Can ‘Avatar’ do for the Oscars what ‘Dark Knight’ couldn’t?

Posted by · 7:37 pm · January 8th, 2010

Sam Worthington in AvatarPeter Bart decides to call a spade a spade as it pertains to the Oscar race.  James Cameron’s “Avatar” is “the betting favorite to win best picture,” he writes.  But more importantly, he brings up the solid point that the film’s potential AMPAS success could be the ratings shot in the arm the show has been looking for.  (And guess what?  They didn’t need to go to 10 nominees to get it.)

Writes Bart:

Since it takes a populist movie to pump life into the Oscar ratings, “Avatar’s” box office largesse will likely translate into another “Titanic”-like bonanza. Back in 1998 some 55 million viewers tuned in, while last year’s “Slumdog” siesta totaled a mere 36.3 million…

We realize that the Oscar show’s new producing team of Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic is hard at work on plans to enliven the broadcast, but they are also keenly aware of the ratings realities. A movie like “There Will Be Blood” does not mean there will be audiences. The awards process is energized when folks out there have actually seen at least one or two of the movies being honored.

Okay, so far so familiar.  But I have to say, in the last year or so, I’ve slowly lost the conviction that popular films in the mix would yield a considerable amount of viewership.  I think the problem is a bit less superficial than that.  At the end of the day, the issue is the Oscars being the last in a long line of (televised) awards shows.  Fatigue is the enemy, not cinema ignorance.  I happen to know plenty of people who watch the Oscars simply to discover new films they should see.

You really want to move the needle, Academy?  Go ahead and shuffle your little awards show to the end of the year as a true wrap-up, not three months into the new year when any and everyone else has had their say.  It’ll probably help the log-jam of December titles, too.  Ah, who am I kidding?  It’ll never happen.

Anyway, back to Bart.  He does bring up an interesting point as it pertains to a potential Bigelow vs. Cameron clash in the Best Director category:

But here’s the other possible scenario: If Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” wins best picture and her ex-husband has to settle for best director, that could create strong melodrama as well as strong ratings. The Cameron-Bigelow union was put into turnaround in 1991. They’re still friendly, however, and even trade notes on each other’s first cuts.

That’s why Cameron and Bigelow seem like a lot sexier casting as star players than, say, the Coen brothers.

He then goes on to plug colleague Bob Hofler’s book “Party Animals” for the second straight day (and with basically the same anecdote from within, as well).  Give it a read at Variety.

→ 36 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

36 responses so far

  • 1 1-08-2010 at 7:45 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Oh I really hope Jason Reitman wins Best Director! That would be very very cool.

  • 2 1-08-2010 at 8:13 pm

    The Z said...

    In all actuality, how many people even know that Bigelow and Cameron were married almost 20 years ago? If they’re not interested in smaller films that gain awards attention how likely is it that they would care about behind the scenes stuff?

    And I do agree, sadly, that the films nominated do influence the viewership. If “Avatar” and “Up” do get nominations for best picture, I wouldn’t be surprised if 10 million more people tune in this year than last.

  • 3 1-08-2010 at 8:13 pm

    Jake said...

    Do I think Avatar should win Best Picture? No. I’d much prefer to see A Serious Man win (or Star Trek if it’s going to be a sci-fi movie). The thing with Avatar is that it’s wildly popular worldwide. The Dark Knight did well both domestically and internationally, but it’s international take pales in comparison to Avatar’s. I think Avatar has a story that appeals to all ages and cultures, thereby giving the film better chances with the Academy. The Dark Knight is more an American film than anything.; its themes and premise are pretty much wholly American. If last year was any indication of how the Academy works (The Dark Knight losing out a Best Picture slot and Slumdog Millionaire nearly sweeping), Avatar has a really good chance to win everything. It’s a film whose subject matter can resonate with people around the world (unlike The Dark Knight). While Avatar is not the best film of 2009, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if it wins because of its broad appeal, undeniable success, and because the Academy sees it as an opportunity to perhaps satisfy those who were disappointed with last year’s exclusion of The Dark Knight.

  • 4 1-08-2010 at 8:43 pm

    Al said...

    Of course it will boost ratings. So would any other flick that makes big bucks because people love effects over film making. I have a bad feeling the only reason this may be regarded as a “game changer” 10 years from now is the role it might have at the academy awards. But thats the thing, its not because a nominee was able to connect with audiences, its because the bar was lowered so much to include a film like this. 5 nominees were changed to 10 just for this reason. Weighted voting was added. Now it wasn’t because of Avatar, it was because of The Dark Knight of course, but the academy obviously just wants a film in the race, or to win the race, to claim a reconnection with the public.

    Its a fluke sir, and a conspiracy. This will be the only thing “ground breaking” about the film when looked back in 10 years from now, is the effect it had on the academy, but people need to know how it got to this point. (Yes, i know the tech is good, but its more an extension of previously done work, rather than its own thing.)

  • 5 1-08-2010 at 9:14 pm

    Josh said...

    The Z, I completely agree. Actually, I’ll go one further: How many people who wouldn’t regularly watch the show know who Kathryn Bigelow is, let alone that she used to be married to James Cameron?

    Avatar and Up and a couple other potential nominees could help the show out, but I wonder if people are going to assume that popular movies are being nominated as some kind of consolation. I mean, I love Up and I’m thrilled that it may wind up with a Best Picture nod, but…it’s not winning. And, frankly, had The Dark Knight been nominated last year (another personal favorite, big shock)…it wouldn’t have won either.

    I just wonder if some people don’t care as much as Bart and others assume.

  • 6 1-08-2010 at 9:21 pm

    david said...

    I think the Academy expanded the Best Picture field to 10 to boost viewership, but I have to believe, who the voters decide to cast there ballots for in the various categories won’t be influenced by box office numbers or mainstream popularity. They will vote for what they like, whether that’s the popular vote or not.

  • 7 1-08-2010 at 10:22 pm

    Craig said...

    Well I’m officially sick of Avatar.

  • 8 1-08-2010 at 10:33 pm

    cineJAB said...

    who cares how many people know Cameron and Bigelow used to be married now? All that matters is how many know by the big night, which I would be surprised if that’s used as a ploy to gain viewers, people LOVE their “real life” drama

  • 9 1-08-2010 at 11:01 pm

    A.J said...

    It is interesting how they didn’t need 10 nominees to be more relevant this year. Especially not with Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, and Sandra Bullock. IB doesn’t have a huge box office but it attracts a certain crowd.

  • 10 1-08-2010 at 11:17 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    “…If Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” wins best picture and her ex-husband has to settle for best director…”

    No, no, please no. If anything, it should be switched since Avatar made the biggest industry impact and has more popular appeal but The Hurt Locker has by far more artistic worth (see: The Pianist and Chicago, Brokeback Mountain and Crash, etc.). I realize that as one of the producers, Bigelow would still get an Oscar, but still, winning Best Director is hardly “settling.” If anything, that’s the ultimate end goal since SHE is the major reason why her film is so excellent. I acknowlege that there’s a very strong argument for Avatar to win Best Picture, but Best Director would be a travesty.

    P.S. Here’s a (somewhat, I don’t know how fast news expires along the Oscar grapevine) oldish link about Avatar fans. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry:

  • 11 1-08-2010 at 11:58 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I don’t think many people will know\care about the Cameron/Bigelow thing either.

  • 12 1-09-2010 at 12:06 am

    Loyal said...

    I had to explain to my girlfriend what was going on with the Battle of the (S)exes:

    There’s no true battle since they have an amical relationship that any formerly married couple would die for. But a historic gender battle is truly in the cards.

    Poor Reitman and Daniels are left out of the discussion, first black director and youngest director winner possibilities respectively.

  • 13 1-09-2010 at 1:01 am

    Matt King said...

    Amen, Craig.

  • 14 1-09-2010 at 3:38 am

    Andrew2 said...

    Is it truly disappointing that ratings and money drive the Oscars rather than quality. The BP field was increased to include popular films and given AMPAS is in this mindset, I think Avatar is unbeatable, despite it not being the best film of the year

  • 15 1-09-2010 at 4:16 am

    T.J. Wells said...

    I don’t get it. Has Avatar won even ONE major award yet in the pre-Oscars circuit? How is it the betting favorite to win best picture?

  • 16 1-09-2010 at 4:34 am

    aspect ratio said...

    The Oscars have always honored popular films though, just look at the list of Best Picture winners from the past. Gone with the Wind, for example, is the highest grossing film of all time if you adjust for ticket price inflation ($1.5b domestically). True, the popular films of those days were usually among the better movies, so it’s not directly comparable to these days, but it’s not exactly something new for the Academy to nominate and honor popular movies, that they’re popular with audiences is and has always played a part in it.

  • 17 1-09-2010 at 4:59 am

    aspect ratio said...

    I have a tough time seeing The Hurt Locker take BP and Cameron take BD. It makes more sense for the big popular movie to take home Best Picture and the little “significant” movie to get Best Director, especially if you look at the times in the past decade where there’s been a BP/BD split:

    In 2006, Crash won BP while Ang Lee won BD for Brokeback Mountain, arguably the more significant film of the two.

    In 2003, Chicago took home BP while Roman Polanski won BD for The Pianist.

    In 2001, Gladiator was the popular choice for BP, while Steven Soderbergh won BD for Traffic, a film perceived as more important.

    Going back a little further than a decade: In 1999 Shakespeare in Love took home BP while Steven Spielberg won BD for Saving Private Ryan, and in 1990 Driving Miss Daisy won BP while Oliver Stone won BD for Born on the Fourth of July.

    So IF there is a split this year for BP/BD, history would certainly have you believe that it should favor Bigelow.

  • 18 1-09-2010 at 5:07 am

    aspect ratio said...

    Oh, and to get back on topic, I have no doubt that if we have films like Avatar, District 9, Inglourious Basterds and Up in the running for Best Picture, a lot more people will tune in for the simple reason that they have films they’ve seen and love to root for.

    The awards season fatigue surely does play a part though, and I don’t see the Oscars ever getting back to the heights where it’s been, ratings-wise, because of it. In a way, it’s like having a bunch of mini-Olympics ahead of the real Olympics, and certainly then when the real Olympics happen you wouldn’t be quite as interested as you would be otherwise.

  • 19 1-09-2010 at 5:39 am

    Derek 8-Track said...

    TV should advertise the Oscars similar to Boxing Match. Rather than the two boxing greats, Holyfield vs Tyson, we’d have Ex Spouses, Bigelow vs Cameron. I feel like that would reel in the audience that watches all the Desperate Housewives of (Fill in the Blank). Maybe that demographic already watching the Oscars? regardless, it would make some pretty great TV spots… and posters for that matter. could some graphic designer who follows this site get on that?

  • 20 1-09-2010 at 5:52 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Derek: I think that would be mortifying for both Bigelow and Cameron — and not just because they’re on great terms.

    Also, completely discounting the other three nominees in official Oscar advertising would be a little tactless, no?

  • 21 1-09-2010 at 9:19 am

    Chris138 said...

    I think the only movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar and not have won best film anywhere else that same year was Braveheart. I suppose anything is possible, but my money is still on The Hurt Locker winning.

  • 22 1-09-2010 at 9:27 am

    Antinook said...

    I found Avatar predictable, void of emotion (except the ‘threesome’ final battle resolution), so politically right, and amazingly falling into a stereotypes. I even laughed a bit when he tried to talk to Grandmother Willow.
    But besides that, it was entertaining, of course, the 3D, etc… But Best Picture? Not deserving in my opinion.

  • 23 1-09-2010 at 10:11 am

    Loyal said...

    Derek 8-Track!

    They could even use spinning graphics and boxing gloves. SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY!
    Beauty vs the Beast, For One Night Only, The World’s Biggest Film Vs The Smallest, Talking Smack At The Kodak, The King of the World vs The Queen.

  • 24 1-09-2010 at 11:18 am

    Craig said...

    I think everyone who’s saying Avatar is underestimating the preferential ballot system and the fact that Avatar is more likely to be hurt by that than any of the other films. Because really, how many actors or writers are honestly going to put Avatar in the number 1 slot, or even in the top 3? Hell, I expect a lot of writers will drop the film in the 10th slot because it’s screenplay will automatically be the worst of the films up for best picture unless Transformers 2 gets a nomination (lol). Wouldn’t be that surprised if a bunch of actors 10 rape the shit out of the film, either.

  • 25 1-09-2010 at 12:38 pm

    Tom said...

    On Kris’ point that the Oscars have been sinking because they are anti-climactic — appearing as they do after half a dozen similar shows have been televised (BFCA, Globes, SAG, etc.) — I agree, and it’s only got worse as time has gone on. All those groups used to be content to be pre-cursors; now (and I blame BFCA above all for this), they all want to BE the Oscars (or a version of them). BFCA specifically added categories this year to try and exert MORE influence. If I could force every one of those groups to disband, I’d do it in an instant.

    But as to your solution — moving the show-date up — that’s the sort of remedy offered by those with ready access to screeners and screenings. For the rest of us mortals (who don’t live at the multiplex), it takes all January and often well into February to catch up on all the later movies so we can have an informed opinion on the choices. Take that away from us and you lose even more fans.

  • 26 1-09-2010 at 12:43 pm

    SHAAAARK said...

    If The Dark Knight couldn’t even get nominated, how is Avatar going to win?

  • 27 1-09-2010 at 3:09 pm

    Xavier said...

    Quote: Its a fluke sir, and a conspiracy. This will be the only thing “ground breaking” about the film when looked back in 10 years from now, is the effect it had on the academy, but people need to know how it got to this point. [/Quote]

    It’ll be remembered 10 years from now regardless of its success at the Oscars. This is because of it 1) its massive box office gross, and 2) its groundbreaking element. See: Titanic (massive box office) and Brokeback Mountain (groundbreaking). Both are/will be remembered ten years after their releases.

  • 28 1-09-2010 at 5:06 pm

    Simone said...

    F all this! I just want Inglourious Basterds to win the top two awards. I’m sick of hype of both Avatar and the Hurt Locker!

  • 29 1-09-2010 at 5:21 pm

    Leone said...

    This is so not an AVATAR vs HURT LOCKER race for best picture. That’s just the “sexy” story being pushed out by journalists. Sexy b/c the directors used to be married, sexy b/c one of the films made millions and the other didn’t. Period. HURT LOCKER is a vastly superior film to AVATAR. It’s real competition is UP IN THE AIR. AVATAR is not winning best picture.

  • 30 1-09-2010 at 10:30 pm

    Robert Wills said...

    Call me crazy but I think Best Picture should go to the Best Picture. Just because it may be good for the Oscars doesn’t mean it should win. I no more think Avatar should win than I thought The Dark Knight should win. Both were boring and/or sadistic, catering to the 14 year old boy in all of us. Sorry, ladies. in addition, Avatar was too preachy, trying too hard to push its environmental message at the expense of interesting characters. All were black or white, good or bad, no shades of gray. Well, only one person’s opinion.

  • 31 1-09-2010 at 10:36 pm

    Mav said...

    I’m sorry, but “Up in the Air” is the most overrated film, and a real snoozer. It’s going to be a Avatar VS The Hurt Locker year at the Academy. Avatar is already hitting the 1 billion mark around the world, and if it gets the most nominations, you’re going to see a billion people tune into the Oscars. Who actually remembers which picture won last year, other than The Dark Knight being shut-out.

  • 32 1-11-2010 at 12:38 am

    SHAAAARK said...

    I don’t think massive blockbusters should ever be up for Best Picture. Is it too much to hope for that the Oscars celebrate artists first, entertainers second?

  • 33 1-11-2010 at 9:34 am

    Mark Kratina said...

    I’ve said it before, but any consideration in the “major” awards categories for Avatar can be attributed to the trail blazed by The Dark Knight last year.

  • 34 1-11-2010 at 4:59 pm

    Chris G. said...

    If Avatar wins for best pic or if Cameron wins for best direction I’m officially off the Oscar radar.

    Brokeback losing to Crash was the first nail in the coffin.

    The Dark Knight getting ignored in all major categories (picture, direction, screenplay, music) was the 2nd.

    Avatar winning anything major will be the last.

  • 35 1-11-2010 at 5:02 pm

    Chris G. said...


    Of course it shouldn’t be about the money.

    But do you think it’s honestly okay to NOT nominate a DESERVING picture if it makes a ton of money?

  • 36 1-13-2010 at 11:31 pm

    Jim said...

    Hmmm, I never thought about it like that. Perhaps the awards are too late in the new year.