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Why So Sad?

Despite a dramatic finish that even Cecil B. DeMille would envy and a capable hosting job by late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, this year’s Oscars broadcast was said to be the third-lowest rated ceremony of the millennium. This naturally prompted advertisers, programmers, pundits, movie goers and a host of others to wonder why.

I have my own suspicions for why the ratings were low, and I promise to address them in a postscript at the end of this blog. But many media watchers allegedly in the know speculated that it had more to do with the movies being honored than anything to do with the broadcast itself.

In years past, those observers have noted (and somewhat rightly so) that viewers stayed away from some of those previous broadcasts because they hadn’t heard of most of the movies up for nomination, an outcome largely attributable to the underwhelming marketing and distribution efforts behind some of those films. This year, however, some of those same experts are saying that viewers didn’t tune in because the films in question were all “so sad.”


Having seen the films up for best picture, I found that word to be an odd choice to describe them. To be sure, most of these movies were somewhat serious and featured characters who underwent challenges or had to work for their rewards. But sad? Am I missing something here? “Maybe,” I even thought to myself, “that’s what accounts for the popularity of ‘La La Land’ (seemingly inexplicable though that may be), a picture that, at least ostensibly, comes across as ‘happier’ than many of its fellow nominees” (even though one could argue that it has its own share of pathos).

But, then, I also recalled something else many of the alleged experts said – that many of them hadn’t seen all, or in some cases any, of the best picture nominees. “How then,” I asked myself, “do they feel qualified to comment on these films and their character in any way?

As I went through the list of nine best picture nominees, I tried to determine what might make them seem sad, yet I was hard-pressed to see how they qualified on that score. Here’s a look at each of them, with how I saw them (and I’ll do my best to discuss them without spoilers):

“Arrival”: This sci-fi/metaphysical drama focuses on the efforts of a linguistics professor (Amy Adams) in her attempts to discern how to communicate with a newly arrived alien species. In the course of her work, she discovers that being able to “speak” with this new species requires grasping an understanding of how they view reality, as that significantly impacts the structure of their language, a realization that, in turn, applies just as much to us as it does to them. That newfound awareness thus gives us a new way to see ourselves, the nature of our existence and even our view of things like time. Admittedly, there are moments of tension in this story, especially as the process for developing this new understanding unfolds. But, when all is said and done, the professor’s revelations give us all an inspired perspective on how we view – and live – our lives. (What’s sad about that?)

“Hidden Figures”: This uplifting period piece comedy-drama depicts the little-known role played by three African-American women (Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer) in advancing the progress of the U.S. space program in the early 1960s. Through their courageous individual stories and significant contributions, viewers witness how they were part of an enormously successful collective initiative while reaching for their own personal stars. (Tragic, right?)

“Moonlight”: This year’s best picture winner tells the compelling coming of age story of a young African-American man growing up under difficult conditions in a Miami housing project in his quest to discover himself. Told in three segments from different periods in his youth, the film illustrates how he comes to learn his true identity and embrace his own sense of personal empowerment. (Sounds like something to get really depressed about, doesn’t it?)

“Lion”: Although not the greatest picture from a purely cinematic standpoint, this fact-based drama tells the heartwarming story of a young Indian boy (Sunny Pawar) who becomes separated from his family and is subsequently adopted by an Australian couple (David Wenham, Oscar nominee Nicole Kidman). Despite the material comfort and opportunities his adoptive parents provide hum, he longs to find his lost relatives, a challenging process he undertakes when he becomes a young adult (Oscar nominee Dev Patel). One can only imagine how that search turns out. (Utterly demoralizing, to be sure.)

“Hell or High Water”: When a bank takes advantage of the financial difficulties of a Texas family and seeks to seize their property, two brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) seek fiscal justice, pursuing a unique path to restitution – by robbing the bank’s facilities and using its own cash to repay their outstanding debt. While crime may not be the right way to achieve the desired outcome, there is nevertheless a certain inspired poetic justice that comes from the brothers’ efforts, even when under the scrutiny of a determined Texas lawman (Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges). (I’m sure hordes of viewers wept for the plight of the bank in this one.)

“Hacksaw Ridge”: This tale of a World War II hero (Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield) who took a different route to attaining his personal valor chronicles his unconventional efforts at being of service without firing a shot. In a genre where combat is often unduly glorified, this fact-based drama illustrates there are more ways to serve one’s country than by picking up a gun. (But, since war is hell, as we’re all well aware, that fact alone negates whatever positive insights this film might have to impart.)

“La La Land”: Seen by many as the “feel good” movie of the best picture field, this breezy, albeit somewhat snoozy, patience-trying musical follows the exploits of an aspiring actress (Oscar winner Emma Stone) and would-be jazz musician (Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling) in the pursuit of their personal and professional dreams. Not everything in this film is as hunky dory as its fans would lead you to believe, but the protagonists’ enduring, hopeful spirit nevertheless serves up a generally inoffensive brand of motivation, inspiring to those who’ve ever had a cherished goal to chase. (The only thing truly sad about this one was that so many people heaped so much undeserved praise on it.)

“Manchester by the Sea”: This heart-tugging drama follows the life of a middle-aged janitor (Oscar winner Casey Affleck) who’s suddenly called upon to act as guardian for his teenage nephew (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges) when his father (Kyle Chandler) unexpectedly dies. Now I’ll concede that this one has its share of tragedy and heartache, but it’s also a sincere exercise in redemption and forgiveness, qualities that are in far too short supply these days. (Yeah, but, as we all know, in this cynical age of ours, the power of sorrow automatically trumps whatever virtuous qualities might be present in circumstances like these.)

“Fences”: OK, I’ll admit this one is somewhat on the dour side. This screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play follows the up-and-down life of a middle aged baseball player-turned-trash collector (Oscar nominee Denzel Washington) and his loving wife (Oscar winner Viola Davis) in 1950s Pittsburgh. While the film honestly depicts the disappointment and disillusionment that can arise from life’s setbacks (especially those that come from acts of self-sabotage), it also illustrates the silver linings that can emerge out of life’s even darkest clouds. (Still sounds like too little, too late, though, doesn’t it?)

All very sad, right?

Well, if one were to examine these films superficially, I suppose I could see how someone might view them that way. But, if one were to look a little deeper, to see what’s behind the narrative veneers of these stories, a lot more comes into view, much of it inspiring, heartfelt and uplifting, and I believe those are the points these productions are trying to make. However, if one perpetually sees the glass as half empty, the half full part will never come into view. And, to me, that’s the really sad part of all this.

What I find even more sad, though, is that the so-called pundits who haven’t seen these movies on the false belief that they’re inherent downers may be discouraging would-be viewers from seeing them on the basis of their faulty, misinformed assessments. That kind of close-mindedness is doing real damage to our society on so many levels these days, and it’s unfortunate that its pervasiveness has even carried over into the arts. Movies can be a tremendous source of enlightenment if we allow them to be. But, if we close ourselves off from them based on superficial and incorrect assumptions before we ever give them a chance, we stand to lose out on a lot, and that’s perhaps the saddest outcome of all.

If you haven’t seen these pictures and you’re at all curious about any of them, check them out. Go to a theater. Rent the DVD or Blu-ray. Stream them online. But, by all means, watch them. Don’t let uninformed naysayers keep you from what are potentially transformative experiences. Otherwise, you may regret that more than any distressed feelings these films may engender.


Now, as for that postscript I promised…

In my view, the contention that viewers are staying away from the Oscars broadcast because many of them haven’t heard of the nominated pictures in question indeed still has merit, at least in part. That could be solved simply enough by studios and distributors making these films more widely available in advance of the ceremony. That’s especially true in smaller markets, which frequently are left out, and for lesser-known independent pictures like “Moonlight,” which truly deserve wider exposure. However, that’s not the only fix that’s needed.

If the Academy and the network want to attract more viewers, the broadcast itself needs shoring up in a number of ways. And this is not a new issue, either; it’s been discussed for years, and the producers of the show just don’t seem to get it. With a few simple fixes, the broadcast could be improved immeasurably, and those changes just might help to draw in those sought-after viewers.

In general, the ceremony is simply too damned long. At a run time of nearly 3:45 this year, that’s too much time to park oneself in front of the TV to watch some accolades handed out. That’s particularly important when it comes to attracting much-coveted younger viewers in the 18-to-49 age bracket, a demographic not especially known for having a long attention span. What’s more, given the plethora of other broadcast awards ceremonies available these days – the Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the BAFTAs and the Independent Spirit Awards – viewers may be suffering awards show burnout by the time the Oscars roll around, making the prospect of sitting through an overlong, overly windy telecast somewhat unappealing.

So what are some of the specifics that can be implemented to improve the show? Here are a few ideas:

* Faster overall pacing. Keep the show moving. Shorten the presenter banter (which is often not very funny), and delete elements that aren’t necessary (see below). The Academy could learn a lot about this from the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Award broadcasts.

* Delete the performances of the nominated songs. This is a suggestion that’s been made for years. Who really cares about them? In most cases, these songs aren’t well known or even very good. In fact, I often treat these segments as my bathroom break times. What’s more, the Academy isn’t even consistent about their inclusion in the ceremony. During the 2016 broadcast, for example, the show featured performances by three of the five songs, leaving out two compositions entirely. If the broadcast’s producers believe they can leave out some of them, then why not leave out all of them? They wouldn’t be missed.

* Delete the presentations of the short subject awards. If you thought no one sees the nominated feature films, then who sees these virtually unknown offerings (even in larger markets)? With no disrespect intended toward short films, they really don’t belong as part of the main ceremony; they should have their own separate ceremony, like the technical awards, with the winners announced in a combined short video segment or in voice-over announcements as lead-ins to commercials.

* Delete the self-congratulatory elements, like the remarks of the Academy president. Again, no one listens to this sort of padding. Trash it.

* Include more film clips. If the Academy really wants viewers to see its nominated films, there’s no better way to draw attention to them than to show segments from them. Admittedly, the Oscars have gotten better on this point over the years, but there’s always room for more on this front.

* Include edgier comedy bits. The Oscars are supposed to be a celebration of creativity, right? Well, show some of that creativity in the humorous elements of the broadcast. The broadcast’s comedy is often hit or miss; make it better, and you’ll have more viewers (especially among the target audience). The Academy could learn a lot from the Independent Spirit Awards and Golden Globes on this point.

So will the Academy listen? We can only hope. If it wants more viewers, let’s hope so.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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