Sixty percent of American moviegoers can’t name a single one of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this weekend, according to a poll commissioned by the Hollywood Reporter — though 70 percent say they will still watch the ceremony.
The poll measured which films 800 respondents had heard of, which ones they’d seen, and their picks to win, as well as their attitudes about watching the ceremonies on television and preferences about acceptance speeches.
Respondents were also asked to identify which 2016 presidential candidate they voted for, ostensibly to gauge how their political loyalties affect their opinions of the nominees — a choice that invites us to read the results through a political lens.
Since Hollywood is often accused of being “out of touch” with real Americans, presumably due to many celebrities’ leftward bent, the results of the poll are revealing: The situation, it seems, is more complicated than the more facile Hollywood condemnations might imply.
The poll takes respondents’ political affiliation into account, with illustrative results
The Hollywood Reporter’s poll was purposely designed to equally survey supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, garnering different results on both sides of the political divide. It revealed that among 26 percent of Trump voters, La La Land was the favorite for Best Picture, followed by Hacksaw Ridge (21 percent). Clinton voters preferred Hidden Figures (27 percent), followed by La La Land (20 percent).
Hidden Figures, a family-friendly, PG-rated inspirational comedy-drama about three black women who worked at NASA during the 1960s, was favored by Clinton voters over Trump voters by a 12 percent margin. Meanwhile, Hacksaw Ridge, a bloody but inspirational R-rated war drama about a conscientious objector who becomes a World War II war hero, did 9 percent better with better with Trump voters than Clinton voters.
Given the political divide on the two films, it’s worth noting that Hidden Figures and Hacksaw Ridge actually have some important elements in common: Both are period films, and both are based on a true story. Both also feature religious characters from Virginia, though the role of religion is more pronounced in Hacksaw Ridge.
But the predictions about who will and should win the night’s big prize — everyone has an opinion about that, including Vox — are less interesting than the respondents’ awareness of the films and their stated likelihood of seeing them. In most cases, Clinton voters were more likely to have seen the Best Picture nominees, with the exception of Hacksaw Ridge: 27 percent of Trump voters had seen the film, in contrast to 18 percent of Clinton voters. And Clinton voters were significantly more likely to be able to name some of the Best Picture nominees.
Regardless of respondents’ political affiliation, though, the fact that 60 percent of those polled were unable to recall the names of any Best Picture nominees will likely be taken as yet another sign that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, popularly referred to as “Hollywood,” is “out of touch” with real Americans, who don’t see the kind of obscure and arty films that Hollywood supposedly honors at its biggest ceremony.
The argument that Hollywood is out of touch because it doesn’t nominate big box office winners is a familiar one...
Some version of this argument gets trotted out nearly every year. A Reuters poll conducted prior to the Oscars in 2014 found that 67 percent of 1,433 Americans surveyed hadn’t seen any of the Best Picture nominees (which would have been released in 2013). In 2015, the hubbub was over the fact that the idiosyncratic Birdman won the big prize over critical favorite Boyhood and mega box office hit American Sniper, which took in $300 million and was the third-biggest film at the box office that year.
In 2016, Oscars host Chris Rock poked fun at the idea in a video segment during the ceremony, where he went to a movie theater in Compton and asked about that year’s slate, including its eventual Best Picture winner, Spotlight. Theatergoers expressed bafflement, having never heard of most of the movies. (There may be some other factors at play there; Straight Outta Compton, nominated for Best Original Screenplay and widely considered to be snubbed for a Best Picture nomination, never even played in Compton.)
This simplistic argument against the Oscars boils down to the idea that the elitist “Hollywood liberals” who make up the Academy are out of touch with the rest of the country — which you can tell because whatever film made the most money must be the actual best picture of the year. The most people saw it, after all.
...But that argument doesn’t really hold up when you actually look at the numbers
That argument fails to take a few key factors into account, particularly this year. First of all, this year’s nine Best Picture nominees cover an unusually diverse swath of American life, from poor black kids in the Miami projects (Moonlight) to poor white guys in rural Texas trying to save the family farm from foreclosure (Hell or High Water) to well-off-enough-to-drive-a-Prius young artists in Los Angeles (La La Land).
It also appears from the Hollywood Reporter’s poll that Clinton voters — who would seem to be more in sync with “Hollywood liberals” — actually picked the bigger box office winners. Clinton voters’ favorite to win, Hidden Figures, is the 18th-highest-grossing film of 2016, and La La Land, which topped Trump voters’ list, is the 20th. Hacksaw Ridge, Trump voters’ second pick, sits at the 46th spot, lower than Arrival (29). All the rest of the Best Picture nominees are within the year’s top 100 films, except critical darling Moonlight, which sits at 102 — four notches above the conservative Christian movie God’s Not Dead 2. (A total of 732 films were released theatrically in 2016.)
That both Clinton and Trump voters picked La La Land as a potential Best Picture suggests that the country may be more in sync with Hollywood than expected, at least when it comes to box office numbers. It may not be the top-grossing film of the entire year, but it still out-earned some 700 other films in 2016 alone (never mind its continued box office success in 2017), making it far from an obscure pick on the Academy’s part.
Furthermore, half of the 20 films that grossed the most money in the US in 2016 are nominated for Oscars in some category. Two of them (Hidden Figures and La La Land) are nominated for Best Picture. Two others (Zootopia and Moana) are nominated for Best Animated Feature.
Finally, it’s simply not true that the Oscars never reward big box office winners: Two of the past 10 Best Picture winners were among the top 20 earners the year they won, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.
But the real trend at play here is the fact that Oscars frequently go to “films for adults” — that is, dramas that deal with adult themes and topics. The lion’s share of the past decade of Best Picture winners — Spotlight, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, and The Departed — are R-rated dramas about historical topics or mature themes. (Likely 2017 winner La La Land is a bit of an anomaly in this field: more lighthearted than most of its predecessors, and probably more family-friendly.) The reason the “adult” films favored by Oscar voters typically do less business at the box office is simple: R-rated films rarely sell as many tickets as PG-13 fare, because the age-restricted audience is naturally smaller, and people looking for a fun night at the movies don’t always flock to serious themes.
Looking at 2016’s 20 top-grossing films, 10 were rated PG-13, nine were rated PG, and only one — Deadpool — was rated R. This is probably why the PG-rated Hidden Figures, the Clinton voters’ pick, is the top-grossing Best Picture nominee. La La Land is rated PG-13; Hacksaw Ridge is rated R. And R-rated movies like Hell or High Water, which on its $12 million budget didn’t have the marketing push of the much bigger Hacksaw Ridge (reportedly a $40 million budget), simply never would have done as well in theaters.
The Oscars matter because they make smaller films more visible
This, in a sense, is a great argument for why the Oscars, love ’em or hate ’em, still matter to movies, especially the lower-grossing films that often get nominated for the big award. It’s a bit hard to quantify the box office “bump” a Best Picture winner will get from a win, though there seems to be at least some merit to the idea. (The amount of business a Best Picture winner will do after the Oscars is partly dependent on how many weeks it’s already been in theaters, or if — as in the case of last year’s winner, Spotlight — the movie has already left theaters and is on DVD and VOD.)
But in the age of streaming, a Best Picture win can also mean increased name recognition among viewers far into the future, who might then be more likely to watch the film once it crosses their Netflix queue. If 60 percent of moviegoers couldn’t name any Best Picture nominees going into the Oscars but 70 percent of them planned to watch the ceremony anyhow, then the Oscars function like free advertising for smaller movies.
And that’s a big opportunity for the nominees — and the potential viewers who might end up checking out a great film they might have otherwise missed.