It Was a Bad Year for Movies—and a Worse Year for ‘Oscar Movies’

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Last year saw the fewest tickets sold at movie theaters since 1995. Ticket sales were down during the “blockbuster” season of summer, and the year’s “best” films—in terms of critical acclaim and awards like last night’s Oscars—had their worst performance at the box office in years.

Critics have been saying for years that the Oscars are becoming irrelevant. The most recent ceremonies, coming on the heels of a year in which fewer and fewer people are going to any movies, let alone the high-brow films favored by Academy Award voters, they seem less relevant than ever.

Not one of the films nominated for major awards was among the top ten for 2011 in box office sales. A MarketWatch story noted that the nine films nominated for Best Picture collectively earned $518 million in box office revenues. That’s less than half of last year’s Best Picture films, and also about half of the worldwide box office of either of the latest “Harry Potter” or “Transformers” films.

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We shouldn’t be surprised that the Oscars seem out of touch with the general public. As last week’s TIME summed up in a graph: The people who vote for Oscars are 94% white, 77% male, and 86% age 50 or older. This is hardly the demographic one typically encounters at the movie theater; for that matter, this isn’t even the demographic movie studios are trying to bring into the theaters.

With so few people going to see films nominated for Oscars, the Oscars telecast seemed more boring than usual. If there was one theme to the show, it was nostalgia. From the presence of nine-time host Billy Crystal, to frequent reminders that this was the 84th Oscar presentation, to the domination in awards by a silent film, this was one long look back—which came off as a bit desperate at times.

The Washington Post‘s Hank Stuever wondered whether there as “ever been a year where you felt less inclined to make sure you’d seen every best picture nominee,” and wrote that it was “as if the industry was performing CPR on a business model that is vanishing before everyone’s eyes.”

TIME’s James Poniewozik noted that “the emphasis on the past felt a little sad.” It was as if the folks in the movie business were begging:

“Remember when you used to love the movies? Please love us again!”

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The Wall Street Journal summed up the evening as “an extended pitch for the continued relevance of the movies.” In a note about the show, the Oscar’s producers acknowledged that consumers today have more entertainment options than ever, implicitly giving an excuse as to why fewer and fewer are going to the movies:

“In a world with seven billion people, separated by geography and culture, and becoming even more isolated by the very technology that was designed to connect us, movies and what they represent transcend borders,” they wrote. “It is that experience that we celebrate tonight.”

If there’s a silver lining to all of this, it’s that, notwithstanding the poor box office performance of the year’s Oscar films, 2012 has gotten off to quite a good start in terms of ticket sales. The Navy SEALS movie “Act of Valor” earned top place at the box office last weekend, followed by “Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” “Safe House,” and “The Vow.”

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All five of these movies have one thing in common: They have no prayer whatsoever of being in the running for Oscars next year. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.