Op-Ed: Best Picture Category A 'Panderocracy'

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Oscar statues on display at 'Meet the Oscars' at the Time Warner Center in February. Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images hide caption

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Oscar Statues

Oscar statues on display at 'Meet the Oscars' at the Time Warner Center in February.

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For the first time in more than fifty years, the Oscars feature 10 movies nominated for Best Picture. The head of the Academy says it's the best way to ensure all qualified films are honored.

Cultural historian Neal Gabler isn't buying the Academy's explanation. He thinks the bloated Best Picture category is just another example of "cultural inflation." In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, "An Oscar Panderocracy," Gabler calls the Academy's position akin to "giving every child on a soccer team a trophy."

But why is that a problem? Why not give every kid a trophy, or nominate more films? "Just as printing more money depreciates its actual worth," argues Gabler, "cultural inflation depreciates the value of the honor."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now The Opinion Page, and when you turn on the TV to watch the Oscars this coming weekend, the red carpet might be a little wider than usual. Ten films are nominated for Best Picture this year instead of five. That's the first time that's happened in more than half a century. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Hollywood group that oversees the Oscars, insist the expansion just recognizes that there are lots of great pictures out there.

Neal Gabler calls it pandering. In an op-ed that ran in The Los Angeles Times, he argued this is the same kind of cultural inflation as awarding every kid on the soccer team a trophy whether they're any good or not. So just recognition of films that might otherwise be overlooked or panderocracy? Call 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also weigh in on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We posted a link to Neal Gabler's op-ed, "An Oscar Panderocracy", on that site. And Neal Gabler is a cultural historian and author. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. NEAL GABLER (Author, "An Oscar Panderocracy"): Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And if the purpose of the Oscar telecast is to drum up business at the box office, what's the problem with making the broadcast a little more interesting?

Mr. GABLER: Well, you know, there's an interesting element here. When Sidney Ganis, who was then the president of the Academy, announced this, he said, as you just said, that they had to expand the field because there were so many deserving films...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GABLER: ...and they were now being eliminated. But if you look at the Oscars as they were originally intended, which was the way to reward merit, there is something a little fishy about saying that now, suddenly, you need to 10 films rather than five at a time when there were fewer films being produced than virtually at any time in film history. And that it just so happens that you realized you have to expand the field at a time when the ratings for the Oscar broadcast are plummeting.

CONAN: Well, we do recognize that the years when a big blockbuster, "Titanic" for example, was up for Best Picture, the ratings are a lot better than in the years when - the big blockbuster last year, for example, "The Dark Knight," is not up for Best Picture.

Mr. GABLER: Yes. And of course that, I think, is what really is behind the reasoning. It's not a matter of rewarding the merit and 10 films are more deserving than five because some might have to be eliminated if you only have a field of five. What really it is about is attracting eyes to the Oscar broadcast. And the problem with the Oscars, I think in the Academy's own view recently, has been that too many smaller independent movies, like "Slumdog Millionare" last year...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GABLER: ...are being rewarded, leaving out, as you said, things like "The Dark Knight" and "Avatar." So in a sense, one might say that these were the "Avatar" Oscars. You expand the field so that you get "Avatar" into that field. Frankly, I think it would have been included among the five in any case. But this way, you're going to get a much larger viewership because people will have a rooting interest. They'll be rooting for films that they have actually seen as opposed to small films that they haven't seen.

CONAN: Right. "Up in the Air", for example or "The Hurt Locker" or something like that...

Mr. GABLER: Yes, exactly. You know, it's funny because "Hurt Locker" right now, if one were handicapping the Oscars, is probably the frontrunner. And of all the movies in recent history as Oscar contenders, it has the smallest box office. So there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that you expand the field to include the blockbusters and the movie that now is the frontrunner is the film that has fewer people having gone to see it.

CONAN: Well, isn't the sort of basis of your argument - and I hate to be a cynic here...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...the Academy, of course, the industry says, well, it's about merit. Well, it's always been about money. It's always been about drumming up business for the movies.

Mr. GABLER: Yes. Well, you're absolutely right in a sense that they've kind of blown their cover this time. They've always talked about it as being about merit when the Academy Awards were initiated in 1927.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. GABLER: The idea was that you reward merit, and we've always talked about it in that sense that it's all about merit, it's about aesthetics, it's not about money. But of course, it's always been about money. And now, as I say, they've kind of blown their cover. By enlarging the field, they're not only getting higher ratings, but as you put it out earlier, now there are 10 films that can put on their advertisements in the newspapers, nominated for Best Picture, as opposed to five.

CONAN: And that seems to be working. It's been a banner year for the movie business.

Mr. GABLER: Yes, it is working. Not working so well for movies like "Hurt Locker" and "Precious" and "District 9," but movies like "Avatar" are arguably getting even more people to go and see them than they would have had they not had that imprimatur of Best Picture nomination.

CONAN: Well, those other films - the misfortune to be out of distribution by the time they got the nomination.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GABLER: Out of distribution and even when they're put back into distribution, you know, they're not going to get the big bump that one might expect by getting that, again, that Best Picture nomination. But, you know, it's a vast kind of scheme, and I do call it cultural inflation because it's part of something that's symptomatic of something larger in the culture.

You know, I do compare it to the idea of giving every kid on the juvenile soccer team a trophy. But, you know, we see this in sports generally including professional sports. You know, once upon a time, there were eight teams that contended for the NCAA basketball championship, now there are 65.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GABLER: And people are even talking about enlarging the field beyond that and making this essentially, you know, putting all 120 or so teams into the tournament. And, you know, this is - the same thing has happened to baseball when...

CONAN: Well, it's interesting you bring up the NCAA tournament. It used to be just eight or 16 teams. The conference champions were the only ones allowed to compete which had the effect of making the other tournament, the National Invitational Tournament, more important.

Mr. GABLER: You're absolutely right there. It was a much more important tournament because there you had worthy teams competing. Once upon a time, though, you actually had to win the conference championship in order to have the right to contend for the national championship. One might say that there's a certain amount of logic in that.

If you're not the champion of your conference, how in God's name can you be the champion of the entire nation? But, of course, that's been completely knocked out. Now, we have as many as eight teams from a single conference qualifying.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GABLER: But, again, it's happened in baseball where you used to have the pennant winners of each league, contending for the World Series. Now you have wild cards.

CONAN: You used to have 16 teams in baseball, too. So - now, you've got 30. You used to have 16 teams, now you've got 30.

Mr. GABLER: Yes. Well, the idea is, you know, you expand the teams but still, one should qualify for a championship logically if one actually wins one's division. But we live in a society where everyone has to be pandered to. Everyone has to believe that their team still has a chance, a rightful chance, of contending for a championship and clearly, there is a monetary value in expanding the field.

If your team is eliminated, you're going to be much less likely to continue to watch. In the same way that if your film is not included in the field of the ten Best Picture nominees, you're going to be less inclined to watch the Oscar broadcast. And so, what we've done is a combination of our own sense of self-gratification and the economy, the kind of profits that accrue from this, these two things have kind of conspired to create larger and larger and larger fields, whether it's in sports or whether it's in awards ceremonies like the Oscars.

CONAN: Our guest is Neal Gabler, cultural historian and author. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Andrew(ph) is calling from Cleveland.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ANDREW: I no longer observe that, you know, I'm in agreement that I think that the 10 films are a bit ridiculous. But at the same time, I was also - I'm a huge fan of many of these quality blockbuster films that have come out, they aren't just so much CGI, that have been overlooked in past years. But I did - and - but even with the 10, I think it's interesting to note that this year, we still heard a lot of grumbling from certain fans of some quality movies that, yet again, were snubbed. For instance, many people felt that J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" was a quality motion picture, much more so than "Avatar" or even "District 9."

CONAN: Well, I'm not without comparing it to the others, but I will agree with you, Andrew. It's an outrage that "Star Trek" was not included on the Best Picture nominee list. But, Neal Gabler, even if -and thanks very much for the call - even if the NCAA field is 65, whoever feels - ends up 66, 67 and 68 feels they have been jobbed.

Mr. GABLER: Yes, of course, they do. Here's the dirty, little secret of the Oscars, to address Andrew's point. One of the reasons that big blockbuster films and films that have CGI in them, you know, have not been among the contenders is that the largest single branch of the Academy is the actors' branch. It's a very large branch.

The Academy has some 6,000 members, and the actors' branch is not quite half of the entire Academy. Actors understandably have a certain amount of animosity towards special-effects driven movies. So, those sorts of movies are likely to be given less consideration than movies that are more actor-oriented. And that's one of the reasons why we've seen the tendencies, in my estimation, in the Oscar nominations. And it's also one reason why they had to enlarge the field.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GABLER: Because, in a way, enlarging a field dilutes the power of the actor's branch of the academy. So now, you've got "Avatar," which has no acting nominations, but which is a - obviously, very heavily CGI-reliant film.

CONAN: Also, kept the entire industry working for about five years.

Mr. GABLER: That too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Angela(ph) calling from South Bend.

ANGELA (Caller): Hi. I love the show. I listen all the time.

CONAN: Thank you.

ANGELA: I'm just calling to say that I, kind of, agree with your guest. The 10 nominations is a little inflated. And as someone who's - who enjoys movie that are more actor driven, I'm definitely not for, like, the movies like "District 9" or "Avatar" which I just - I mean, I understand the technological savvy and the, you know, the skill that it took to put this movie on and all the work that went in to it, but...

CONAN: What about a film - let me challenge you, Angela - another Best Picture nominee this year was the animated film "Up." Should it be counted if you're just doing voice acting?

ANGELA: Actually, I would say yes. I mean, it's still a skill. It's still acting involved. It's still - even though, you know, yeah, there's animation that's, you know, it's an animated film. But it still spoke more - had more of a story, I think, even.

CONAN: So it depends on...

ANGELA: ...(unintelligible) that more than "Avatar." "Avatar" is, you know, it was all effects. It was all like a lights display and fireworks. There wasn't a lot of substance. The story was kind of - the plot was kind of...

CONAN: Well, we all saw the plot "Pocahontas," but - Angela, so it depends, if I'm reading you correctly, if you liked it, it involved good acting and if you didn't, it didn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANGELA: Exactly.

Mr. GABLER: But let me pick up on Angela's point, Neal. You know, if there should be 10 Best Picture nominees, according to the Academy's reckoning, why shouldn't there also be 10 best acting nominees...

ANGELA: Yeah.

Mr. GABLER: ...in each of the acting categories? I mean, if you're going to follow that logic, then why not take the logic all the way and expand every category...

CONAN: Hmm.

ANGELA: I agree, absolutely.

Mr. GABLER: ...not just the Best Picture category.

CONAN: I think we should add best - 10 best sound editors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Angela, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about the dilution of the Best Picture category of this year's Academy Awards. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

An email from Melissa(ph) in St. Louis: Won't the votes just be split and the least likely candidate win by default?

Mr. GABLER: That's a very interesting question, because what the Academy has calculated into this is for the first time they have a rating system when you vote. So that is you rate the films...

CONAN: Oh, one through 10.

Mr. GABLER: ...one through 10. Now, what this has also done has - it's created a sort of mini-scandal over the last few days within the Academy, because one of the producers of "Hurt Locker" has been sending out emails to Academy voters, asking them to vote for "Hurt Locker" number one and "Avatar," which it obviously considers its main competition, 10th. Now, this has now kind of spread throughout Hollywood that in a way the "Hurt Locker" producers are trying to influence the voting - not in a way, they actually are trying to influence the voting...

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. GABLER: ...and to reduce the chances of "Avatar" winning. But nevertheless it is possible no matter how you rate these votes that, you know, "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker" will divide a good many votes and some surprise film will sneak in. In fact, right now, the handicapping is, as I said earlier, that "Hurt Locker" is going to win. But there is a feeling in Hollywood over the last week that "Inglourious Basterds" is making its move as they go into the stretch run, and that "Inglourious Basterds" may, because of the division of votes, sneak its way into the Oscar for Best Picture.

CONAN: Without those weighted votes in the past - and I'm sure this year, too, I just haven't seen daily Variety in awhile. There were all these full-page ads, you know? So a Gross and Schmidlap(ph) proud to accept humbly this year's nomination for Best Picture for "Inglourious Basterds." Some huge, you know, words but without saying - by the way, don't vote for those other idiots.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GABLER: That was always implicit. Now they've made it explicit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Robert(ph), Robert with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi, there. Yeah. I was making a point to your producer that I think maybe they should have actually more Best Picture categories, for instance like a best (unintelligible) or best comedy, because it seems like a lot of my favorite movies miss out for the reasons that your guest was pointing out before.

CONAN: There are an awful lot of pictures that made an awful lot of money, and you can think of "The Hangover," for example, as something like that, that might have gotten a nominee - and I honestly don't know - for a Golden Globes category like best comedy or musical as opposed to best drama. Should there be more categories in the Academy Awards, or would that just dilute it even more?

Mr. GABLER: Well, the Golden Globes, as you pointed out, do have a separation between musical comedy, on one hand - although why musical and comedy are necessarily lumped together seems to be somewhat arbitrary - and dramatic film on the other. You know, it's, again, funny that they expanded the field to 10 in hopes of kind of roping in a movie like "The Hangover," tremendously successful and also critically successful, which did win a Golden Globe this year, and nevertheless despite the expansion of the field, "The Hangover" was left out. There has always been a bias in the Academy against movies that were comedies.

CONAN: Or that made money.

Mr. GABLER: Or that made money. Although to be fair, Neal, there's also a bias against movies that make no money. The ideal is to be a popular film that isn't too popular. That is kind of the sweet spot in the Oscars.

CONAN: So that's the - that's where you want to be, is you'd certainly don't want to be "Avatar," but "Hurt Locker," which made, what, two orders of magnitude less than "Avatar." That's the place to be.

Mr. GABLER: Well, that's actually not the place to be, although because of the expanded field, the votes for "Hurt Locker" may actually be a kind of backlash against "Avatar." You know, ideally where you'd be is a place like, you know, "Blind Side"...

CONAN: Ah.

Mr. GABLER: ...you know...

CONAN: A mere $100-million-dollar movie or something like that.

Mr. GABLER: That's exactly right. A mere - actually, $200-million-dollar movie - a mere $200-million-dollar movie in the larger, you know, "Avatar" universe of billion-dollar movies.

CONAN: All right, Robert, thanks very much for the call. Neal Gabler, thank you very much for your time. I'm going to write in "Star Trek" for my vote. Of course, I don't get one, but thanks.

Mr. GABLER: I'd write in "The Hangover" as certainly one that should've qualified.

CONAN: Well, we'll go one-two then in the voting. Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. GABLER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Neal Gabler's op-ed ran in The Los Angeles Times. You can read it for yourself through a link at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He's a cultural historian and author. His next book is a biography of the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court hears arguments on guns in Chicago. The decision could affect much more than gun rights. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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