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David Poland

By David Poland

New York Times Continues To Write About Hollywood Like A Cranky Old Man

Oh, the irony.

The New York Times, since Sharon Waxman created the first fake slump in 2005, has taken a “get off of my lawn” take on Hollywood in pretty much every circumstance in which it has the opportunity. Whether it is the constant and misleading meme about the interest of Americans in going to the movies or today, The Oscars, there is a theme about young people abandoning Situation X, but almost no detail to go with a lot of alarmist writing.

Is The Academy Award show the hot ticket amongst young Americans? No. But the tone of coverage is a lie, almost a much so as the very few actual facts that they bother to analyze were false.

Today, it’s “Fears Grow That Oscars’ TV Allure May Be Resistible.”

To start, these writers are very comfortable playing fast and loose with limited details. Gladiator‘s Oscar year, as a high point, was ELEVEN years ago. And it didn’t have 45 million viewers, as they use “about” to spin, but just under 43 million.

And here are my big problems with this meme.

1. In the last decade (using figures from TV by the Numbers), the high point was 42 million viewers and the low point was 32 million viewers in 2008. That’s a pretty big swing. But with a high in the last decade in 2004 of 43.5m viewers, half of the shows – including, it seems, last night- were within 10% of that high bar. And only two of the shows have had ratings more than 15% off of that high mark.

Would you get that sense from the obsessively myopic reportage?

The Average viewership for The Oscars in the last 35 years is… 42.9 million people in the US. Six of the last ten shows were within 10% of that figure.

Would you get that sense from the reportage you’re seeing?

2, ABC renewed its deal last year. There is no great pressure on The Academy to deliver some shocking change in the numbers.

3. While it is an amusing game to look at the great success of The Grammys or continuing growth in professional football as a comparison, the success of one event has little, if anything, to do with the success (or failure) of another.

4. If you look at the charts on the Academy Awards ratings, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King did, indeed, deliver the biggest number this decade, though it wasn’t just for the one film, but for a large community built up over 3 years.

No Country For Old Men‘s year was the lowest ratings this decade. But No Country was up against Juno, a $143m grossing phenom with strong youth appeal. Didn’t help. That group of nominees also had a higher average gross than the year before or after, both of which had much better ratings.

The switch to 10 nominees in the last two years, though it did not lead to The Academy nominated mega-films, did bring the average domestic gross per film back up over $100 million per film for the first time since Rings’ 2003 show. And still, no huge rating boost. Just small, steady ratings growth the last three years… from that new bottom.

Last year, the Top 5 grossers amongst the 10 all were over $100 million when the show took place. One had grossed over $1 billion worldwide… a first for The Oscars. Didn’t move the needle.

So this spin that is constantly repeated about The Academy picking films that are not popular enough is not only false by the numbers, but based almost exclusively on two unusual events, Titanic and Rings.

5. “Neither “The Artist” nor “The Iron Lady” has struck a nerve at the North American box office, with each so far luring about four million moviegoers to theaters. That’s as if all the people living in Los Angeles had gone to see the films, but the rest of the country did something else. “

How far is The New York Times willing to go to spin this story? All of a sudden, they shift from gross (The Artist passed $30m domestic this last weekend) to number of people who theoretically saw the film. They create this bizarre, misleading thing about “all the people living in Los Angeles,” as though the Academy vote was all the business the film did, when they know full well that almost none of the 5800 voting Academy members paid to see the film and therefore had nothing to do with the box office.

They also include The Iron Lady, which isn’t nominated for Best Picture. God forbid they think about the history, such as when Jessica Lange won Best Actress for Blue Sky, which grossed under $4 million… and the show viewership was 44.9 million.

And for that matter, while they go on to complain that “the Academy seems to have effectively eliminated one of the crucial measuring sticks of the past: the ability of a picture to move the masses to buy tickets,” they are just repeating another false meme.

6. Though the NYT doesn’t care to consider how Harvey Weinstein has chosen to distribute his silent, black+white film that’s already grossed $31 million despite never being on more than 1005 screens on any one weekend, the future will tell on this title. But history already tells us that the meme is false.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Artist have both more than doubled their grosses since nomination and the November Searchlight release, The Descendants, has added more than 50% to its pre-nomination gross. Four of the other films were released before October. The other two, War Horse & Hugo, each of which was released wide before being nominated saw more marginal benefits.

Last year, five of the nominees were released before November. The November releases were 127 Hours, which increased its gross by more than 50% after nominations in late January, and The King’s Speech, which did 58% of its $135m domestic gross after nominations. The three December releases were True Grit, which added $33 million post-nod to its already very impressive $139m gross before nominations, Black Swan, which did more than 20% of its total $106m domestic gross after nods, and The Fighter, which did more than 20% of its $94m domestic gross after being nominated.

In the 2010 group, there was not a single film released in limited released, to take advantage of Oscar, after October 9 and there were only two films in the entire group of 10 that opened after November 20, more than 2 months before nods landed in early February. One was Avatar, and giving The Oscar credit for the $151 million it grossed after nominations seems as disingenuous as some of the NYT spin. And Up In The Air opened in limited on Dec 4, then went wide over Christmas and still managed to add over $10m to its $73m pre-nod gross.

The year before, Slumdog Millionaire did 68% of its domestic gross after being nominated.

The year before that, There Will Be Blood did more than 75% of its $40m domestic gross after being nominated, Juno did 39% of its gross post-nod, No Country and Atonement did about a third of their total domestic after nomination, and Michael Clayton, released Oct 5, took in an added 20% of its gross after it was nominated on January 22.

So please explain to me, NYT, how if you choose to use the Oscars as a marketing tool, The Academy Awards can’t sell tickets.

What time in history are they living in? The most overt recent examples are The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire. Are they thinking about Million Dollar Baby or Chicago… because those stories are not materially different than the current ones… in fact, both are probably less impressive when viewed with any objectivity. Maybe they are going back to 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, which did $73 million after nominations, getting to a $103m total… because that’s also pretty much in the Slumdog mold too?

Where does this mythology that Oscar has had “to move the masses to buy tickets” come from? Do they mean some giant post-Oscar gross? When did that happen? Is the $140 million range not “masses?”

Spouting platitudes that you read somewhere and therefore assumed to be true is not good reporting. Sorry.

IN CLOSING – The New York Times, like so many, are egregiously guilty of taking a bunch of small factors and FALSELY synthesizing them in to memes. It is a brutal reality in this era of media. And sadly, seemingly intelligent people like Tom Sherak come to believe these lies and fail to challenge them aggressively when presented with them by the media.

This is not to say that everything is hunky dory at The Academy. Unlike The Grammys, they are not on a positive curve driven by live performances by popular stars. Unlike The Super Bowl, they do not have a 20 week season of weekly massive marketing that culminates in a massive audience for a single live event that has no competition.

And still, it appears that almost 40 million Americans stopped one night to watch movie stars, as they are today, dress up and hand out awards to one another after months of similar events being broadcast.

This is not Wall Street. The Academy does not need quarterly growth… or even annual growth. They need to maintain an even strain. And they have. A little up, a little down. The only real break from history for the show is that there is a lot more competition than there used to be. And Jay Leno is no one’s idea of Carson or Hope at this point. (Billy is now done too, I am guessing.)

But the yearly hysteria, even from a serious paper like the New York Times, suggesting that either the ship is sinking or has sunk and is now stuck… it’s insanely simplistic and misleading and damaging because of the paranoia it creates. It says more about the NYT than it does about The Academy.

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6 Responses to “New York Times Continues To Write About Hollywood Like A Cranky Old Man”

  1. SamLowry says:

    I’m just bummed that for the last few years I’ve had to rely on web pages that need to be refreshed every couple minutes if I want to read about what’s happening in the Kodak Theatre.

    No cable, but I do have a useless digital converter. Sure, there are plenty of TV towers less than 10 miles away, but reception is so crappy that I saw through the digital conversion hype long ago and realized it was nothing more than a trick to strong-arm us into cable or satellite. So I chose neither.

    I did try to watch a streaming video last year–garbage. And I do believe it was hosted by the Academy’s own webpage.

  2. Eckhard says:

    Maybe the actors should do live performances of scenes from their movie

  3. JS Partisan says:

    Someone who just days ago referred to the Oscars as just an award, is really going on a bit if a defensive rant today.

  4. David,

    I’m not in the business–just a movie lover who for years has enjoyed the Oscars–the gowns, seeing who wins, cheering for my favorites, watching snippets of movies.

    Young or old people who don’t go to the movies wouldn’t be interested in the Oscars—it has nothing to do with the event and program.

    I watched to the end even last year when producers pandered to young people and brought in a couple of lame young hosts. Billy Crystal is a favorite of mine–complaints that he “looked old” were odd given that he’s not young–nor was he young when he was chosen. Yet he’s still in demand and for good reason: That should be a headline.

  5. waterbucket says:

    I think the main thing that the Academy or ABC needs to fix is bringing the show online. I had a horrible time streaming the show live, of course illegally. I’d much prefer to watch the identical broadcast as that on ABC but just online, with all the commercials. Why can’t they do that? It’s 2012.

  6. theschu says:

    This traditional bashing of The Oscars totally baffles me. Every year it’s the SAME THING. Every. Single. Year.

    It’s one thing when commenters talk trash about a show and an industry they know nothing about but when I read articles in the NYT and Hollywood Reporter to name a couple I’m just flabergasted. Don’t they remember writing the same article last year? Or the year before that?

    It’s either the hosts fault or the show is too long or they don’t honor the right movies or it’s not funny enough or it’s too predictable or there’s too many montages or so-and-so got left out of the In Memoriam (how dare they!?!) or the ratings aren’t as high as they were in the 90s.

    It’s the same criticisms over and over again. What’s the point? The Oscars are for people who love movies. Not for people who love actors. The Golden Globes is the show to watch if you want to see actors getting honored. The Oscars are about honoring everyone that contributes to the making of a movie. That includes Sound Mixing, Art Direction, Editing, etc. That’s what The Oscars are all about.

    I record the show every year and have since 1996. Part of my Oscar Season tradition is to go back and re-watch past shows. You know what? They’re all pretty much the same.

    Sure the ratings for the 1998 show honoring the movies of 1997 were the highest because Titanic, the highest grossing movie of all time (at the time) was nominated for 14 awards. When it won 11 the criticism was that the show was too predictable. It was also almost 4 hours long! This years show was barely over 3 hours.

    Yet still they complain.

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