The Real Gold Hollywood Craves Is Academy Awards, Not Box Office

Sure, movie execs love to make money by churning out garbage. But what really drives them is Oscars.

Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images

It’s that time of year when box-office champions are announced and films are nominated for awards—a season that illuminates a dark and persistent mystery about the motivation of moviemakers.

In the process, these contrasting lists expose the stubborn stupidity of a line of argument jointly cherished by the entertainment industry’s angriest critics and its most faithful apologists: that Hollywood is utterly corrupted (or totally excused) by the ruthless, single-minded pursuit of profit.

If it’s all about making money, how can anyone explain the heavy favorite to win Tinseltown’s most coveted and relentlessly publicized award for 2011—a low-budget silent film (no kidding!) in glorious black and white by an unknown French director with an utterly unpronounceable name? The Artist (written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, sometimes fondly Americanized as “Mike Hava Nagila”) is touching, inventive, funny, hugely enjoyable, and given a better than 45 percent chance to win the Oscar for Best Picture by the online betting gurus at InTrade. But not even the film’s most dedicated advocates expect this audacious import (starring the director’s lovely girlfriend, one Berenice Bejo) to clean up at the box office—and no, there won’t be a money-grabbing 3-D edition.

Two years ago, in a similarly tough-to-explain development for the money-rules-all crowd, the motion-picture academy shunned the film that broke all records for box-office grosses, Avatar, in favor of the gritty, gripping Iraq War drama, The Hurt Locker—which happened to be the most modest commercial performer (adjusted for inflation) ever to win the top Oscar. Amazingly, even after grabbing the Best Picture trophy, Operation Enduring Freedom proved as difficult to sell to moviegoers as it did to the public at large, and the film only slightly expanded its audience.

This year, of the 10 movies selected for Best Picture by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, of which I’m proud to be a voting member, only one, The Help, passed the magic milestone of $100 million in domestic theatrical grosses. Two of the anointed titles, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and War Horse, hadn’t even been released to the general public before Christmas Day. Two more, Drive and The Tree of Life, counted as box-office disappointments if not outright flops. Meanwhile, the Golden Globe nominations, often seen as predictive of Oscar nods, showed a similar preference for nonpopulist fare, with the 10 nominees for its two Best Picture categories largely following the critics association’s lead but adding the little-seen cancer comedy 50/50 and the nostalgic art-house-only offering My Week With Marilyn, as well as a surprise nomination for the raunchy smash hit Bridesmaids.

On the other side of the ledger, weighing success in purely commercial rather than arguably artistic terms, which films did the American public choose to support with its hard-earned dollars at the local multiplex? Only one of these favored films on the box-office top 10, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, drew strongly positive reviews and stands a chance of winning a few technical Oscar nominations. Other titles on the list of popular favorites (Transformers: Dark of the Moon; The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1; The Hangover Part II, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) counted among the most critically reviled releases of the year and stand a much better chance of winning Golden Raspberry nominations for the year’s worst achievements than they do of getting Oscar recognition.

Yes, it’s an old story that members of the film-going public cheerfully ignore the artistic evaluations of critics and movie insiders in making their decisions about what to see, but it’s less much less accepted, though no less true, that movie insiders largely ignore the preferences of the great unwashed when reaching their decisions about what to make.

This is not to say that any actor, director, or producer can afford to disregard issues of commercial success altogether; a film needs to achieve at least “art-house success,” winning decent audiences in limited release, in order to advance a career, and no one wants to be associated with a notorious flop.

But the definition of “flop” is very different for the Hollywood creative community than it is for corporate bean-counters or the entertainment reporters who track “box-office mojo.” For instance, Terrence Malick’s wildly indulgent, largely unwatchable The Tree of Life would count as a commercial dud with its modest $13 million return in domestic box office—yet it’s won major-awards consideration and enhanced the industry standing of young Jessica Chastain and even Brad Pitt, both praised for their intensely committed performances.

Or take the luminous example of Natalie Portman, whose deer-in-the-headlights performance as Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace (1999) and the other forgettable films of the most recent Star Wars trilogy gave her prominent billing in three of the most popular movies ever made. Her impressive Oscar-winning role in last year’s Black Swan reached only a tiny fraction of the moviegoers who savored her Amidala adventures, and earned far less in its entire run than the Star Wars films in which she starred earned in their combined opening weekends. But which of these roles meant more to Ms. Portman or to her standing in the entertainment industry? And wouldn’t she be more likely agree to participate in Black Swan Returns, if they somehow contrived to concoct such an abomination, than she would to return to duty in The Phantom Menace Returns?

Yes, Hollywood types care about gold, but the gold that they care about most is the gilt on the Oscar statuette rather than the coin of the realm. In the entertainment community, indeed, Oscar gold is the coin of the realm.

Nearly everyone who works in movies or follows movies knows the name Alexander Payne, who directed this year’s critical darling The Descendants and other well-received, Oscar-nominated, but only modestly profitable titles like About Schmidt and Sideways. But how many movie fans could identify David Yates, the unassuming but hugely talented British filmmaker who happened to direct this year’s No. 1 box-office hit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as well as three other monstrously successful moneymakers in the Potter series?

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Of course, the ambitious artists of the film community welcome the adoration of the general public, but more than that they crave the respect of their peers. All creative people feel insecure about their efforts and long for reassurance that their work deserves to be taken seriously. Even the most enthusiastic mass-audience embrace can’t provide that reassurance—not when the indelibly awful Transformers: Dark of the Moon emerges as the second most popular movie of 2011. But awards and critical acclaim can soothe even the most uncertain egos, as memorably expressed by former “Flying Nun” Sally Field when she received her second Oscar, for Places in the Heart in 1984, with the tearful declaration, “You like me! You really, really like me!” It shouldn’t be surprising that every graduate of a top film school yearns to be the next Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese—though these legendary directors have crafted more flops than hits over the years—rather than the next … David Yates.

There is also, of course, the powerful motivator of sex, always impossible to ignore in considering the tribal mores of the entertainment industry. Imagine an impossibly swanky soiree somewhere in the Hollywood Hills with a dazzling assemblage of unaccompanied supermodels and starlets to enhance the décor. Who will win more adoring attention from the well-groomed beauties: a young director who’s just helmed the latest smash-hit sequel in the kid-friendly Inspector Gadget series or the brooding filmmaker who’s recently earned an award from the New York Film Critics Circle for his searing drama Life Is Pain?

Understanding that pursuit of prestige trumps pursuit of profit for most creative personnel in the motion-picture business undermines the arguments of anti-Hollywood activists who blame all of the industry’s depravities and fatuities and biases on the unchallenged rule of the “almighty dollar.” And this counterintuitive comprehension simultaneously explodes the common excuse for every lamentable Tinseltown trend that claims, “We only give the public what they want.”

Actually, the evidence that the public demands abundant harsh language in mainstream movie releases is utterly nonexistent—especially when R-rated films, many of them achieving that designation due to deployment of F words, consistently generate fewer box-office dollars than their PG or PG-13 counterparts. No one ever left a theater complaining that he felt cheated because he didn’t get to hear George Clooney pronounce the F word enough.

If Hollywood decision makers took the public’s pulse more assiduously and placed box-office returns above movie-colony esteem, they’d no doubt release more crowd-pleasing family films (along with even more brain-dead, special-effects-driven sequels) than they unleash today. We might also see a few religious-themed pictures (quick, name even one such release since the stunning success of The Passion of the Christ) and perhaps even an occasional title with outspokenly conservative political themes.

No one can deny that the members of the entertainment elite display an abundance of foibles and vices along with undeniable talents, but the truth is that a single-minded, narrowly focused determination to make money at all costs hardly counts as one of them.