And The Academy Award Goes To...Who Cares?
A few days ago I was trying to decide what films to watch at the cinema. I noticed that, as well as there being the typical variety of an animated family-friendly film, a few mindless action flicks and a couple of edgy horror pieces, there seemed to be a spike in the number of artistic, deep character studies (some biographical) with personal tragedy in a historical backdrop, which are sure to showcase the actors’ full emotional range and be moving, depressing, uplifting… anything but fun.
It can only be Oscar season in the box office. For some, it is the ultimate celebration of the finest works of art the film industry has to offer. These people are becoming fewer and further between. More are considering the tent-pole awards ceremony to be a night of almost incestuous self-congratulation for the elite (complete with the $230000 goodie bag), whose voters are seemingly out of touch with today’s demographics (89% white, 73% male, 54% over the age of 60) and tastes.
I must confess that I can enjoy the glitz and glamour of award ceremonies and I am a fan of a good brooding, heavy and emotionally intense drama. But we will see that, while there can be significant financial gains for nominated and award-winning films, consumers are more indifferent towards the Academy Awards and they do not seem to be as necessary as they once were on the supply side.
Several studies have been carried out to work out what effect a nomination or a win has on a film’s performance at the box office. Randy Nelson, a professor of economics and finance at Colby College, suggest that Oscar winning films stay in cinemas nearly twice as long as others. The theory is that if it is “certified” by a knowledgeable and reputable source, more people are supposed to want to see those films.
It turns out that films with nominations and awards do earn more box office revenue: from 2000 to 2009, the average film released in the US made $19 million domestically, but a film with at least one nomination made $73 million, with Best Picture winners making $143 million. It has been calculated that major awards like Best Picture and Best Director have a positive effect on average revenue per screen, market share as well as its survival in the box office; “minor” prizes like Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay tend to have little impact. Technical awards like Best Visual Effects usually favour high budget blockbusters, with nominees being the likes of Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and thus are a reflection of a film’s financial success. Of the awards that do have an impact on a film’s box office success, the payoff for a win is least twice as much as a nomination: for Best Picture, a nomination increases revenue by $7 million domestically, and a win by $18 million.
It is undoubtedly a great honour for anyone in the film industry to receive an Academy Award, the most prestigious accolade in the field (especially if you became a running joke on the internet after losing on several occasions). We have the potential financial gains, but are these awards necessary for a film to perform well financially? And are they still relevant?
To answer this, we need to look back. Originally the Oscars were awarded to films which were the most culturally impactful and commercially successful, like Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur and The Sound of Music. Then, nominations and wins became more of a marketing tool for low-budget art-house films, at least according to Tom Piechura, Head of East Coast Entertainment Marketing at 42West. This is very much still the case, with one of this year’s front runners, Moonlight, only grossing $15 million domestically with a $5 million budget.
This begs the question of the relevance of the Academy Awards today. Not since The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2003 has a Best Picture cracked the top 10 highest grossing films. This is likely due to the possibility that “The Academy” may be out of touch with the tastes and preferences of today’s movie-goers. Although efforts have been made to diversify their voters, it still consists of mostly white, mostly male and mostly old voters, most likely in the high-income bracket. Their tastes are fairly well defined too. Known as “Oscar bait”, they favour dramas (usually set in the backdrop of tragic historical events), dialogue-driven deep character studies, where the protagonist may have a disability. Popular themes include war, race, political intrigue and show business. The tone is usually serious or depressing and having an ensemble cast of previous winners helps. They are typically advertised (expensively) in publications like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Not the typical film casual consumers want to see.
As a result, there have been consistently declining ratings for the Oscars Award ceremony, with 2016’s being the lowest in eight years and the third-lowest this century. It has also faced backlash due to the lack of racial diversity with its nominees. Although better this year, last year “#oscarssowhite” and other protests dominated the build-up to the event, due to snubs for critically acclaimed films like Creed and Straight Outta Compton. If anything, these omissions can help create a marketing opportunity for these films so they build on the “buzzworthy moments”, according to Joseph Anthony, CEO of marketing agency Hero Group.
Thanks to the presence of social media, it looks as if the necessity of these awards is waning. Social media makes it easier and cheaper for art house films to advertise nationally and globally without needing awards. David Weitzner (former president of worldwide marketing for 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures) says that social media lets film-makers understand what audiences want and take part in real time. He says that by the time awards are given out, these small films are out of theatres, assuming they were able to get screens in the first place. DVD and Blu-Ray sales are dwindling as well, so Oscar wins and nominations wouldn’t make much difference anyway. He suggests that instead of pushing for revenue through awards nominations, they could go through streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. Gillian Smith of ID-PR says art house films can market themselves in more unconventional ways. Twitter and Reddit could be used, live online Q&A’s and even amusing GIFS. Ex Machina, critically and commercially successful indie film, even made a Tinder profile of its main female protagonist.
I think it is safe to say now that, although intriguing and entertaining for genuine film-buffs, the Academy Awards are simply not as relevant or necessary as in the past. Whilst there is financial gain from being nominated and winning, it is less necessary for a film to win awards to perform well commercially. As has been made clear by box office figures, the majority of film goers don’t really care about a film’s awards or even reviews: they’d just like to have a couple of hours off to enjoy themselves. People like being free to choose, to make up their own minds. So when I rave about the glitz and glamour of this year’s Academy Awards and get over-excited (or rant) about the winners and losers, I suspect that I will be greeted by many puzzled or uninterested faces.