Film News

Most Americans Can’t Name Last Year’s Best Picture Winner – So What?

For a hot minute, the Oscars were going to have a Best Popular Film category this year. That didn’t end well for anyone. We’ve since learned the category was largely ABC’s idea. They do air the Oscars, after all, and overall viewership has been plunging faster than Trump’s approval rating, reaching a record low 26.5 million viewers in 2018, a 40% decline from just 4 years ago. For so, so many reasons, proposing a Best Popular Film category was the wrong solution, but the problem which inspired it is very real.

Or so I have argued in the past. In fact, this recent Hollywood Reporter headline would have been Exhibit 1 in my argument about the existential crisis hanging over the Oscars right now:

The gist of the article is right there in the headline: In a “nationally representative poll of 2,201 adults,” THR found that only one in every five Americans can correctly identify The Shape of Water as last year’s Best Picture winner. That might seem bad, but it’s actually better than usual because in the same survey THR discovered:

  • Among the 2017 nominees, more respondents thought La La Land won best picture (20%) than the actual winner, Moonlight (12%).
  • For 2016, more Americans thought that The Revenant won best picture (13%) than the real winner, Spotlight (5%).
  • That trend holds for 2015, where more respondents believed that American Sniper (11%) won best picture than winner Birdman (9%).
  • The exception was 2014, where more respondents correctly identified 12 Years a Slave (17%) as the best picture winner than its fellow nominees, including The Wolf of Wall Street (8%).

I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

This whole “the Oscars are clearly out of touch with the average American” business is an annual tradition now. Today, THR looked into how many people actually remember the last five Best Picture winners. Two years ago – when the Oscar field consisted of films like Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Manchester By the Sea, and, of course, La La Land and Moonlight – they asked how many people could at least name a single Best Picture nominee. The answer then: just 40% of respondents. Optimistically, THR pointed out that despite the clear lack of familiarity with the nominees 70% of the respondents still said they intended to watch the Oscars.

Based on the ratings, safe to say some of them were lying or ended up watching in a way not reflected in the numbers, like maybe in a group setting or streaming online.

But what’s that old saying? “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Well, amend that for cinephiles and replace “death and taxes” with “arguing about the Oscars.” This – puzzling over the ratings, debating how to fix things, second-guessing the winners and nominees – is just what we do as film fanatics. It’s utterly pointless. At the end of the day, who gives a shit who wins Best Picture?* And I say that as the film nerd who once proudly memorized the name and corresponding year of every Best Picture winner like it was a school assignment I was going to be tested on.

*Counterpoint: Yes, I’m aware of the new approach to treating every Best Picture win as a cultural signifier and platform to advance social justice – Moonlight for gay, black men, Spotlight for the abused, Shape of Water for all outsiders. However, with fewer people watching the Oscars and most Best Picture winners making less in totality than the average Marvel Studios movie does in its first two days I don’t know how much of a significant difference we’re actually making here. Oprah’s #TimesUp speech at the Golden Globes, on the other hand, or Frances McDormand’s “Inclusion Rider” speech at last year’s Oscars…now we’re talking true change.

A trophy does not a great movie make. In reality, standing the test of time is the only true arbiter of a film’s greatness. However, this is our Super Bowl and arguing about it unites us as film fans.

There are simply fewer of us doing that now because, in general, there are fewer people watching awards shows, period. I’d give you the specific numbers, but this GIF sums it up pretty well:

Ok. So, that doesn’t work here as well as I thought it would. For some reason, I remembered Ozzie Smith’s journey through the bottomless pit being more like a straight fall downward instead of that weird spiral but, frankly, I’ll use any excuse I can to talk about The Simpsons’ “Homer at the Bat” episode.

The point is: imagine a cliff. Now imagine yourself falling off of it. That’s the story with the ratings for all award shows these days (THR has the numbers).

To paraphrase another great movie the Oscars failed to properly recognize, the TV industry went and got itself in a big damn hurry. Now, even live programming is no longer immune to the streaming and time shifting revolution. ABC and the Oscars are trying everything they can think of to stop the bleeding, and the further the public drifts away from the Oscars the less power it will have as a cultural institution.

But isn’t this kind of unavoidable? You can add thousands more diverse members to the Academy. You change the rules and categories to encourage support of more popular movies. You can even partially succeed by occasionally managing to nominate a movie or two which crossed $100m domestic, like last year’s Dunkirk and Get Out.

This year’s nominees will probably include three films that easily surpassed $100m domestic – Black Panther, A Star is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody.

However, you can’t change the larger trends in the industry, the ones where the unholy cocktail of conglomerate control, global box office whims, and market saturation has resulted in the death of the mid-budget movie, unending age of the blockbuster, and mass exodus of filmmakers and stars who would have been winning Oscars in an old age but are now making compelling TV shows instead. It’s perfectly fitting, then, that this year’s presumptive Best Picture winner, Roma, is something the overwhelming majority of people will have watched on Netflix.

That doesn’t mean you don’t try; it just means you be honest with yourself about the challenge. That old version of Hollywood where Best Picture winners were usually mid-budget movies, the occasional blockbuster, or just generally movies a lot of Americans actually paid to see and then tuned in to the Oscars to see win or lose? That’s not coming back, and it’s not like they didn’t snub blockbusters back then, either.

Similarly, any elitist notion about Best Picture representing the greatest achievement in cinema started slowly dying the year The Sopranos was created or all those times the Academy awarded Best Picture to what history later judged to clearly be the wrong movie.

*cough*Driving Miss Daisy*cough*

So, given the current playing field the movies which most need the Oscars are the smaller ones just trying to cut through the cultural chatter and actually make some money instead of simply winning awards only to then see its distributor go out of business two years later, as happened with Birdman and Spotlight. However, ABC and the Oscars, faced with plummeting ratings, would clearly prefer to move toward recognizing the kinds of movies most Americans will actually remember a couple of years from now.

But as the rapidly shifting face of TV deems awards shows to be less and less relevant (especially as there are oddly more and more of them) an inevitable dwindling effect will kick in where, in the end, the most passionate will remain. #FilmTwitter arguments will be had. Awards show GIFS will be widely shared. And, as we always have, we will continue arguing about who should have won what or who looked best in what dress or suit. It’s what we do. It’s an annual tradition. There just might fewer of us partaking in it in the years to come.

2019 will be the ultimate test of that. We’re potentially looking at the most financially successful group of Best Picture nominees in recent memory. Black Panther, A Star is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, are each among the highest-grossing films of all time for their respective genres. Lady Gaga might win Best Actress, and that’s going to demand the attention of her massive fanbase! Traditional logic would suggest that’s going to equate to more viewers. ABC is sure hoping so.

Smash Cut to a year from now: New THR survey discovers the average American believes A Star is Born won Best Picture last year even though it went to Roma.

If they actually watch the show, though, what does it matter? And if not, there will always be hardcore cinephiles duty-bound to watch or at least maybe watch the highlights because of tradition. Whether or not the tradition ever takes hold with the younger generation, though, well that’s a possibly unavoidable problem for 10 years from now.

Source: THR


  1. I gave up on the Oscars when I realized I kept thinking that Goodfellas had won best picture, and when I researched it, it turned out to have been Dances with Wolves. I went through my mind about movies I loved, and which won best picture, and almost none of them matched up to the movies which actually won, and in some cases, were movies I actively hated (Its okay, lkeke, you can say Crash.)

    I probably won’t be watching the Oscars this year either, despite the addition of Black Panther. And I hate to bring it up, but there is a divide between what counts as best picture material for Black people vs. White people. Its not actually a race issue, so much as we have different criteria for what makes a best picture.For us, last year was the year of Black Panther. (The year before that it was Get Out. For some women It was Wonder Woman.)

    And its not that Roma is a bad movie. In fact that says nothing about the quality of the other films on the list, They’re all good movies, that deserve to win. Its just that BP was what held the most cultural relevance for us, and that’s what we’re gonna be stanning for, and what we will probably remember won in ten years.

    1. After I wrote this, I cracked the latest Hollywood Reporter issue in the library, and there’s a big quote near the front that speaks to your anecdote about always assuming Goodfellas won Best Picture.

      It’s from Spike Lee. When asked about BlacKkKlansman’s Oscar chances this year, he did his bed side-eye and simply recalled, “Do the Right Thing didn’t get nominated. It’s in the Library of Congress now.” Translation: fuck the Oscars.

      “were movies I actively hated (Its okay, lkeke, you can say Crash.)”

      LOL. Quick list of Best Picture winners I don’t really like:

      Shakespeare in Love
      The English Patient
      Dances With Wolves
      Driving Miss Daisy

      Oh, and this I really, really shouldn’t admit, but there are a couple of “everyone says their really boring and too long” winners from the 80s I’ve never actually watched: The Last Emperor, Gandhi, and Chariots of Fire.

      “Its not actually a race issue, so much as we have different criteria for what makes a best picture.For us, last year was the year of Black Panther. (The year before that it was Get Out. For some women It was Wonder Woman.)

      I hear what you’re saying. The criteria isn’t so much some objective opinion of what seems like it’s the best made movie; it’s what movie meant the most to you that year. Your answer might vary according to your race or gender.

      1. I actually saw “Shakespeare in Love” in the cinema. Yawn. Other than the two leads, I can remember nothing about it. I can’t even remember WHY I saw it or who I saw it with.

      2. I was that annoying film nerd who refused to see Shakespeare in Love on principal (how dare it beat Saving Private Ryan!).

        So, it’s actually in the last 6 or 7 years that I finally saw it at the urging of WMIF co-founder Julianne. It’s fine enough. Basically Shakespeare porn. Not really for me. She loves it, though.

  2. I will admit that I used to watch the Oscars religiously every year, it was a tradition in our house. Although as we watched we stopped seeing movies that myself and my family went to see in the theatres and eventually there were 3 years where the biggest winners we had never heard of. It’s not that we didn’t go to the movies and see new flicks, it’s just the ones we watched weren’t anything close to the ones nominated.

    I will admit that in the last, probably 5 years I have only ended up seeing one nominee for best picture (The Revenant). I liked it a lot and Leo 100% deserved the Oscar, but that was the only reason I watched that year, was to see Leo get what he deserved.

    We watched the Golden Globes the other week when they aired and as I sat there with my parents, my dad looked at me and said “I have never heard of 80% of these movies”. Do I think adding a ‘most popular category would help bolster viewers? maybe. But it might be too little too late.

    1. “I will admit that in the last, probably 5 years I have only ended up seeing one nominee for best picture (The Revenant). I liked it a lot and Leo 100% deserved the Oscar, but that was the only reason I watched that year, was to see Leo get what he deserved.”

      I meant to mention that in the piece but felt it was running too long already. But, the point is that these days it takes a thing like Leo’s quest to finally win an Oscar and the way that exploded on social media to pull in outside audiences. That’s not exactly something the Academy can re-create every year.

      “We watched the Golden Globes the other week when they aired and as I sat there with my parents, my dad looked at me and said “I have never heard of 80% of these movies”.”

      To some degree, that experience is not exactly new. For probably over a decade now, there’s been that curious divide between the movies people see and the movies the Oscars and other awards bodies see fit to reward. However, it does seem so much worse now. That’s probably nothing, though, compared to TV awards shows, simply because there’s so much more original TV programming out there that you’re all but guaranteed to hand out awards to a bunch of shows most people haven’t watched yet.

  3. I’d be surprised if the average American could name last year’s Best Actor, Actress, Director, much less Best Picture. You are very right. How many of us are actually devoting 100% of our attention to one telecast. We’re simultaneously live-tweeting, posting reactions, maybe playing Fortnite or perusing Netflix. The Oscars aren’t THE thing anymore. It’s just another thing to have on and be part of to feel trendy.

    I think this is also indicative of our general fleeting non-interest in things. We care or pretend to care about the Oscars because IT’S ON! YOUR FAVORITE STARS ARE THERE AND THEY’RE ALL DRESSED UP. It feels important in the moment, but when it’s over we move on. Same is true of the Super Bowl, NBA Finals. One day is like a year in social media, and in that day or week we tweet and meme the hell out of it. (Whereas those of us on the blogging side will spend the coming months writing and fielding hot takes.) Just as quickly it becomes old news, so when we’re asked about after an actual year later, we’re surprised because it feels like 10 years.

    What cinephiles BELIEVE should’ve won will always be a topic of filmic debate. But the thing that’s rapidly changing is our attention spans in a market aggressively competing for our attention. Hell, I forgot I even saw Bird Box and Aquaman in the same weekend.

    1. “The Oscars aren’t THE thing anymore. It’s just another thing to have on and be part of to feel trendy.”

      Boom. Perfect summation.

      “What cinephiles BELIEVE should’ve won will always be a topic of filmic debate. But the thing that’s rapidly changing is our attention spans in a market aggressively competing for our attention.”

      Cheap joke: I’m sorry. What did you say? I swear I read it, but then I had to hop on twitter, update my Instagram and Facebook Stories (whatever that means), add dog ears to my Snapchat picture, and read all of the hot takes about The Atlantic’s hot take about impeaching Trump.

      Oh, actually, I see what you did there.

      All kidding aside, you made the point quite eloquently. The Oscars are just part of the perpetual distraction machine now. They ultimatey end up getting trivialized online because the internet incentivizes such things, and then we move on to the next thing. It’s like how some people have no idea who won the Super Bowl or World Series but they do remember that one funny Meme about Philip Rivers’ facial expressions during the AFC Divisional Round. With the Oscars, I bet the majority of the people who use the “Meryl Streep stands up and points!” gif have no idea where it’s from or what it was in response to. It’s just another thing we absorb into the internet mob and rob of all meaning.

      1. Oh my god, I think that’s it. We’re only in this for the memes at this point. It’s like a digital party. We get to be IN because there’s no bouncer, chat with others, having fun (or as much as our “lols” and emojis can show), and when it’s over it’s dead to us. Meryl Streep, the La La Land-Moonlight debacle, THAT’S what’s exciting for people. We won’t remember who won Best-something?, but at least we got some good memes out of it.

      2. Proposal for the Oscars desperate to appeal to the Meme-obsessed interactive generation:



        Ok. There’s pretty much nothing you can do for them. They’re going to cut your show up into Memes and forget all about it tomorrow. You try too hard to appeal to them and you’ll likely rob the show of the one thing it actually has in spades – live, authentic sponanteity, the kind which makes for great Memes but can’t really be planned or recreated. Then next thing you know, down the road the Oscars will just be a competition show with a panel of judges doing the voting and maybe inviting viewers to help influence their vote online. Or maybe just Billy Eichner running down streets and yelling at people who don’t recognize the Oscar nominees he has with him.

        I dunno. It’s all just content at this point, the endless churn of distraction.

    1. You see, that’s why their survey should have included two write-in boxes:

      1. Name the movie you think won Best Picture last year.
      2. If you can’t remember the name, briefly describe the plot to the best of your memory.

      I’m willing to bet that the number would have been at least a little higher if they had that second option. Might not remember the name “The Shape of Water” but probably at least be able to muster something like, “Wasn’t it that movie about that girl who fucks a fishman or something?”

      1. Oh, so many. Shape of Water. Cold Skin.


        Lady Bird? She’s like a bird person, right? (Actually, it’s a lovely coming of age story about an ungrateful daughter and her working-class mother). Ok. So that one is out.

        What about The Lure and its horror-musical twist on Little Mermaid? (Actually, that came out in 2015). I see.


        Is there maybe a Cold Skin 2? (No). Damn!

      2. Yeah, there is that Freeform show Sirens, and one imagines there must have been at least one straight-to-video Shape of Water knock-off, like The Form of Liquid or The Formation of Aqua or just, more bluntly, Fishfucker 1: The Fish-Fuckening.

  4. Maybe I’m the wrong target audience but I never enjoyed watching awards shows whatsoever. I don’t even like awards ceremonies in real life. So boring. What difference does it make to *me*?

    Maybe that’s why I should be the target audience. If they want the audience numbers to increase they need to find some way of making it worth watching to people in untapped demographics. Think about the news and current affairs. Some people have no interest in it, particularly “the youth”. Then about 20 years ago, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was the change people enjoyed. (Side anecdote: I was at a talk at work/uni when Michael Bloomberg said that news and entertainment shouldn’t be mixed.)

    Speaking of target audiences, your little jab is going to upset that Trump supporting half wit who is fact-phobic.

    Getting back to “What difference does it make to me?”, it doesn’t really seem to make any difference except that in print advertising, they will say what they won. It all seems a bit masturbatory.

    1. After I wrote this, I started listening to the latest episode of horror director/film journalist Mick Garris’ podcast and here’s what he had to say about the annual awards race. I think it applies to what you’re saying about never really enjoying awards shows of any kind:

      “I’m not a fan of awards shows. I’ve never believed in the arts as a competitive sport. Is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs better than Roma? Is Hereditary better than A Quiet Place? Is Mandy better than Bird Box? And how about Tigers Are Not Afraid versus Satan’s Slaves? Is one technically better than another or did you enjoy better than the other? I just don’t know how you can put the apples against the oranges. I’ll take both please as well as a watermon, a banana and a couple of kiwis. I don’t pay much attention to the Oscars, the Golden Globes or any of the other big awards shows. I appreciate the purpose behind them, to single out excellence in their various fields, but I just don’t know how to take excellent movies and place on above the next. I’ve had various projects of mine nominated for Emmys, but I’ve never much cared or attended. It’s a form of performance art I can’t get worked up about. I’d rather leave that for the race track. However, I must say it’s a nice feeling to get awards and put them on the mantle, which, of course, contradicts everything I just said. Humans are contradictory creatures, what can I say.”

      He goes on to discuss how rather than put any stock in awards shows he simply finds reviewers or film fans whose opinions he trusts and looks forward to their inevitable top 10 lists because that’s often how he’ll hear about several great movies he needs to check out.

      “Side anecdote: I was at a talk at work/uni when Michael Bloomberg said that news and entertainment shouldn’t be mixed.)”

      That argument goes back a long way, from hand-wringing over the first televised debates to the creation of CNN and 24-hour news. It’s an argument I happen to agree with to a certain point. It’s also why Jon Stewart so consistently argued The Daily Show was a comedy show, not a political news show, even as poll after poll found his audience didn’t see the difference and relied on him for their news. Now, his brand of infotainment journalism is the norm. If it keeps us civically engaged, that’s a good thing, but there is certainly a larger argument that part of what ails political discourse is the way it has morphed into just another entertainment outlet. That’s not really Stewart’s fault. It’s more down to the everpresent need for new content and the way the cable networks no longer try to tell the difference between what’s news worthy and what’s simply good to fill a couple of hours of programming.

      But I’m way off topic. I take your point about in the Jon Stewart example there being a potential to take a stuffy old institution and make it more viable for the ill-defined “youth.” However, not even Jon Stewart knew how to do that with the Oscars the year he hosted.

      “Speaking of target audiences, your little jab is going to upset that Trump supporting half wit who is fact-phobic.”

      Briefly considired that. If he comes back and argues, he can if he wants, but I really included it as a mere statement of fact. Trump’s approval ratings are dropping (I included a link to a survey saying as much). It’s in the headlines right now, and that’s why I plucked it as a quick little joke about the Oscar ratings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: