The "Dark Knight" Problem

It has been a well known problem in recent years that the Oscars are strapped for ratings. And try as they might they just can't seem to get people to tune in, with an increasingly indie minded slate of nominees.

This year, however, they have a chance to draw in the masses again, with a People's Choice Award winner that actually has a serious shot at making it to the big five.

I'm talking, of course, about The Dark Knight, which has grossed over $500 million domestically alone, making it the second highest grossing film of all time, behind the Oscar winning Titanic. In many ways, this is a chance for the Academy to make itself relevant again in the eyes of the general public, as millions tune in to watch their beloved superhero rack up Oscars.

But therein lies the problem. The most likely Oscar night scenario means that there are going to be a lot of disappointed bat-fans at the end of the night.

Heath Ledger will win his Oscar, sure. But it's looking more and more likely that The Dark Knight will not take home Best Picture. It will end up being beaten by a film most people haven't heard of and know nothing about, therefore increasing the irrelevance of the Academy in many eyes and putting even more distance between them and regular movie going America.

The likely winner, at this point, looks to be Slumdog Millionaire, which if it really is this year's Juno/Little Miss Sunshine should be getting a much bigger marketing push than it is. But I think Fox Searchlight is really dropping the ball on its commercial potential. Why is this not open wide yet? The fact is, the majority of middle America, whose movie going this year consisted of The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, simply hasn't heard of Slumdog. The only other Oscar nominee on their radar is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which they most likely haven't seen because they heard it was three hours long and didn't have enough explosions. That and they liked it better when it was called Forrest Gump. And if they have heard of Milk, they know they won't see it because it's about "queers," and they don't want to "catch the gayness."

So if The Dark Knight is nominated, it may give the Oscars a ratings bump this year, but watch those numbers go right back down next year as legions of disillusioned movie goers refuse to tune in again.

Personally, I don't care about Oscar ratings. I want them to award the best films, not the most popular. That's what box office and the People's Choice Awards are for. And of the likely pool of nominees, I'm rooting for Slumdog all the way, even though I really want to see Gran Torino and WALL-E sneak in there, but that's not going to happen. I just can't help but wonder if the ratings starved producers and sponsors have thought this little scenario through.


Very interesting analysis, Matthew. I must admit, I hadn't considered this point: that The Dark Knight's very position as a competitor for Best Picture will likely lead to disillusionment for the fans of the movie who tune in and (probably) watch it lose.
Mattie Lucas said… the point that nominating it may be worse for the Academy than snubbing it.
Anonymous said…
I completely agree, with your article and what Alex says there.
Matt Kilgore said…
very insightful article, though i have to admit i did kind of like tdk
Mattie Lucas said…
Don't get me wrong, I like "The Dark Knight" too. I just see this as a problem if the Academy is looking to entice more viewers. It may backfire.

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