Huge Film, Small Film: Big Stakes


VERY soon now, whatever suspense remains in this Oscar season will be over. Bullock or Streep? “Avatar” or “Hurt Locker”? All will be revealed. Will you be watching?

That question is the one that most preoccupies the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which administers the awards, and ABC, which broadcasts them. No effort has been spared to secure your attention, whoever and wherever you are. There are two funnyman hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, to appeal to baby boomers and “30 Rock” fans; a slew of attractive presenters, including some of the “Twilight” pack to pander to the teenagers and tweens; shorter speeches, no embarrassing performances of nominated songs, and 10 nominees for best picture. Anything you want! Everything you could wish for!

Or, at least, that’s the hope — something that might reverse the erosion of ratings that has plagued the Oscar show in recent years. Always a step or two behind the times, the broadcast has lately seemed to wobble on the edge of obsolescence. Really, who watches television like that anymore?

It is an axiom nowadays that the broadcast networks, with their traditional ability to manufacture cultural events with the power to corral public attention and advertising money, are dinosaurs unaware of their own impending extinction. And like old-fashioned real-time, living-room television viewing, theatrical distribution (what most of us call moviegoing) has been on the cultural endangered-species list for some time. Thanks to our wall-mounted flat screens and their portable analogues, we can stream and download at our own convenience, make our own snacks, program our own repertory and pause when the need arises. So why would any of us need to buy a ticket and fight with a stranger for access to a cup holder?

But these weary beasts, rather than slipping quietly into extinction, are still roaring loudly and trampling a lot of real estate, even as the swift new creatures that are supposed to kill them off evolve and proliferate with startling rapidity. The Oscars this year are interesting precisely because they crystallize this paradox.

They arrive during a season when large-scale, unique television events are attracting enormous audiences. The Super Bowl was the most widely watched broadcast ever, and this years’ Winter Olympics and even the Grammy Awards drew larger audiences than their predecessors. Apparently people will still watch television.

And also go to the movies, which is not exactly news; 2009 was a hard recessionary year all around, but it was a flush time at the box office, as grosses broke the record set a few years earlier. Throughout these years of digitally inspired anxiety, in fact, audiences have kept on buying tickets. The pattern thrown into relief even before the coming of “Avatar” involves the concentration of more and more revenue in a small number of hugely remunerative releases. Which is to say, the big movies keep getting bigger.

And for the moment “Avatar” is the biggest of all, a juggernaut that makes the word blockbuster sound quaint. While the film’s success does not necessarily set a template for the future — or represent a break with the past — its combination of technological innovation and global reach reveals the scale on which Hollywood can now operate. By the time it opened in December, “Avatar” was the movie that everyone in the world had to see, as soon as possible, and it held on to that status week after week.


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