I 'Wonder'

If there's a glaring omission from this year's field of Oscar nominees, it is Wonder Woman.

The DC Comics-inspired adaptation, was the third most commercially successful film of 2017, raking in $412 million domestically, behind only Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Beauty and the Beast. Of the top 10 at the box office in 2017, it was the most critically acclaimed, boasting a 92 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Yet it was nowhere to be found when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the field last month - not even in one of the more technical categories like Visual Effects or Costume Design. That means the almost universally beloved film couldn't earn a distinction that it's almost universally reviled brethren - Suicide Squad - earned just last year, that of Academy Award nominee.

I am ordinarily not one to weep for the comic book film, and my esteemed colleague and I just spent our most recent podcast dishing out general praise for this year's crop of Oscar hopefuls. Warner Brothers, Wonder Woman and director Patty Jenkins will, I have no doubt, rest easy at home on Oscar night on their piles of cash.

But I do think this highlights a very real problem for the Oscars themselves - something that came in to focus after reading Sean Fennessey's recent article for The Ringer, entitled "Did the Oscars Blow Its Big Bet?"

The conceit of Fennessey's piece is that the expansion of the field of Best Picture nominees from five to 10 to, now, up to but not usually 10 is a stark example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The clear impetus for the change was the omission of The Dark Knight, and yet Wonder Woman is the best but not only example of how the rule change has not had the desired effect.

As Fennessey puts it:

The Oscars are rarely an objective adjudication of the best that movies have to offer. For every stone-cold classic like No Country, there is a turkey like Crash. But what had been assured in decades past, specifically from the heady late ’80s on, was that the film that took home the big prize was almost always a hit with audiences. In 1988, Rain Man kicked off a run of Best Picture winners that grossed over $75 million — including megahits like Forrest GumpDances With Wolves, and Gladiator. The lesson was direct: Winners are seen. No Country was the first film to break this streak, grossing a hair under $75 million. Since the Academy’s expansion, the number of films to cross that arbitrary red line has dipped to just two in eight races — The King’s Speech in 2010 ($135 million) and Argo in 2012 ($136 million). Ganis and Co.’s plan to draw in The Dark Knights of the world backfired; in the period since the expansion, box office figures from the winners have shrunk and ratings have declined, culminating in last year’s telecast, the lowest-rated since No Country’s win a decade earlier.

As he acknowledges, there are some factors entirely out of the Academy's control here. Television ratings are down for almost everything in the mega-broadcast strata. No matter what our embarrassment of a dear leader might say about things like the NFL and Oscars being too political, my view is that the decline is largely due to a change in the way we consume media. In short, we have so many options available to us now, we just don't gather around the virtual campfire like we used to. And that appears to be a phenomenon that is here to stay.

All that said, it is fair to wonder if the body of voters is unintentionally exacerbating the problem by taking advantage of an expanded field to insert even more obscure nominees in to it than before.

I have argued - basically from the moment that we started this site - that the good of the Oscars is that it shines a light on films that otherwise would not get any broad recognition from the viewing public. In an age where literally every one of the top 10 box office draws of the year is either franchise fare or a reboot, originality and unusual delights feel like something we should cling to tightly. I remain thrilled that people had to go look up what Moonlight was after last year's ceremony.

But Fennessey's piece along with the glaring miss on Wonder Woman has just about entirely reversed my stance. The Oscars can not shine a light on great but little-seen films if no one is watching at all. Ultimately, this is an existential question for the Academy to answer. What kind of films does it want to celebrate, and to what end?

I do not claim to have the answer to that question, but I do fear that if it is not answered in just the right way - with just the right balance - then the Academy Awards will slip fully in to irrelevance.