Is Hollywood Out of Touch?

Last night's Academy Awards show included Jon Stewart and George Clooney talking about whether Hollywood was "out of touch" with the general public. My friend Lores over at asked specifically whether this years Oscars presentation show indicated that Hollywood was out of touch. Lores points out that none of the films nominated for Best Picture have come close to making the box office that The Chronicles of Narnia made in 2005.

A commenter on Lores' blog, to whom I responded, made the point that none of the top-ten grossing films this year were Oscar-worthy (though I disagree re: Narnia – it should at least have gotten more nominations). I thought it a fair argument, but ultimately it may not rebut Lores’ point. A better sample would be to look at the adjusted all-time box office to see whether Hollywood was able to make artistically accomplished movies that appeal to the broader culture. Here are the Top Ten:

1. Gone with the Wind
2. Star Wars
3. The Sound of Music
4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
5. The Ten Commandments
6. Titanic
7. Jaws
8. Doctor Zhivago
9. The Exorcist
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, and Titanic all won Best Picture.

E.T., The Ten Commandments, Jaws, Doctor Zhivago, and The Exorcist were all nominated for Best Picture. And all of them won significant Oscars in other categories.

From the next fifteen all-time adjusted:

Ben-Hur (13th all time), The Sting (15th all time), The Godfather (21st all time), and Forrest Gump (22nd all time) won Best Picture.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (16th all time), The Graduate (18th all time), and Mary Poppins (23rd all time) were nominated for Best Picture.

So, of the top-25 grossing movies of all time, 15 were nominated for or won Best Picture. When you remove animated films like 101 Dalmatians, Snow White, The Lion King, and Fantasia, as well as the always disfavored Sci-Fi epics like Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, we see that most of the most popular films of all time also were nominated or won Best Picture awards.

Next, let us look at this from the other side. Here are the most award winning movies of all time:

Ben Hur 11 Oscars
Titanic 11 Oscars
Return of the King 11 Oscars
West Side Story 10 Oscars
Gigi 9 Oscars
English Patient 9 Oscars
Gone with the Win 8 Oscars
From Here to Eternity 8 Oscars
On the Waterfront 8 Oscars
My Fair Lady 8 Oscars
Gandhi 8 Oscars
Amadeus 8 Oscars
Shakespeare in Love 7 Oscars
Dances with Wolves 7 Oscars
Schindler's List 7 Oscars

Almost all of these movies were box office successes, with many of them being very succesful.

But lest we think that this is simply a product of the “good old days,” focusing on a few more recent examples is illustrative. Shakespeare in Love was released in 1998 and garnered more than $100 million. Schindler's List made close to $100 million in 1993. Both were rated R yet passed that mark. Forrest Gump was released in 1999 and was a huge box office success. Gladiator won Best Picture in 2001. The Lord of the Rings, Return of the King, won Best Picture in 2003.

Clearly, Hollywood can and often has produced great award winning films that are commercially successful. Clearly, the movie-going public can and often is attracted to movies that are artistic successes. But lately, with the exception -- in my opinion -- of Lord of The Rings Trilogy, Hollywood seems to be making fewer movies that are artistically celebrated and appeal to broader audiences. Or at least Hollywood is nominating fewer of them for Best Picture awards.

If we look at 2004 nominees in addition to the 2005 nominees for Best Picture, the result is much the same:

The Aviator
Million Dollar Bab
y (the winner)
Finding Neverland

Only two of these films passed the $100 million mark and those two (The Aviator and MDB), only barely passed it. Moreover, significant amounts of those two’s takes were post-nomination -- and in the case of MDB, post-award -- and they would not have passed that mark without the help.

As for this year’s Crash ($53 million), no movie has won Best Picture with a lower box office since 1987’s The Last Emperor ($43 million). In adjusted dollars, however, it appears that no movie has won the award for Best Picture for at least 25 years and perhaps longer. The same seems true of the slate of nominees, though I would need more time and resources to prove it up. (One could argue that these movies have yet to realize their full bumps from the recognition they have received, but it does not appear that this year's slate is enjoying much of a bounce).

So while the box office does not decide what the Best Picture was for any given year, it may be telling that this year’s list of nominations was among the lowest grossing ever and the winning picture was one of the lowest grossing in years.

I have made no judgment on the artistic merit of any of the recent nominees and could not have. The only contendor (though not nominated) I saw last year was Walk the Line (which I liked). My ultimate point is simply that there does seem to be a growing divide in the preferences of Hollywood and the public. Simply claiming that this is the typical result of the public not appreciating artistically meritorious films does not appear to be an adequate explanation for this divide.

UPDATE: Just saw this article about one of the greatest actors of our time: Sir Anthony Hopkins. He criticizes Hollywood for making "condescending" films. He does not buy the line that audiences only want mindless dribbel: "Audiences aren't so mindless as movie-makers think."

Perhaps some in Hollywood see a two-tier film making procses. One tier for the artistic films that they and a few enlightened others will enjoy and can celebrate and award. The other tier of mindless action or comedy movies that entertain the masses and so make lots of money. The largess from the latter provides the means to make the former? In any event, Sir Hopkins left no doubt about his opinion of who is "out of touch." From the article:

I can't get caught up in the self-importance. People bow to your every wish and you forget where you come from and what you're doing," he told the magazine.

I recently worked with two actors who wouldn't come out of their trailers for some reason.

Can you figure that out? It's insanity. Or they complain because their trailers aren't big enough.

Bulls***. It's a job, like any other, so don't make a big deal. Be polite, treat the crew with respect and don't think you're different.

More grist for the mill.


BK said…
I think Hollywood is portraying a bit of snobbery in their Oscar selections. It is like the members of the high literary guilds -- they think that they know which movies are better than the public. We, the public, go to see movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Star Wars III, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They nominate movies like Brokeback Mountain which is simply a vehicle for sending their politically correct messages to the world.

Now, it certainly is true that sometimes the best movie isn't the most popular. Star Wars III, for example, while being technically very good, wasn't the best movie I have seen this year. I thought the plot was labored and the acting was okay but not great. But are you really telling me that Crash was a better movie than the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?

Oh, excuse me, that's a movie based on a Christian work. Can't have that as best movie, can we?

I gave up the Oscars a few years ago. When they decide to get back to considering what the public also liked, then I may return.

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