Last year’s decade-high ratings for Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscars hosting gig could be a very hard act to follow. After mixed attempts to court younger viewers with the likes of Seth MacFarlane, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, and the disastrous pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway, it turned out the most winning formula for the Oscars wasn’t mimicking MTV, but offering family-friendly gags.
And Ellen got a boost from a movie slate that included a smattering of blockbusters: “Gravity,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips,” all of which went on to gross more than $100 million, not to mention Idina Menzel crooning the movie anthem of the century, “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen.”
Producers for this year’s ceremony have tapped Hollywood’s recidivist awards show host Neil Patrick Harris for his first whack at the Oscars. This in theory could make for entertaining TV — like Hugh Jackman and Billy Crystal, Harris can sing and dance and improvise with the audience. If the stars look like they’re having fun, so do viewers, which is why Ellen’s selfie and pizza-delivery skits were such hits.
But Harris might already be scrounging around for material, because the Academy has managed to nominate one of its least-commercial best picture slates ever: six indie films (“Boyhood,” “Birdman,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Whiplash” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and two studio features (“Selma” and “American Sniper”) that have yet to open in wide release. So far, the highest-grossing movie of the best-picture nominees is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” at a modest $59 million domestically.
These titles don’t exactly come with immediate name recognition, and make up the lowest box office since 2009, when the Oscars expanded the category in an effort to include more popular films. In 2011, the nine best picture nominees boasted a combined gross of $519 million on the day of nominations, and that was considered weak. This year, that total is at $203.1 million, according to Box Office Mojo — or put another way, the eight best picture nominees have a combined audience that’s smaller than “The Lego Movie.”
Couldn’t the expanded best picture category have made room for David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” which only landed a lone nomination for Rosamund Pike, a well-crafted crowd-pleaser that grossed $167 million? Or Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” perhaps his best film yet, which prompted lots of sniffling at the New York premiere last year? “Unbroken” would have guaranteed Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s attendance, and it’s a B+ in my book (solid — if not great). “Guardians of the Galaxy” (which got a WGA adapted screenplay nom) and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” are nearly perfect works of mass entertainment. Even Disney’s “Into the Woods,” which received a Golden Globe nomination, could have helped popularize the mix of this year’s best picture contenders. Actually, the Academy should have nominated “The Lego Movie” for best picture. At least it’s a sure-bet for the consolation prize: best animated film. Oh, wait.
Another route to attracting viewers, especially younger ones, is through the best song category. There was a wealth of performers to choose from that would have made the Grammys jealous, but voters thought differently. Who wouldn’t tune in to see Lorde croon “Yellow Flicker Beat” from “Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1”? These other acts also won’t be at the Oscars: Lana Del Rey (on the soundtrack for “Big Eyes”), Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”), Sia (“Annie”), Coldplay (“Miracles”) and the Muppets, who would have been singing a duet with Celine Dion (not exactly hip, but it would have been oddly compelling nonetheless). Adam Levine will perform “Lost Stars” from “Begin Again,” but as much as I love the song, it’s not one that people have heard on the radio. And one mainstream pop artist can’t carry an entire awards show.
None of this griping is meant to take away from the accomplishments of this year’s acting nominees, which offered high notes at the movies. The best actor race, in particular, will be a nail-biter. Benedict Cumberbatch, the Internet’s boyfriend, scored his first Oscar nomination for playing Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” and he’s up against his fellow Brit Eddie Redmayne for portraying Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” Michael Keaton as Batman — I mean, Birdman — in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s comedy, Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher” and Bradley Cooper’s career-best work in “America Sniper,” which should be a big hit by the time the Oscars roll around. I just wish the Academy had included a few more movies of that scale.
The Oscars, like the moviemaking business, is facing an identity crisis. At least when “The Dark Knight” got snubbed, fans were outraged. If most people haven’t heard of the nominees, they aren’t going to watch, and the business will lose more young viewers to indifference, because TV and video games are engaging them in a way that the movies aren’t.