Didn’t see any Best Picture nominees? Here’s why …

Jason LeRoy

“I haven’t heard of any of these!”

Such was a frequently heard exclamation when this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced at the end of January. Not that the American public at large really gives a crap what movies get nominated for Oscars anymore.

Year in and year out we are accosted by news reports about what is nominated, what was snubbed and what will win, and every year the public has heard of — much less seen — less and less of the nominated films. This fosters a public sentiment of increasing apathy and even hostility toward the allegedly snooty “Oscar-bait” films rewarded by the Academy and serves to further polarize our nation’s cultural differences.

One of the main and most troubling reasons behind this dilemma is what I like to think of as a sort of bicoastal cultural imperialism. The reason people in Kent and other cities like it have not heard of any of the nominated films (except for Ray, the token crowd-pleaser in the line-up) before the noms were announced is that they weren’t playing around here.

However, this is not to say they weren’t playing somewhere. In fact, they’d be pretty freakin’ easy to find if you lived in Manhattan or Los Angeles. But once you stray from those designated cultural hotspots, you might as well be living in the Ozarks as far as film distributors are concerned.

“High-brow” films such as Sideways and Vera Drake are released in New York and Los Angeles from a week to several months prior to receiving additional distribution (if any). And even if they do manage to play outside of those two markets, they are only shown at the obligatory “art house” theaters in certain big cities (think the Cedar Lee), usually starting in January.

And then, if one of these films becomes a major Oscar contender, you might just see it at your local multiplex (for instance, Sideways has gone into wide release following its flurry of Oscar nods). But one should hardly be forced to rely on this butterfly-effect-style chain of reactions to see the movies critics and film-focused organizations like the Academy think are so great.

So why is it that certain films are distributed in this fashion? Well, if one were to ask the studios, they would cite good old-fashioned capitalism as their justification. The studios would claim that because they are in the business of making money, they will only distribute films where they will find an audience.

And since conventional wisdom dictates that “art films” don’t play well in Peoria, Ill., they only get distributed in New York, Los Angeles and other major metropolitan markets. What is unfortunately implied by this statement is people outside of these markets are not “cultured” enough to appreciate films of this caliber and would rather fart and snort their way through the latest Rob Schneider vehicle than be forced to think.

For instance, if studios are just supplying the audience with what they want by giving them glossy, neatly packaged blockbusters, then why the need for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of promotional endeavors? And how can we explain the utter failure of movies that completely fit the blockbuster profile while movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding appear out of nowhere and break the bank?

These factors indicate that perhaps demand does not create supply, but rather supply creates demand. It is assumed that middle America only likes Hollywood movies because that is all they have ever been given. Who’s to say that if movie theaters were stocked with small-budget or independent films, filmgoers wouldn’t see those in the same numbers they see everything else?

This past weekend I attended a viewing of the Annette Bening Oscar candidate Being Julia at a multiplex in western Pennsylvania. This low-budget film was only brought to the theater because of Bening’s nomination. And on a Saturday afternoon, the theater was absolutely packed.

And so, the solution to this dilemma exists in a reformation of the distribution policies of film studios. They must stop underestimating the filmgoing potential of the American public. Also, movie theaters should start taking risks in what films they contract to show.

The University Plaza Theater in Kent has been a great example of theater willing to show small films like The Motorcycle Diaries alongside major studio tripe like Boogeyman.

Until better film distribution is achieved, the Academy Awards will become increasingly irrelevant until they hold little more cultural weight than reruns of Step by Step.

Contact pop arts reporter Jason C. LeRoy at [email protected].