LOS ANGELES (MainStreet) -- Sorry, Harry Potter fans, but all those hours you spent fashioning a witch costume, playing quidditch on the quad and sitting on line for that midnight show won't help get him and his Hogwarts classmates an Oscar this year.
Warner Bros.' (TWX) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was the highest-grossing movie in America last year, with a more than $381 million box office haul. When the Academy Awards nominations were announced, Harry and company weren't within a broom's ride of a Best Picture nomination. Same goes for Optimus Prime and the other battling robots in Paramount's (VIA) - Get ReportTransformers: Dark of the Moon ($352 million), Edward and Bella in Summit Entertainment's (LGF) The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1 ($281 million) and a handful of comedic bros who still don't know how to throw a bachelor party in The Hangover Part II ($254 million). In fact you have to get down to the No. 13 movie of 2011 -- Buena Vista's (DIS) - Get ReportThe Help and its $170 million haul -- before you reach a Best Picture nominee.
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report This isn't a surprise to anyone disappointed with Hollywood's state of big-budget arrested development or the Academy of Arts and Sciences' insistence on sewing the drapes shut in its ivory tower. Since the Oscars were first handed out in 1929, the most popular movie in the country has won Best Picture a scant 18 times. In the past 40 years, the only box office champions to break through to the Academy voters were The Godfather (1972), Rocky (1974), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Rain Man (1988), Forrest Gump (1994), Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). That's right, it's been almost a full decade since the last time it happened, and the gulf between popularity and prestige has only widened since.
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report "It's that eternal tension between art and commerce," says John Farr, movie reviewer and author of home movie review site Best Movies by Farr. "There exists a huge audience out there that doesn't want to think when they go to the movies."
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report That audience tends to vote with its ticket stubs and popcorn money. Statistician William Briggs pored through the box office receipts and found that, since 1940, 15 Best Picture winners made 25% or less of the haul of that year's highest-grossing pictures. It's happened four times in the past decade: Shrek 2's $441 million crushed Million Dollar Baby's $100 million in 2004, the final Star Wars installment's $380 million dwarfed Crash's $54 million in 2005, Spider-Man 3 trounced No Country For Old Men by $336 million to $74 million, while the record $750 million raked in by 3-D spectacle Avatar in 2009 more than quadrupled The Hurt Locker's $17 million take in its opening weekend alone.
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report "If this trend continues, in 20 years nobody but Academy members will even have heard of the Best Picture," Briggs said in a pre-Oscars blog post last year. "On the other hand, if the previous 5 Most Popular pictures are any guide -- Shrek 2, Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight, Avatar -- the Most Popular movie two decades from now will be targeted at audiences who are still attempting to master pasting and scissoring skills."
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report This year's Top 10 grossing films bear that out. Among the witches, transforming robots and dudebros were five other sequels ( Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Fast Five, Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, Cars 2 and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) and the comic-book prequel Thor. With the exception of the Hangover sequel, The Help and Bridesmaids, much of last year's Top 20 was a CGI blur. It's also exactly what mass-consumption movie audiences wanted to see.
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report "They want make-believe, effects, explosions, sex -- in short, pure distraction," Farr says. "The movies that cater to this group are often fairly mindless and formulaic."
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report They also overwhelmingly tend to be action and adventure movies. Briggs notes that only four Best Picture films have ever fit into that genre: Around the World in 80 Days in 1956, Ben-Hur in 1959, Gladiator in 2000 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. Conversely, a full 33% of the top-grossing films during that same span have been in the action genre. If you want to win an Oscar, write a drama. That genre has won roughly 56% of all best-picture Oscars while making up only 27% of the top-grossing films of the Oscar era.
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report Whatever you do, don't make people laugh. Comedies have been named best picture only four times since 1929 and only twice in the past 75 years: Annie Hall in 1977 and Shakespeare in Love in 1998. Considering comedies were 11% of top-grossing films in the past 84 years, the Academy voting panel's a pretty tough room.
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report "The movies that tend to win Oscars are usually slightly higher-brow," Farr says. "They may have high entertainment value, but are also being judged on excellence in story, script, acting and technique."
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report This is what "the Oscars are out of touch" people have a hard time with. Even after expanding the Best Picture field to as many as 10 nominees starting in 2009 and including top grosser Avatar that year and box-office beast Toy Story 3 in 2010, the chances of the most popular film of the year winning haven't changed much, simply because it isn't a personality contest. It's a nod to artistic achievement, to excellence in very specific areas of filmmaking that, when combined, help the entire industry grow. Nominated films don't always have the mass appeal or bandwagon effect of a well-promoted summer blockbuster, but that doesn't stop portions of mainstream American moviegoers from checking them out once the nominations are announced.
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report "You particularly see the Oscar bump for end-of-year indies, movies not fueled by star power," says movie ticketing site Fandango Editor-in-Chief Chuck Walton. "Moviegoers are more selective these days, and once the competition has been narrowed, they'll take a chance on seeing a movie that's an Oscar winner."
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report Besides, it's not like the blockbusters are left out altogether. The final Harry Potter installment looked great and made some fairly sound technical advances that earned it Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup Oscar nominations. Even the folks behind the Transformers flicks do two things really right: make huge robot fight scenes that make viewers forget about the wooden acting; and produce booming, thundering sound effects that rattle the walls of the frou-frou drama showing in the multiplex theater next door. The Academy knows this, and nominated Dark of the Moon for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report If moviegoers are still steamed their favorite film didn't get an Oscar nod, all we can say is it's not like it didn't get recognized. See that nine-figure dollar amount on that movie's review page under the heading "Box Office." That's its reward, its little multimillion-dollar statuette for producing a movie with broad appeal that will be on store shelves in DVD and Blu-ray format just in time for the holidays.
(TWX) (VIA) - Get Report (LGF) (DIS) - Get Report If you want to see awards for getting people to spend money, may we suggest the People's Choice Awards, the Billboard Music Awards or any other awards show that ties its trophies to sales. The Academy Awards still ask for more, which is why you won't see a statuette in the hands of a comic book hero who fights off off Nazis with just a shield or cross-dressing comedian who thinks playing both genders in a movie that isn't Tootsie is terribly clever anytime soon.