Sunday, March 4, 2018

RT's unexpected boosting of Oscar nominees

I hope you haven't been coming to my blog in the hopes of getting hyped up for the Oscars, because I've done a piss poor job at that. I write about what I'm thinking about, and I just haven't been thinking about the Oscars much. It's consistent with a shift in my thoughts about the Oscars that's a good decade old now. I'm always interested to see what gets nominated, but then I don't expend a lot of intellectual energy on it again until I'm watching the show ... at which point it's very passive intellectual energy.

But I figured I ought to write at least one preparatory post, given that this will post on the same date as the Oscars (though the Oscars are not really until tomorrow, if you're reading this within the first few hours after I post it -- it's an Australia thing). And it has to do with this article on Rotten Tomatoes. (You don't have to follow that link, as I will summarize the article below -- I just wanted to give credit where credit is due.)

A lot of people have a lot of feelings about Rotten Tomatoes, but one of the loudest seems to be that the site will lead to the ruination of the film industry. By reducing a creative endeavor down to a number, especially one that reflects only a yea or nay mentality and not the shades of gray that better describe most challenging pieces of art, the film in question is cheapened, and maybe ultimately not seen by people. Which leads to fewer of that type of movie getting to be made in the future, and in the end, their ultimate extinction. So more or less was the argument of Martin Scorsese when he wrote a much-passed-around op-ed piece on the topic last year.

I don't particularly frequent Rotten Tomatoes because I prefer its competitor, Metacritic. I don't know that the numerical rating is any more scientific of a method of assigning value to the movie -- especially since Metacritic has put forward some weird language related to accountability for their own inscrutable formulas -- but I can tell you that I vastly prefer the interface and the layout. Or used to, anyway -- some recent changes have made it harder to get out from under the ads, and navigate in general. Even in that compromised state, though, I still prefer it to the perennially childish looking fonts and logos on RT.

Yet an article on The Verge gave me a fuzzier feeling about Rotten Tomatoes and the influence it's having. In at least one way, it's not quite as toxic as Martin Scorsese and others would lead you to believe.

You know how the last two best picture winners, Spotlight and Moonlight, were actually considered by some critics to be the actual best movie of the year? A critic I highly respect, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune (I know him from his guest appearances on Filmspotting), chose each of those as his #1 movie of their respective years. If Lady Bird wins this year, he'll be aligned with the Oscars three years running.

Which I imagine may cause him some sleepless nights, but shouldn't. See, it's no coincidence that the Oscars are "getting better." You can certainly credit the recent changes to the Academy membership, and we shouldn't overlook that. But that article on The Verge also posits that it has to do with Rotten Tomatoes, and in the next paragraph I'll tell you why.

Now that knowing the RT score for a movie is kind of an inescapable part of the cinematic zeitgeist for people who follow movies, that can certainly be considered a bad thing. But it can also be considered a good thing, in that Academy members will feel more sheepish about voting for nominees that have lower scores. Some Academy members are mavericks (or old people) and will still vote for whatever they want, but others, who have their eyes on the bigger picture of the Academy's stature as a respected institution, will consciously vote for films that they know critics love as a way of boosting the Academy's credibility. And that is easier to do than ever when you know that films like Lady Bird and Get Out are bursting at the seams with near universal acclaim, each boasting a 99 on the influential site.

I won't rehash the entire article, as I'm already conscious of the fact that this is sort of what I'm doing rather than adding my own unique take on it. But suffice it to say that they went back to examine the scores of previous best picture winners from the earlier part of this century -- before RT existed, but you can still retrofit their scoring system to existing reviews of those movies -- and found that best picture nominees and winners both had a lower average Rotten Tomatoes score then than they do now.

Of course, you could argue that there's some echo chamber stuff going on here that poisons the statistics. At least some of the people who reviewed these newer movies were already conscious of their near universal praise at the time they reviewed them, and did not want to be the only critic submitting a rotten review. (Though three brave souls did for Get Out, four for Lady Bird.) But I think when analyzing this stuff, you have to take it as a constant that critics are paid (or not paid, as the case usually is) to give their honest opinions of movies, and we can and should trust that they do.

And whether it totally works as a correlation between Rotten Tomatoes and the better field of Oscar nominees, I think we can say for sure that this is happening. There are only a few "stodgy, old-fashioned" choices for best picture this year, and they are actually my favorite two: Darkest Hour and The Post. Maybe that just means I'm starting to resemble an aging Oscar voter, or maybe it means that only the best Oscar bait is rising to the level of nomination-worthy. Darkest Hour and The Post are at 86% and 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively. If they have the support of critics, who usually try to see through transparent Oscar baiting, then they are, by critical consensus, more than just standard Oscar bait.

And there is indeed a perception shift starting to happen, I think. Not only were a diverse slate of nominees nominated again this year, but you don't hear people grumbling as much about how the Oscars don't matter and that they always nominate the wrong films. There are some best picture nominees I don't love this year, but I don't think you can argue that the films nominated were something other than the ones that showed up most often in top ten lists. Even something like Phantom Thread, the prototypical example of a critical darling that got nowhere near the best picture race in the past, shattered its own eccentric art film ceiling this year.

Okay, hope you enjoy the ceremony, and as you're watching it, appreciate the fact that you are witnessing a rejiggered Oscars about which we may no longer need to roll our eyes. It's an exciting era for an awards fan. Relish it before something comes along to break it again.

And as for me, to try to start my own Oscar engines, I may finally go to see Lady Bird tonight. It'll be my last chance before the big show. They say The Shape of Water is most likely to win -- a shock if I've ever heard one -- but I still have a sneaking suspicion it might be Lady Bird, which will make a very funny pairing with 2014 winner Birdman. And if I do see it, it means I can be sure I'll have seen the best picture winner before the ceremony, as it remains the only one I haven't gotten to.

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