What to do when the voters weren't doing what's best for the ratings? The new system essentially created an affirmative-action program for disadvantaged blockbusters—with the hope they might bring along some of their audience to watch the show.
The system went into place in 2009. This was the year of James Cameron's Avatar, the highest-grossing picture of all time. (In non-inflated dollars, the film was merely as big as 101 Dalmatians, but whatever.) Avatar made the best-picture nomination cut—but in the vote lost to the uncompromising and unrelenting The Hurt Locker, which, incredibly, made less than a quarter even what No Country had.
The Hurt Locker also happened to be directed by James Cameron's ex-wife. The voters were plainly displaying their contempt for blockbusters.
There are in fact two movie industries in the country now, each with its own audience and support system. The first, biggest, and loudest creates cacophonous entertainments that are shared by an increasingly young crowd in mall multiplexes across the nation. They troop in, almost en masse on opening weekend, to be exposed to $9 popcorn and earsplitting commercials before seeing that week's must-see movie. This audience is remarkably un-price-resistant when the industry has convinced them the films are something it needs to see. A dreary chunk of these movies are sequels (Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers), remakes or reboots (Alice in Wonderland, Star Trek, Batman), repurposings (Yogi Bear, Alvin and the Chipmunks, G.I. Joe), the work of franchise directors like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, or some combination thereof.
The problem? Movie attendance has been trending downward for a decade, even as the population increases. The 2010 North American box office was a boon to the industry, essentially matching the celestial $10.6 billion figure from 2009—a full billion dollars higher than 2008. But those big numbers distract attention from a scarier statistic: Actual movie attendance fell quite sharply, down more than 5 percent to 1.35 billion, the lowest mark in 15 years. (Meanwhile, of course, the population increased by about 15 percent.) Gross receipts stayed high only because of the steep surcharges accompanying 3-D and IMAX showings.
That's great news for the industry if these remain the norm, but worrisome if they're just a fad. But it's not like 3-D and oversized screens are things that the movie industry has seen come and go in the past.
Oh, wait ...
The other Hollywood makes films for adults, generally on limited budgets, with a premium on thoughtful scripts and good acting, and a willingness to deal with difficult subject matter. They are made from good books or are written by their auteur directors or screenwriters; they generally feature mid-list or non-stars and play to an audience amenable to substance. These movie fans can consume the film in a theater, but is often content to wait for the video release or on-demand, which allows them to watch the thing in peace and quiet on ever-cheaper 52-inch flat screens.