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Want Better Oscar Ratings? Play Up Visual Effects.

Eye on the Oscars 2013: Vfx, Sound & Editing

Hi there! Wow, what an Awards season it’s been so far, huh? That new accelerated calendar has been rough on a lot of you, I know. And the electronic voting? Well, next year they’ll work out the kinks.

I know you also have another ongoing headache, namely, what to do about the Oscarcast. I don’t have the answer, but I have a suggestion: Treat visual effects like a “major” category — which, though you seem not to realize it, it already is.

That’s what your audience thinks, anyway: As of Jan. 31 the nine best picture nominees, totaling about 108 weeks of release, had grossed $1.685 billion worldwide. The five vfx nominees, totaling about 70 weeks of release, had grossed more than twice as much: $3.782 billion. “The Avengers” alone had grossed almost as much as all best picture nominees combined but even the other four vfx nominees outgross all nine picture nominees.

To date, “Life of Pi” is by far the highest-grossing picture nominee, with $530 million in just 11 weeks of release. Probably not coincidentally, it’s the only pic nominated in both categories. Other titles to be nominated in both in recent years include some of your most popular and talked-about movies: “Avatar,” “Inception,” “District 9,” “Titanic,” “Babe” and “Forrest Gump.”

Look, I get it. As a group, your idea of a “good” movie is pretty traditional: Middlebrow dramas, especially if they have a lot of earnest acting and come with a literary pedigree. Often that means movies that could have been made 50 years ago. But if you take a look at the box office leaders for 2012, you’ll see the vast majority of the top 100 are CG-heavy: either animated or laden with visual effects. (Even “Lincoln” uses digital set extensions and environments.) That’s the business most of you are actually in.

Those of you who work indies and foreign-language films are unflagging in your support of the kind of movies you make. But those of you who make studio pictures act as if you think the movies you make aren’t the best, just the best-selling. You like to give Oscars to movies that show what your industry could be, or what you wish it was, not what it is. You are not especially proud of the movies that actually pay for your mortgages or your kids’ tuition or your camel safari in Rajasthan.

Trust me, though: You’ve nommed some very fine movies for both picture and visual effects over the years, pics that are nothing to be ashamed of. They show that vfx aren’t just for kid stuff anymore. They can support the kind of storytelling you admire and empower the best storytellers to tell tales in new and exciting ways. OK, sometimes the results don’t look like what you’re used to honoring at the Oscars. But that’s the hidebound thinking that’s sucking the life — and the ratings — from your show.

So instead of minimizing or bumping the visual-effects category from the show to make room for another stiff Teleprompter reading by a trembling celeb, play up visual effects. Show short vfx reels throughout the show, the way you do with best picture nominees. They’ll look amazing on huge modern HD TVs. Show befores-and-afters; they’re cool and they’ll blow everybody away. That would do more to solve your audience engagement problem than moving the date to January ever could, plus you’ll have a leg up on the guilds and Globes, since they mostly ignore vfx.

Putting more vfx on the show won’t solve the problems of overexposed stars, awards fatigue or fading suspense. But it might re-engage a lot of your TV audience, and it might help you and your peers overcome your prejudice against your own most popular work.

Or you can continue to minimize vfx on “The Oscars,” and by doing so continue your paradoxical battle against your own flagship products. My guess is that if you go that direction, your ratings will continue to flag no matter what date you choose and no matter how many stars you feature.

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