The Oscars Want Crowd-Pleasers, but Where Are the Crowds?

After last year’s Oscar ceremony honored a group of small, challenging movies and tanked in the ratings, you can bet that this year, the academy is eager to nominate films that audiences can get excited about. Indeed, this year’s crop of awards movies includes several old-fashioned crowd-pleasers to choose from.

There’s just one problem: The crowds are remaining stubbornly hypothetical.

Just look at “Belfast.” The Kenneth Branagh-directed family drama, considered a top best-picture contender, has petered out with a domestic box office gross under $7 million. Best-picture winners usually hail from far more successful stock: Among recent winners, only last year’s “Nomadland” made less, and it was released at a time when vaccines were scarce and theaters were just barely beginning to reopen.

“King Richard” hasn’t fared much better: Though it was released simultaneously on HBO Max, you’d still expect stronger box office results for an inspirational drama that stars Will Smith as the father of the tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. Instead, “King Richard” has made just $14.7 million in North American theaters, the lowest gross for a Smith movie in decades.

And then there’s Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel,” which feels like it could have been the biggest hit of a bygone Oscar season. This medieval drama boasts huge stars (including Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck), weighty themes and top-tier production values. Now that it’s available on demand, not a day goes by without someone on my Twitter timeline discovering the film and announcing, “Hey, this is actually pretty good!” Maybe they’re surprised because “The Last Duel” famously bombed during its wide release in October, earning only $10.8 million domestically.

It’s true that many of these Oscar contenders are aimed at older moviegoers, who have proved difficult to lure back to theaters during a prolonged pandemic. A smaller film like “Belfast” used to debut in a handful of cities, carefully building word of mouth with that core demographic as it expanded to new theaters every week. Now, distributors are so skittish about the absence of older audiences that many specialty films are shoved into hundreds of theaters right off the bat, expected to draw huge crowds from scratch.

Still, the underwhelming performance of these movies can’t be blamed on older moviegoers alone. Over the past few weeks, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has earned a staggering $621 million domestically, a total you simply can’t reach without every available demographic turning out in record numbers. If older adults are willing to go see “Spider-Man,” it becomes harder to make the argument that they can’t be wooed at all.

Marvel’s rising tide, though, has not lifted any boats: Instead, every other title is drowning. Are audiences really so skittish about seeing the most acclaimed films of the year? Or have these movies simply struggled to make the case that they’re worth watching?

I believe the latter issue bedeviled “West Side Story,” which seemed to have so much going for it when it debuted in December: Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie received rapturous reviews and is adapted from one of the most famous stage musicals of all time. Though “West Side Story” was originally intended to come out last winter, Disney executives delayed this exhilarating film a full year, expecting a four-quadrant smash.

They didn’t get it. “West Side Story” made just $10.5 million in its opening weekend and has struggled to reach $30 million in its first month of release. For a movie from Hollywood’s most reliable hitmaker, that is a disastrous result: You’d have to go all the way back to “Empire of the Sun” from 1987 to find a Spielberg movie that did this poorly, and that film didn’t cost north of $100 million, as “West Side Story” did.

The usual suspects have come in for blame — the pandemic’s winter surge, the paucity of older moviegoers — but I lay this failure squarely at the feet of the marketing campaign, which missed crucial opportunities. The posters for this romantic musical were oddly grim, and the trailers and TV spots remained way too bashful about selling Spielberg, the movie’s biggest name. The trailers should have emphasized his iconic films like “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” positioning “West Side Story” as part of an impressive theatrical lineage: The obvious message being, “Those were events worth leaving the house for and this will be, too.”

Ultimately, that may prove to be the most significant lesson of this awards season: If you can’t make your movie feel like a big event, people simply won’t go. It’s clear that the only film this winter that has really managed that feat is “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” and because its astonishing box office returns dwarf everything else in theaters, power players involved with the Marvel-Sony movie have begun making the case that it should be nominated for best picture.

Does Spidey have a shot? I’m not so sure: Oscar voters have shown they’re willing to nominate a big blockbuster, but they prefer the kind of impeccably crafted tentpole that can compete in a host of categories: Think of “Black Panther,” which won Oscars for its score, production design and costumes; or “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which prevailed in just about every tech category it was nominated for. This year, “Dune” will be a major player in those below-the-line races, boosting its ultimate bid for best picture, but the flatly shot “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is more of a storytelling and scheduling feat than some sort of artistic stunner.

Still, there’s no denying the movie’s huge box office success. If adult dramas continue to underperform as the pandemic sprawls into its third year, they may vanish from cinemas entirely, and the theatrical experience will simply become a high-end way to watch Marvel movies. The Oscars are supposed to forestall that sort of thing: They lend buzz to the smaller, artier films that desperately need it. But if all these nonfranchise crowd-pleasers can’t manage to entice people into theaters on their own, the movies have a bigger problem than just another low-rated Oscars show.