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Almost no one has seen this year’s ‘best’ movies, but there’s a surprising upside

By Sonny Bunch For the Washington Post

A recent fascinating poll in Variety highlights a disturbing fact for fans of the Oscars and Hollywood in general: Almost no one has seen this year’s best picture nominees. That’s terrible news for the Oscars and a battered industry, but, in the long term, it just might be great for theatrical moviegoers.

According to a survey of 1,500 “active entertainment consumers” by Guts + Data, only 46% of those polled had heard of – not “seen and enjoyed,” not even “seen,” just “heard of” – “Judas and the Black Messiah.” And that Warner Bros. picture is the nominee with the highest awareness among its competitors.

The least-heard-of movie is “Mank,” David Fincher’s dyspeptic look at Hollywood and the making of “Citizen Kane.” Only 18% of respondents knew that picture exists at all.

The lack of awareness stems in part from the fact that the film world was so disrupted this past year that it was difficult to keep track of what was being released, and when, and where, so many movie-watchers simply gave up.

Given that this Oscars eligibility period produced a fair number of good films but no great films, and none that provoked widespread discussion, it’s difficult to be surprised by these findings.

Consider also that the expansion of the slate of best picture competitors has not had the desired effect of increasing the chances of popular movies winning the statue. After 2008, when Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” was snubbed for a best picture nomination, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the field from five nominees to 10.

That rule was tweaking again slightly a couple of years later to allow for as many as 10. The result was a winner in 2010 with one of the lowest box office totals in Oscar history. As good as “The Hurt Locker” is – and I think it’s quite good – its $17 million domestic gross is no one’s definition of a huge hit.

“The King’s Speech” and “Argo” are the only best picture winners since the change to gross more than $100 million. By way of comparison, seven of the nine best picture winners in the 2000s preceding “The Hurt Locker” crossed that mark.

And while it would be foolish to suggest that a movie’s artistic merit is intrinsically tied to its box office take, this is somewhat beside the point. Increasing the number of best picture nominees has only accelerated the trend of little-watched films becoming awards season darlings, turning off mainstream audiences.

The stats from Guts + Data suggest that nominating relatively obscure films does not do much to turn them into runaway hits. This was one of the loudest harrumphs when my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg suggested it might be a good idea to cancel the Oscars this year: “But what about the exposure these great, smaller movies will miss out on?”

And yet, despite the fact that “Nomadland” is available to anyone who has an internet connection, only 35% of active entertainment consumers have even heard of it, let alone seen it.

The siloed nature of streaming is an interesting variable here. Netflix’s penetration is approaching two-thirds of American homes, meaning “Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” weren’t just available to millions of home viewers, but featured on their Netflix home screens when they logged on for a binge.

Why is the awareness of “Trial” (39%) more than twice that for “Mank”? Why is neither recognized by even half of those polled? As I said, there was a glimmer of good news for the industry, and it’s this: “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the most-recognized movie.

And I would suggest it’s the most-recognized movie not because it was on HBO Max, where sign-ups still lag, but because it’s playing simultaneously in theaters. Which means it got a big advertising push. Which meant people saw it on billboards and ads for it on television. Which meant people knew it existed.

If movies want to retain their dominant position in the culture – a position under assault by prestige television and ceding ground to YouTube and video games – the theatrical experience is the only way to do that. It’s the only way to assure awareness of pictures.

It’s the only way to capture attention, to make a movie an event. No one will subscribe to every streaming service, but many people live within driving distance of a theater.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see “Godzilla vs. Kong” on the biggest screen I can find. Watching a lizard punch a monkey is a special event. We should treat it that way.

Sonny Bunch, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is the culture editor for the Bulwark, where he writes the Screen Time newsletter and hosts a podcast about the business of Hollywood.

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