Analysis: The Academy Awards Are Meaningless

by Brandon Gray
March 7, 2005

After winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor at the 77th annual Academy Awards and adding 225 theaters, Million Dollar Baby climbed a modest 11 percent to $8.1 million at 2,350 venues in its first post-Oscar bout. The 82-day purse for the $30 million boxing tragedy stands at $76.6 million—profitable and popular to be sure, but still more a phenomenon within the industry and amongst movie critics than with moviegoers.

The last time a Best Picture winner hadn't reached $100 million by the time the Oscars were handed out was Shakespeare in Love six years ago, and it climbed 44 percent in its first post-awards weekend (and had sold more tickets than Million Dollar Baby by the time it won). The English Patient jumped 50 percent, while Schindler's List spiked 53 percent—again both under the century mark winners. Even Chicago rose 17 percent post-Oscar, and it was already a smash prior to winning.

Clint Eastwood in
Million Dollar Baby
The Academy Awards bestow upon winners and nominees a moment of heightened exposure. It remains the only congratulatory event that can affect the box office. Over the past 22 years, the average Best Picture winner has made nearly one-fifth of its ultimate gross following the awards, and, for the movies that were not already blockbusters, the figure rises to almost 30 percent. That means Million Dollar Baby should end up with over $90 million, but could struggle to hit $100 million by the end of its run. Taking into account ticket price inflation, it will be the least popular Best Picture winner since The Last Emperor 17 years ago.

Viewership for the Academy Awards came in at 41.5 million this year, according to Nielsen Media Research. That was down two million from last year when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture, but not a new low thanks to the hoopla made over controversial host Chris Rock and a resurgent ABC network—the Oscars aired when their smash hit Desperate Housewives usually does. The saucy show had already clobbered the Golden Globes and the Grammys earlier in the year.

With few and particularly short movie clips featured during the telecast, not much was done to convince moviegoers unfamiliar with Million Dollar Baby to see it, aside from the fact that it won. Hilary Swank's winded acceptance speech and Clint Eastwood's befuddled smugness did not help.

The year of Titanic was a recent high for the Oscar telecast with approximately 55 million viewers. Ratings this year likely would have been through the roof if the cultural touchstone of 2004, The Passion of the Christ, was nominated—not to mention its counterpart Fahrenheit 9/11. The Academy largely ignored movies many people actually saw—for the first time in 18 years, no Best Picture nominee was especially popular prior to nomination. The big hits were either too controversial or polarizing (The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11) or what the Academy considers relatively lightweight caliber, such as Spider-Man 2.

That's not to say the Academy should nominate movies simply because they're popular. But quality is not exclusively the Academy's trademark. Box office, whether the Academy would like to admit it or not, is a factor. The Best Picture winner is almost invariably a hit prior to nomination.

Obstinately, the more the Oscars become irrelevant, the more the media focuses on them, from sites devoting chronic speculation throughout the year to self-proclaimed awards experts hocking their wares on cable news. Industry commentators, normally critical of the Oscars, huff and puff at the mere suggestion that popular movies should be nominated—as if the Oscars are a bastion of quality, unsullied by politics. It's almost as if they consider the Oscars to be untouchable because unpopular pictures were up for the big prize.

Ultimately, the Oscars don't mean anything, even when a cultural event like Titanic or Forrest Gump wins. A nod is more like an affirmation or validation.

Though it may be a shame that someone like Martin Scorsese, a skilled craftsman devoted to making movies, lost to Eastwood for Best Director, to get really worked up over who was snubbed or who surprised is to give far too much power and credence to the Academy Awards than they actually have. An Oscar doesn't mean a movie or performance is of quality or worth remembering. True winners emerge in time. A movie doesn't require the validation of an Oscar to justify someone liking it. A recent example is Shakespeare in Love versus Saving Private Ryan in 1998—which movie is still prominently in the public awareness? It isn't the one with the Best Picture and Actress Oscars.

Disregarding the absurdity of comparing incongruous performances and craftsmanship, the Academy Awards, like any awards show (be it from the industry, the critics or the public), is a political campaign and a popularity contest, among Academy members who are conscious of the Academy's image in this case. By its very nature, the Academy Awards can only claim to be about quality because such a thing cannot logically be divined from a vote—and, at that, a vote that offers no argument other than the fact that more people marked the ballot for one picture over the others. If the Academy Awards were an intellectually honest institution, movies would be competing for Favorite Picture, not Best Picture.

People often complain that winners and nominees are mediocre, inferior to any number of other movies in a given year. But it can be no other way—if the cream rises under such a system, it is merely a coincidence. That's also why the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Greta Garbo and Cary Grant never won a competitive Oscar.

The Academy Awards hold fascination solely as another movie game to make bets and predictions on or as a cultural barometer—the culture of the Hollywood elites and how the public reacts.


3/1/05 - COMMENTARY: Oscar Without Glamour
2/10/05 - ANALYSIS: Super Bowl Movie Ads Lack Luster
1/30/05 - ANALYSIS: 'Passion of the Christ,' 'Fahrenheit 9/11' Tops in 2004
1/23/05 - COMMENTARY: Sunshine Cracks Through Dark 2004
3/26/03 - COMMENTARY: Glamour and Depravity Collide at the Oscars

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