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Academy Nominees aren't Box Office Hits. Do Oscars Still Matter?

Episode Summary

The Oscars ceremony celebrates the best the industry has to offer — but the nominated films are rarely box-office hits, and viewership of the awards broadcast has declined. Will we see a rebound?

Episode Notes

The Oscars ceremony is a night to celebrate the best the industry has to offer — but the nominated films are rarely box office hits, and viewership of the awards broadcast has declined. Will we see a rebound?

Today, we talk about the future of the Academy Awards, and who might win Sunday. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times film and television reporter Glenn Whipp

More reading:

Oscar voting has begun. Do we have a winner?

Three Oscar voters share their super-secret ballots

‘Everything Everywhere’ won the guild trifecta. Now it’s the Oscars frontrunner

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: It's Oscar's week in America and Hollywood's biggest night of the year will take place this Sunday.

CLIP: The Academy Award… And the Oscar… And the Oscar goes to… And the Oscar goes to… “Parasite.”

Gustavo: Another long season of campaigning to sway Academy voters before the ceremony has come and gone. But have audiences given up on the movies that get all the awards?

Sure, there were nominations for box office smashes like “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which is now one of the highest-grossing movies of all time


Gustavo: And last summer's “Top Gun: Maverick” was another box office smash that got a nomination

“TOP GUN: MAVERICK” CLIP: “An F-14 against fifth-gen fighters.” “It's not the plane; it's the pilot.”

Gustavo: But for the most part, one after another, critically acclaimed movies like “Tár” with Cate Blanchett…

“TAR” CLIP:  Time is the essential piece of interpretation. 

Gustavo: Or “Banshees of Inisherin” with Colin Ferrell…

“BANSHEES” CLIP: Stop running away from me like some fool of a moody schoolchild. 

Gustavo: And even “The Fabelmans” from box office king Steven Spielberg himself…

“THE FABELMANS” CLIP: Family. Art. It'll tear you in two.

Gustavo: … mostly failed to find an audience big enough to justify their cost. It’s not a new phenomenon, of course, but in an era where Hollywood's still trying to bring crowds back to in-person screenings, is handing out awards to films that few people have seen a smart thing?

Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News from the L.A. Times.” It's Monday, March 6, 2023. Today, what the academy's nominations say about the state of the box office, plus some final predictions on who's going to win, and who won't but should win in the big six categories. 

Gustavo: Glenn Whipp covers award seasons for the L.A. Times. Glenn, welcome to “The Times.”

Glenn Whipp: Thank you, Gustavo.

Gustavo: So before we get into the Oscars predictions, we should probably talk about how the box office is right now. In 2022, despite some big hits like “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Top Gun,” the theater turnout was still down about 35% from the pre-pandemic days. So why aren't audiences coming back?

Glenn: Yeah, man, there's 10 best picture Oscar nominees and I think between “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” it accounted for 84% of the box office. Just those two movies. The other eight movies not, not so good. Not so good. Why is that happening? I think movies have kind of lost their primacy in pop culture. People are staying at home. The most talked about things right now are limited series, like the zombie apocalypse show “Last of Us”  on HBO Max, which I believe will have its series finale the same night as the Oscars. So there's a little, um, competition. 

Gustavo: Uh-oh. 

Glenn: Yeah, right. And then, and then there's streaming. Everyone's staying at home. You’ve got to justify — that $10, $12 a month or, I don't know, Netflix is even more — how much people are spending on their streaming services. You know, you keep hearing the thing, well, movies are so expensive. I mean, I don't know if that's true. I mean, when you think about what we spend money on and you think about entertainment, everything is expensive now. I mean, you go to a Dodger game, how much does it cost to park your car now at Dodger Stadium? I'm not sure…

Gustavo: I wouldn't know because my friend pays for the parking.

Glenn: (laughs) You have a good friend. But how much does a beer cost at Dodger Stadium? Do you know that?

Gustavo: Eighteen dollars, I think, for a michelada at Dodger Stadium.

Glenn: Yes, it is. There you go. But I mean, you can get into a movie for, I don't know, $12, $15 most places still. I think that's still a good value. That's not why people are staying away. I think it's just they’re more comfortable at their, in their homes. And there's all these streaming services now. Netflix, Apple, Hulu, Amazon, HBO Max. It’s a lot of services and I know people who have them all. So why venture out?

Gustavo: What about COVID though? Is that still keeping folks from going to the movies?

Glenn: I mean, it doesn't seem to be. You know, you'd think that the older audiences would be the audiences more concerned about that. But there've been movies like “The Woman King,” which got the majority of its box office from people over age 35. There were movies like, uh, this Tom Hanks movie that was just out, “A Man Called Otto.” Another, you know, over-50 people are making that a hit. “Ticket to Paradise.” Julia Roberts, George Clooney old-time movie stars. And old-time people going out to see these movies. Those were actually kind of hit movies. So COVID is not really a factor anymore.

Gustavo: So besides big-budget films like a Marvel film or “Avatar” or these, you know, uh, classic stars like Tom Hanks and George Clooney films, what's working right now at the box office and what's not?

Glenn: Yeah, we talked about people staying at home. And watching movies from the comfort of their sofa. But what's getting people out are movies that people feel like they need to see in a movie theater. Like the experience in the theater is going to be dramatically better than the experience watching at home. So like “Avatar: Way of Water,” immersive 3-D experience. I think that movie would just look terrible at home.

“Top Gun: Maverick,” just the deafening roar of the jets. I saw that at an AMC and literally my seat in the theater was just vibrating. And you leave the theater and your hearing loss is just appreciable. And you think, wow. You know, that was a good experience. Right.

Gustavo: You, you'll appreciate this, ’cause the last time we had you on the podcast, I told you and others that I had not been to the movie theater since “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in 2019. Well, I returned to the movie theaters and it was for “Blazing Saddles.”

Glenn: That was not the answer. That was not the movie I expected, but go on.

Gustavo: Because it was for my birthday, and so I had a fundraiser for an indie movie house in Santa Ana, the Frida Cinema, and I thought, OK, if I'm gonna do a fundraiser, I wanna see a movie, and if I wanna see a movie, I wanna see a movie that I'm gonna be able to enjoy with a packed house. So we had a packed house, “Blazing Saddles,” a Mel Brooks, politically incorrect classic, also co-written with Richard Pryor. And people afterwards told me like, yes, I had not been to the movies in years, but this is why I used to go to the movies. ’Cause we laughed together, we booed together. There's no crying in “Blazing Saddles,” but we definitely laugh together. So I could see that, what you're saying, like people will go to the movies, but there has to be a reason now, more so than just to see a movie.

Glenn: Shout out to the Frida Cinema. I love that place. And you know, it's funny because another movie that had done really well at the box office this year, “Titanic,” like these old movies, people are still going back to see “Titanic,” “Blazing Saddles,” other films like that. They're drawing audiences.

I mean, that's that old man shaking his fist at a cloud kind of thing. Like, “They don't make movies like they used to.” But I mean, it is interesting that these older films are drawing people into theaters.

Gustavo: What about the length of the theatrical release? In other words, how long a movie stays in theaters only, before being available at home. Is that playing a factor?

Glenn: It really is because there's this Oscar-nominated best picture film, “Banshees of Inisherin.” Just this sad, bleak, but kind of funny dark comedy, about a friendship that's been severed and it did OK in theaters, but not as well as it would've done, say, five years ago. And then it landed on HBO Max, and that's where everybody saw it. I was just at an event last night. And we did like a show of hands, how many people have seen this movie? You know, a lot of hands went up. And then it was like, well, how many saw it in theaters? Not so many. How many saw it on HBO Max? Just about everybody. So, when these dramas, when these prestige movies, wind up on a, one of the, your streaming platforms that you subscribe to, it’s kind of much less incentive to leave the home when you know it's gonna be in your home.

Gustavo: Yeah. We are mostly talking about last year's box office and we are only three months into 2023. But how has the box office been looking like this year so far?

Glenn: I mean, not so good. I mean, the latest Marvel movie, the third “Ant-Man” was a disappointment, just in every possible way. “Cocaine Bear.” 

Glenn: A movie that, I mean, you can explain that movie simply by its two-word title.

Gustavo: Maybe the greatest title ever.

Glenn Whipp: Yeah, right? And that did well. I mean, horror movies are doing well. These kinds of movies, like where you go to a theater and you get scared together, or you have this kind of heightened experience together. People are still going to movies for that. And I mean, this March should be telling. And how much audiences are still interested in going to theaters because there's a number of big movies arriving like “Creed.” They're all sequels, like “Creed 3,” “Scream 6,” “John Wick, Chapter 4.” So we'll see.

Gustavo: When's the “Fate of the Furious” or whatever the title of the “Fast and Furious” franchise gonna come out.

Glenn: I think that's April or May. It's soon. Soon.

Gustavo: It’s coming.

Glenn: It sounds like that might be the next movie you see.

Gustavo: (laughs) Considering I've only seen one of them, maybe not. After the break, the final Oscar predictions go to …

Gustavo: Glenn, now with the health of the movie industry in mind, the box office, let's talk about this year's Oscar nominees. So I know there's 10 choices for best picture, but what are they? 

Glenn: Yeah, I mean, we've talked about a couple of them. “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Top Gun: Maverick.” These were movies that everyone saw. There were a couple of other big hits, like “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” and “Elvis.” Then there were movies that, you know, you should have seen, but people didn't. Like “The Fabelmans,” the Steven-Spielberg-kind-of-how-he-became-Steven-Spielberg movie.

I mentioned “Banshees of Inisherin.” That was a movie that people kind of stayed away from until it came on HBO Max. Then there was this great drama starring Cate Blanchette, “Tár.” That was a very chilly look at, uh, a conductor that had some kind of power. You know, power issues.

Gustavo: Like most conductors do.

Glenn: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well save that for a future podcast. Then, and then, there were some indie films like “Women Talking,” “Triangle of Sadness,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which is on Netflix. So yeah, that's the 10. 

Gustavo: Which of those was your personal favorite?

Glenn: You know, I spend a lot of time covering these movies. I mean a lot of time, it's like six, seven months. And so it ends up being the people I just kind of liked spending time with. And that was definitely the group from “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” Just really down-to-earth, funny, relatable people having a good time on this.

Gustavo: So for our listeners preparing their Oscar ballots or even gambling on who's gonna win, you think “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” is gonna win best picture?

Glenn: I think so and I would not have thought that a year and a day ago, but this trippy sci-fi family drama won the top honors from the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild. I mean, nine other movies have hit that trifecta and eight of them went on to win the Oscar. So I think best picture is pretty much locked.

Gustavo: Glenn, before we get into more predictions, what's your method to choose who's gonna win the Oscars.

Glenn: Um, yeah, it's just like a late-night seance with the ghost of Mickey Rooney. Um, that's always good. Ouija board. No, I mean it's like these guild ceremonies that I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of overlap between the membership, between the guilds and the Academy. So you pay attention to those. You talk with voters and, you know, you make your best guess.

Gustavo: Tallulah Bankhead didn't tell you anything this time around.

Glenn: Mary Pickford, she was very helpful. Yeah.

Gustavo: Lillian Gish. You've mentioned which film you think is gonna win best picture, but what about the other big categories, like best actress? Who do you think is gonna win?

Glenn: The person who had dominated was Cate Blanchett for “Tár,” playing that conductor, but, um, I think it's gonna end up being Michelle Yeoh winning, for “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” You know, the Oscars, Gustavo, are kind of a popularity contest. I mean, I think Hollywood has always been described a bit like high school, so a lot of this just comes down to who you like more and a lot of other things that go beyond the performance. So it's Cate Blanchett has already won two Oscars. Michelle Yeoh, this is her first nomination. She’s 60 years old. She's fantastic in this movie, playing this kind of multiverse-hopping martial arts mother. So I think sentiment is on her side and I think it's gonna carry her.

Gustavo: What about the actress who came on some movie that no one saw and got nominated for an award and there was all this controversy about like, did the people actually nominate her actually see that film?

Glenn: I think they did. That's, that's you're talking about Andrea Riseborough, who I doubt anyone even listening to this podcast, even after the controversy,  has seen her movie, “To Leslie.” But there are enough people in the 310 area code. I mean, the movie made $27,000 in its very brief theatrical release. And then she somehow got an Oscar nomination, thanks to a very passionate social media campaign. She’s very good in the movie. 

“TO LESLIE” CLIP: “I'm your mother. You cannot talk to me this way, James.” “Mother! Mother!” “Yes, your mama.” “You're a drunk!” “I am sick.”

Glenn: It’s not a performance that doesn't deserve recognition. It's just bizarre that this movie that no one had heard of until about two weeks before nominations were announced ended up being nominated.

Gustavo: Yeah, $27,000. I mean, we're talking about low box office, but that's like nonexistent box office, so that was really interesting. What about for best actor, who do you think's gonna win?

Glenn: I'm hoping Austin Butler for “Elvis.”…

ELVIS CLIP: I mean I used to dream of being a great actor.

Glenn: I loved him in “Elvis.” He's such a gentleman. You saw him at the SAG Awards. He was helping Jennifer Coolidge and Sally Field up on stage. What a, what a nice young man. Um, but maybe I just didn't like “The Whale.” And that's the movie that Brendan Fraser stars in.

“THE WHALE” CLIP: You’ve been so honest with me that I, I, I just want to be honest with you too. 

Glenn: He plays a morbidly obese man intent on making peace with his daughter before he dies. And I, and I felt like they were trying to make this empathetic movie, but they were just kind of rubbing the audience's face in this man's misery. And it, I didn't like the movie. So I'm rooting for Austin Butler. I believe, and, and, you know, it’s a kind of showy, big performance that wins Oscars. So I think he has a good chance.

Gustavo: How about supporting actors and actresses? Who's gonna win?

Glenn: Again, this could be a, a big night for “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.”

Glenn: The lock is Ke Huy Quan. For his supporting turn in the movie. So much fun.

“EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, ALL AT ONCE” CLIP: “I'm not the wayman who wants to divorce you. I'm the wayman who is saving your life. Now you can either come with me and live up to your ultimate potential or lie here and live with the consequences.” “I want to lie here.”

Glenn: And he has this great personal story. He was a child actor. You probably know him, maybe, from Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

Gustavo: And “Goonies.” 

Glenn: And “Goonies.” There’s a Frida movie, for the future. And he had to quit acting because of the lack of opportunities for, you know, Asian Americans. There were just no roles. And he tells that story very effectively. It just breaks your heart. His personal story.

CLIP: For so many years, I was afraid I had nothing more to offer. That no matter what I did, I would, I would never surpass what I achieved as a kid. 

Glenn: And he is great in the movie, so it's, he's got everything. And supporting actress… Man, I'm not sure. It is between kind of Jamie Lee Curtis, who's also in “Everything, Everywhere.”

“EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE” CLIP: But a stack of receipts, I can trace the ups and downs of your lives and it doesn't all look good.

Glenn: … and Angela Bassett for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

“BLACK PANTHER” CLIP: I am queen of the most powerful nation in the world, and my entire family is gone. Have I not given everything?

Glenn: These are two women who, um, they're over 60. They haven't received probably enough recognition for their careers, so this is a way of honoring them. I'm just not sure which one is gonna be honored.

Glenn: So stay tuned. I'm still gathering intel.

Gustavo: (laughs) More after the break.

Gustavo: Glenn, what about the best director category?

Glenn: I think that's gonna be “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” These two guys, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, they're known as the Daniels and they're weirdos. And they made a weird movie that's really inventive and fun, but it's also a great family drama. And yeah, when the season started, I thought, Spielberg would get like another Oscar for this kind of, you know, I mean, Spielberg's 76, I don't know how many more times the Academy is gonna be able to, to uh, honor him, but everything is going for “Everything, Everywhere” right now.

Gustavo: And one thing that I noticed about the best director category: It was all men. All men. So as gender neutrality in workplaces and language increasingly become norms, I know there's been talk about dissolving gendered categories at awards shows altogether, including the Oscars. No longer best actor, best actresses, but just one category. For any performers, do you think that's ever gonna happen with the Academy Awards?

Glenn: I think at some point, probably in the near future, it's gonna have to happen because there's going to be just this next-level performance from a nonbinary or trans person. And they're not comfortable submitting themselves because there's no category for them. So the Academy's gonna have to figure it out. Um, I'm a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and we voted this year to eliminate gendered categories, and it worked out just fine. It was, it was not a big deal. We gave two lead performance prizes and two supporting performance prizes. And in each case, one male, one female. And I guess there would be some years, if these gendered  categories were eliminated, that you might have more men or maybe more women nominated. It would be interesting. It makes it more interesting. The Grammys have done away with this, 10 years ago. MTV movie-TV awards. Not that they really matter, but they've been gender neutral. Film Independent Spirit Awards, gender neutral. So I think we're moving toward that. The Academy has to kind of be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. So the dragging part will be when that performance happens and there's no category for them to submit themselves.

Gustavo: Yeah. Speaking of pushing the Academy into the future, it's been eight years since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign about the issue of the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Has the Academy made progress in terms of diversifying their nominees?

Glenn: They've made some progress. I mean, they've made strides, I think more so than than most organizations. The Academy began inviting larger membership classes into its ranks a few years ago. The goal was to double the number of women and people of color, and they succeeded in doing that. Once you start from a place that's so overwhelmingly male and white, it's gonna take a lot of years for that to have some equity. But they have made strides and this year, Michelle Yeoh became the first self-identifying Asian lead actress Oscar nominee. She could win, as I said, along with Ke Huy Quan. And Asian-led films were nominated in 16 categories at the Oscars this year, including 11 for “Everything, Everywhere.” So, that movie, would it have been made 20 years ago? I don't know, 10 years ago? I don't even know that. So, so strides are being made, again, kicking and screaming, but it’s small steps.

Gustavo: Yeah, the Academy's mission has always been to promote the business of moviemaking and movie-going, but also honoring the highest art in the form. But if so many people aren't watching the movies being nominated for Oscars, do the Oscars still matter?

Glenn: They definitely still matter because getting into the Oscar conversation is still one of the few ways that indie titles and festival favorites, international films, documentaries, can find. It's not a mass audience anymore, but an audience. I mean, finding an audience is hard these days. I mean, I've had so many people tell me over the years, you know, if you're in the Oscars, you're on the map. And it’s true. 

There are people that still pay attention to what's nominated and still make a point, oh this, I gotta check that out. You know, I know a lot of people, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” nine Oscar nominations, they see it when they log into Netflix. It's like, “Oh, OK. I should watch this.” So they still draw people to good movies.

Gustavo: Finally, of course, last year's Oscars had Will Smith, uh, slapping Chris Rock. Huge social media viral moment, but the Oscars were still the second-lowest rated viewership ever. Do you think the ratings this year will improve?

Glenn: It's not likely because our viewing habits have changed so much. Outside of pro football, ratings for pretty much everything, live events, scripted television shows, have eroded. I mean, people simply don't sit down and watch a three-hour live event, outside of football, like they used to in olden times, Gustavo. I don't think people have the patience or even the attention span anymore for that kind of commitment. 

Glenn: The times they are a-changing and I don't think there's any going back.

Gustavo: Glenn, as always, thank you so much for this conversation.

Glenn l: Thank you, Gustavo. 

Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of “The Times:  Essential News from the L.A. Times.” 

David Toledo was the jefe on this episode. It was edited by Heba Elorbany, and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it.  

Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.