Oscars 2008, Cameron Diaz
Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of handwringing and fingerpointing over the record low ratings of Sunday’s Oscar telecast, but it’s actually pretty easy to place the blame: It’s mainstream Hollywood’s fault. People didn’t watch because they didn’t have a rooting interest in the nominated movies, since they hadn’t seen most of them. And that’s because they were mostly indie movies that didn’t have the marketing and distribution behind them that big-studio movies typically have. Viewership always spikes in those years when hit movies that have been well marketed and widely distributed are the top contenders (Titanic, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Departed). But those years are almost accidental now because the studios generally are not in the business of making Oscar-worthy movies. They’ve left that business to the indies (or the studios’ own quasi-indie specialty divisions). The Oscars has therefore become a niche show, not much different from the Independent Spirit awards, only with better clothes. The mystery isn’t why fewer people are watching, it’s why the Oscars can draw an audience as large as that for an American Idol season premiere.

I’ve seen a lot of complaints that the Oscars are out of touch, that the show would be a bigger draw if they’d stop picking critic-approved movies with foreign stars and become more populist. This sounds suicidal to me. Sure, the Academy could dispense with voting altogether, simply look at the box office chart, and pick something like Transformers as Best Picture every year. But the only reason anyone wants to win an Oscar is the sense that it’s based more on artistic merit than on popularity. Simply awarding the top ticket sellers would turn the Oscars into the People’s Choice Awards — which, last time I checked, has never been anywhere near the ratings-grabber that the Oscars is.

In order for the show to draw more viewers, it’s not the Academy that should change, it’s Hollywood. The major studios would have to develop an interest in making movies with artistic merit and not just lowest common denominator blockbusters. Or they’d have to back their specialty divisions with real marketing and distribution power, so that the awards contenders aren’t just playing in Los Angeles and New York during awards season. At the very least, everyone would have to get out of the mindset that the last few weeks of the year are the only time anyone wants to see grown-up, awards-worthy movies and release them earlier in the year, so they could be out on DVD by the time the nominations are announced and people who hadn’t seen them in the theater could at last have access to them. But Hollywood is not interested in making any of these changes or creating a culture that actually appreciates film, and one of the most egregious signs of this came during the ceremony itself, when Cameron Diaz (pictured) took the podium.

addCredit(“Cameron Diaz: Kevin Winter/Getty Images”)

Not to pick on Diaz, who stumbled over the word “cinematography,” since she didn’t write her own presentation patter. Still, some Hollywood writer, someone employed by the Academy (and who should, therefore, have a sense of history and context) actually wrote her lines, which poked fun at 1928 Oscar-winner Sunrise for having characters so archetypal that they were credited as “Man,” “Wife,” and “Woman from the City.” Now, Sunrise is a parable, so it naturally features stock characters, but it’s also one of the most beautiful movies ever made — intensely emotional, lovingly detailed, and gorgeously shot in some of the most stunning black-and-white camerawork in film history. That a film as visually sumptuous as Sunrise could get a knock during a cinematography award presentation is an especially stinging insult, but perhaps an inevitable one in a culture whose memory of film history goes back only about five minutes. Literally, in this case; anyone making fun of a movie for having nameless archetypes as main characters obviously hasn’t seen Once — you know, the movie that won Best Song only moments before Diaz took the stage. Audiences everywhere ought to be better educated about the glorious wealth of movies, old and new, available to them, but it’s clear that that education is going to have to start among Hollywood’s own gatekeepers.