The Oscars aren't the cultural force they once were. Though the ratings remain relatively stable from year to year, they are generally down from their height in the 1990s. Nobody goes to see the Best Picture nominees any more, and Hollywood continues to slip away from the American mainstream. Fox News argued this quite explicitly in the wake of American Sniper's Best Picture loss.
That's the conventional wisdom, at least, shared nearly every year in the aftermath of another Oscar broadcast that the awards seem to cater only to an increasingly small portion of the American public that has watched the Oscar-nominated movies.
There's certainly evidence to back this up. The 2015 Oscars commanded an audience of just 37.26 million viewers. That's the smallest audience since 2009. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the 2009 ceremony was the last year before the Academy expanded the Best Picture nominee lineup from five nominees to a maximum of 10, partially in hopes that blockbusters like The Dark Knight might start getting nominated.)
In comparison, the 2014 broadcast saw viewership of 43.74 million, the highest since 2000. The decline from 2014 to 2015 fits similar ratings trends for the Golden Globes and Grammys. But what's more troubling here is that the Oscars don't seem to be growing, not really. While the ratings for the Super Bowl have kept pace with population growth, the Oscar audience has seen a mostly gentle but pronounced decline since those '90s highs.
The most common excuse given for this decline in viewership is that the Oscars no longer nominate movies that people have actually seen.
But the opposite is actually true. The Oscars often seem to go out of their way to nominate movies people have seen. It's just that fewer adults are seeing movies altogether and, thus, fewer movies aimed at adults are getting made. The answer to the decline of the Oscars is the same as the answer to the decline of so many things in the movie industry. The Oscars nominate films ostensibly aimed at adults, and adults have largely stopped going to the movies.
Or, put another way, the Oscars didn't leave the public. The public left the Oscars.
The Oscars have nominated big hits
The Oscars do nominate big hits. They nominated Gravity in 2014 and a sextet of $100-million-plus grossers in 2013 (including surprise box-office sensation Lincoln). Inception and Toy Story 3 cracked the nomination list in 2011, and Up and Avatar did in 2010, to say nothing of The Blind Side.
The most watched Oscar broadcast ever was the one in 1998, when Titanic, at that time the biggest movie in history, went home with 11 awards. The second-most-watched came in 1995, when Forrest Gump, one of 1994's biggest hits, won Best Picture.
But, of course, that's not true every year and not this year in particular. Look at Box Office Mojo's chart of this year's Best Picture nominees:
American Sniper rules the roost, the third biggest earner of 2014. But from there, things seriously fall off. The next biggest movie of the Best Picture nominees this year is The Imitation Game, which comes in as the 40th biggest moneymaker of 2014. And Best Picture winner Birdman is currently at 82nd, having earned just over $38 million.
But 2015's Oscars are a bit of an outlier. Indeed, there's generally a core audience that watches Oscar-nominated movies (at least a few of them) and, consequently, the awards.
Let's get to know them.
There's a core group of people who consistently watch Oscar-nominated movies
There's actually a remarkably consistent audience that goes to see some of the Oscar-nominated films, particularly the Best Picture nominees. These are the sorts of people who are always going to watch the Oscars because they've put in the work to see the movies.
The Oscar baseline audience is good for somewhere between $100 million and $200 million in domestic box office sales, with many releases clustering between $125 million and $150 million (when adjusted to 2015 ticket prices).
This Oscar audience seems to primarily be an adult audience that has enough money and leisure time to at least try keeping up with the year's acclaimed releases. They're different from the summer movie crowd — less numerous in number but capable of driving movies to profitability if those movies are smartly budgeted and well marketed.
And this Oscar movie audience has been around since the '80s. The adjusted gross for 1982 Best Picture winner Gandhi, for instance, is $139 million. The 1984 winner Amadeus lands just under $123 million in adjusted dollars. The English Patient, the Best Picture of 1996, lands at over $143 million.
Here's a look at the gross for the last 30 Best Picture winners, in 2015 dollars. (That giant spike is Titanic, which crosses the $1 billion mark domestically in adjusted box office.)
Notice how consistent the grosses are, outside of a handful of outliers in either direction?
The same trend goes for nominees. Indeed, the more nominees this audience has seen, the better the Oscar telecast ratings seem to do. In a year like 2012, for instance, Best Picture nominees Lincoln, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, and Life of Pi all cracked $100 million, with eventual winner Argo landing at $136 million.
What happened to this audience in 2014?
When it came to 2014 releases, the Oscars simply went a little more arthouse than they typically do. That's fine.
But take a look at films that scored between roughly $125 and $200 million in 2014 and you see a bunch of movies that probably could have been nominated for Best Picture (in terms of genre and reception) and had been talked up as potential nominees, but were ultimately passed by (Gone Girl, Into the Woods, The Fault in Our Stars, and Unbroken). (I'd say the Best Picture nominees were generally better movies than every movie not named Gone Girl there, but it's not like any of those four movies being nominated would have been a tremendous shock.)
So how big is this core audience for Oscar movies? Divide $150 million (where many of these movies end up clustering) by the average ticket price in 2015 ($8.30), and you arrive at something like 18 million tickets sold. Our core audience is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of that number — which is also roughly half of this year's total viewership of the Oscars ceremony.
There are years when the core audience doesn't turn out, and 2014 was one of those years. So was 2011, when Best Picture winner The Artist only scored a little over $47 million and only The Help (at $169.7 million) cracked $100 million at all.
But as with all baselines, there are examples that fall wildly below the baseline and wildly above it. Every film not named American Sniper fell below the baseline this year, which is why the old "nobody sees these movies!" canard has cropped up here and there, particularly on social media. Even the venerable Hollywood Reporter has a variation on this theme here.
The Oscars will nominate genre fare — just maybe not comic book movies
Often, the "nobody sees these movies!" argument is accompanied by a suggestion that the Oscars look to the year's biggest box office hits. This is, of course, faulty logic, since, after all, the movies that make the most money aren't always the year's best.
But it also ignores that the Oscars do nominate big, hit movies. They actually do quite often, even if those movies come in genres the Oscars don't really like. This applies to, among others, Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Fatal Attraction, the Lord of the Rings films, Inception, Up, Toy Story 3, and Gravity. In terms of genre, at least, they're all films outside of the Oscar wheelhouse, but they all turned into huge word-of-mouth sensations with smashing reviews. Thus, they were given Best Picture nominations.
Now, the Academy isn't blameless here. It has a bias against adaptations of comic books and young-adult novel adaptations, which are currently the main revenue-generators in Hollywood. And the Academy's already existing bias against sequels hurts both genres.
These biases may have led The Dark Knight and Spider-man 2, for example, to miss out on Best Picture nominations, even though they fit the profile of being big, smash hits with great reviews. You could extend this argument to The Avengers and maybe even the second Hunger Games film, as well.
But none of this is the real problem. The real problem is that ...
People don't see movies aimed at adults like they used to
We've seen plenty of Best Picture nominees fall hugely short of our baseline for Oscar movie box office. But that's always happened. What's different now is that it's now much less likely for a typical Oscar movie to wildly exceed the baseline. And that's where the Oscar movie audience has started to fall off.
What's essentially happened is that in the last 20 years, the Oscar baseline has stayed relatively stable, but the instances of films that explode past $200 million (in 2015 dollars) have become much, much rarer. The overall adult audience has essentially collapsed to just the core Oscar audience, and it's much harder to drag in other adults, who don't see everything but will see some things, at least if those things get enough buzz and interest.
Blaming the Academy for its bias against the box office flavors of the moment, as if that explains why the Oscars have decreasing cultural cachet across decades, fails to account for how hard it's become for movies aimed at adults, rather than teens or young adults, to score major box office in recent years.
A fair amount of movies from the 1970s and '80s that hit the core adult audience also exploded to rope in just about everybody else, too. Just look at that chart again:
The numbers behind that chart (which is skewed by Titanic) are even more impressive. Take, for instance, 1988 Best Picture winner Rain Man, which was the biggest hit of that year. Adjusted for inflation, it would make a huge haul of $359 million in 2015 dollars. Forrest Gump adjusts to $652 million dollars. Those are Avengers numbers. Platoon? $294 million. Terms of Endearment? $273 million. Kramer vs. Kramer? A staggering $357 million. Even Driving Miss Daisy, a relatively sedate stage-play adaptation, adjusts to $209 million.
Look beyond Best Picture winners to movies that were nominated but didn't win, and the picture becomes even starker. Ghost adjusts to $427 million. Tootsie hits $472 million. Jerry Maguire expands to $281.6 million. Even The Green Mile crosses the $216 million mark. And this is just me grabbing a few particularly dramatic examples. Play around with Box Office Mojo's Oscars tool, and you'll surely find even more examples.
The last Best Picture nominee to really fit this profile (at least before American Sniper) was 2009's The Blind Side, which adjusts to a little over $275 million in 2015 dollars.
So what's happening?
Why the bigger audience is getting lost
The most basic explanation here is that the big studios have largely abandoned the adult audience in favor of men in their teens and 20s, who will reliably go to the movies, weekend after weekend (and will often drag their significant others along with them). The explosion in films in the sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book genres is largely attributable to this audience.
And the explosion in young-adult adaptations stems from the same being reliability being largely true of women in their teens and 20s. (This is to say nothing of the massive overseas audience for both types of films.)
In box office terms, most of these big franchise movies start as triples, and they expand to home runs or even grand slams, depending on how many other adults they can convince to come see them. That's better than the system that's existed throughout most of Hollywood history, where you were lucky to hit a double, and home runs were enormously rare.
The movie industry has been looking for a way to essentially foolproof its money-making mechanisms, and it very nearly has with this system.
So if these sorts of popcorn movies are less enticing to the Oscars, that's no big deal to studios, who haul in massive amounts of cash. To do so, it's just written off the adult audience that was always unpredictable to begin with.
But it's also hard to imagine something like Rain Man breaking out today to the degree it did in 1988. (The film's director, Barry Levinson, has actually spoken about this.) In real terms, the recent release that most resembles the film is probably 2012's Silver Linings Playbook — two of the biggest stars on the planet, a quirky comedic take on one central relationship, and a core built around an examination of a mental condition. And yet Silver Linings struggled to break out past the core Oscar movie audience.
Yet people are still going to the movies (indeed, even a down year like 2014 was solid on a per-tickets sold basis), and the cost of tickets has actually lagged slightly behind the rate of inflation. Indeed, in 1975, ticket prices for going to the movies once per month would eat up around 0.8 percent of a family's average household income. In 2015, that number has dropped slightly to 0.7 percent.
So what can Hollywood do?
If there's a common denominator to be found in the various adult-aimed Oscar movies that have broken out across recent history, it's that they're often about people from Middle America (Forrest Gump and Coal Miner's Daughter), or they tell stories about familial relationships that are instantly familiar to just about anybody (the estranged siblings of Rain Man, or the family coping with divorce of Kramer vs. Kramer). They are, in other words, often about the way Americans — all Americans — actually live today.
Is it possible that the core Oscar movie audience tends to be more urban, while the expanded audience is more suburban and rural? It's impossible to say. But the box office certainly suggests it, at least here and there.
And, surprise, surprise, both American Sniper and The Blind Side are films specifically about Middle America that proved enormously popular there, as well.
Diversity of perspective in our films is important, something that studios are slowly learning as films centered on women and people of color continue to score at the box office.
But for as badly as studios lag in making movies about and for women and people of color, they're almost as bad making movies aimed at adult audiences who don't live in giant urban areas. Diversity of perspective, after all, also cuts across class and geographic lines. Or, put another way: if you make movies about Middle America, and they're good, and they strike a universal chord, then Middle Americans will come.