest batch of critics awards. Could one of these films have the power to draw youngsters back to the Oscars – and even more important, could one of them win a nomination?
The odd one out is probably the most deserving of the five. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a hit novel among older teens and has received rave reviews from critics and fans alike, but Wallflower hasn’t exactly been box office wildfire. The film’s best bet for a nomination is Steven Chbosky for Best Adapted Screenplay – he has the added caveat of having written both book and film – but this is also Chbosky’s feature film debut. The flamboyant and funny Ezra Miller won the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor, and with a wildly inconsistent batch of contenders, there is no sure thing in this category. Leonardo DiCaprio is a frontrunner on one pundit’s list and completely snubbed on another, while the Critics Choice Awards recently nominated Alan Arkin, Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, and Philip Seymour Hoffman alongside Skyfall‘s Javier Bardem and… Magic Mike‘s Matthew McConaughey. Though Logan Lerman gives an equally impressive turn in Perks, the strength of his older Best Actor competitors and the weakness of his past career choices almost definitively rule him out. In the end, the film may be stuck in the John Hughes Ghetto, regardless of how many voters manage to see it.
The other four candidates are, respectively, the year’s biggest blockbusters. Expect below the line support in the technical categories for them all – there’s a grassroots campaign for Skyfall‘s veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the younger crowd of voters could push the superpowered The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises over Life of Pi. Expect lavish fantasy spectacle The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey to sweep most of the technical categories. But in Best Picture, expect only one of the four to win a slot.
Going by directors alone, it’s easiest to knock off The Avengers. Though Joss Whedon is a major deity to geeks nationwide, he has no previous Oscar history as a director, and The Avengers may be too lightweight for serious consideration. Adoration of Christopher Nolan remains high, but this is hardly the year the Academy will make the effort to atone for snubbing Nolan’s previous efforts The Dark Knight (in both Best Picture and Best Director) and Inception (in Best Director), assuming Nolan’s generation of filmmakers will ever embrace Nolan’s particular brand of moody pop art. Peter Jackson and Sam Mendes have both won Best Director before, as have their previous ventures, and that places their respective films under intense scrutinization.
The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey, like Django Unchained, Les Misérables, and Zero Dark Thirty, is among the awards season’s late arrivals. Recent years have favored films released earlier in the season, and as a general rule of thumb films shown (at least somewhere on the globe) more than a week or two after the Toronto International Film Festival are disadvantaged. As a franchise film, and a lighthearted one at that, it would normally be easy to cross off. What saves The Hobbit from complete obliteration is the memory of The Lord of the Rings, which saw nominations for The Fellowship of the Rings and The Two Towers as well as Best Picture and Director Oscars for The Return of the King. Three factors outside of its late release stand in the way of The Hobbit‘s domination: the relative popularity of The Hobbit in comparison to The Lord of the Rings, the crowded Best Director field, and the enormous acting branch. Despite a fine ensemble of Oscar-friendly actors, there’s no chance in Mordor it’ll receive an acting nomination, and it’s not exactly a secret that actors tend to vote for the film with the strongest performances.
Then we have Skyfall, the twenty-third film in the slick super spy series and likely the first billion dollar Bond. If the Academy were to honor Skyfall, it would also be the first 007 film nominated for Best Picture. What makes this one different from the rest? It’s earning rave reviews, with some calling it the best Bond yet, largely thanks to its darker atmosphere and intense, emotional finale. The film’s a lock in Best Cinematography for the aforementioned Roger Deakins, and the frontrunner for Best Original Song for Adele’s soulful theme song. But Skyfall has also thrown its bladed bowler hat into the acting races – an unprecedented first for the series. Upon release there were many mutterings about deliciously unhinged villain Javier Bardem, and less distinct murmurs about Judi Dench’s powerful performance as M. Both actors have won before, and were widely considered long shots. I was ready to count them both out of the race for good when the diverse Critics Choice Awards listed them both as nominees – and when the Screen Actor’s Guild listed Bardem as a nominee. This year the Supporting Actor race is very strong but extremely unpredictable, with few sure things; by contrast, the Supporting Actress race is almost embarrassingly weak but rather predictable – expect nominations for Amy Adams, Sally Field, Anne Hathaway, and Helen Hunt. If other critics groups and guilds take notice of the Critics Choice Awards and Screen Actors Guild, Bardem could gain steam, while Dench needs to score victories over Jacki Weaver and three Les Misérables dark horses, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, and Amanda Seyfried.
If the Oscars wish to gain the viewership of teens and young adults, either the Oscars need to become interested in “popular” movies or young people need to become interested in “art” movies. In a perfect world, both of those things would happen – but our Hollyworld isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t look like either of those things are going to happen in the near future. For now, I suggest an olive branch. Honor the best of blockbuster cinema by nominating The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or Skyfall; Uncle Oscar knows they deserve it. Will any of them get nominated? In all honesty, they’re long shots. The betting odds aren’t the best. But at least the everyteen has a couple of horses out the gate.