Last Friday, Lionsgate released the first installment in “The Hunger Games” trilogy to an extremely impressive box office response of a $152 million opening weekend, with a mixed but overall positive critical response and enthusiastic fanfare. What does this mean? Well, it means a lot in terms of longevity at theaters, expectations for the Young Adult fantasy genre and more importantly, the cinematic conversation. This gigantic opening cannot be ignored. Love it or hate it, “The Hunger Games” is a pop culture phenomenon feeding the current social and political zeitgeist.
This led me to thinking about the actual quality of the film as it reflects on popularity and box office. Yes, “The Hunger Games” has its problems, but I think overall it works. Even though there are ten months until the actual Academy Award nominations are announced, “The Hunger Games” has a very good chance of getting nominated for Best Picture and is the first film of 2012 that is part of that conversation.
In an era when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences now allows anywhere from five to ten Best Picture nominations, the odds are looking pretty good for “The Hunger Games” to fill one of those slots. Let’s assume ten movies become nominated for the 85th Academy Awards; movies like “The Hunger Games” are a big reason why the Academy decided to open the nominations to this larger number. Simply put, the Academy wants to have more populous entries in the race, i.e. “blockbusters.” The popular belief of why the nominations went from five to ten was due to the glaring snub of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” which many felt should have been in the running. Since the Academy opened up the number of nominations, movies like “The Blindside,” “District 9,” “Up,” “Toy Story 3″ and “Inception” can now add the words “Oscar Nominated For Best Picture” to their home entertainment releases. “The Hunger Games” fits this prototype of the Best Picture blockbuster.
As a level of pure TV ratings, “The Hunger Games” grossing $152 million on its opening weekend could translate into a high rating viewership for the Academy Award ceremony itself. Year in and year out, it seems like the ratings for the Oscar telecast depends on how popular the movies nominated for Best Picture are. The more popular the movie, the more people watch the ceremony, which equals higher ratings. In the past five years, the Oscar telecast that saw the highest ratings was the 82nd Academy Awards. If you remember 2009, the highest grossing movie of the year (and of all-time) was James Cameron’s “Avatar,” and the telecast itself brought in 41.62 million viewers worldwide. In contrast, the least watched ceremony in this time frame was the 80th Academy Awards at 31.76 million viewers worldwide. The movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture for 2007 was Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country For Old Men,” a movie that grossed $74.2 million domestically. If we were looking at pure numbers, box office vs. TV ratings for the Oscar Telecast, then the Academy of Arts and Sciences would be smart to nominate “The Hunger Games” for Best Picture.
Looking at the critical response of “The Hunger Games” to the nominations of last year gives a better case for a Best Picture Oscar nomination. A suspect nomination for Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” polarized many moviegoers as a film not worthy or good enough to be nominated for Best Picture. But the fact of the matter is it was nominated, despite a RottenTomatoes.com score of 47% “rotten” rating, a 46 (out of 100) score on MetaCritic.com. In contrast, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” received an “A-” CinemaScore rating. If we look at “The Hunger Games” critical rating, currently it has an 85% “fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.com, a 67 (out of 100) on MetaCritic.com and a CinemaScore of an “A.” Compare the critical response of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” to “The Hunger Games” and it seems evident that critics and general audiences prefer “The Hunger Games” more.
There’s a sense of past Oscar pedigree with “The Hunger Games” as well. Just look at the all-star cast that plays like Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11″ for Young Adult fantasy franchises (sorry Harry Potter). Going down the list: there’s Oscar nominated Woody Harrelson (Best Supporting Actor for “The Messenger”) as Haymitch Abernathy; Stanley Tucci (Best Supporting Actor for “The Lovely Bones”) as Caesar Flickerman; and of course, the lead of “The Hunger Games” Jennifer Lawrence (Best Actress for “Winter’s Bone”) as Katniss Everdeen. Their performances in “The Hunger Games” give the film the charm and screen presence it needs to resonate with both general audiences and Academy voters.
Specifically, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is the key to the film’s success. Her presence on screen is simply alluring. She has this certain command of the screen and her surroundings. Lawrence is truly a unique talent, and it is interesting seeing her make the transition from indie filmmaking in “Winter’s Bone” to big Hollywood filmmaking in “The Hunger Games.” Even from last year’s “X-Men: First Class,” it was plain to see that Jennifer Lawrence is an actress we should keep our eyes on. Her dynamic adds a layer to “The Hunger Games” overall. It feels like no matter what you think of the end product, you still have to hand it to Jennifer Lawrence for a fantastic performance.
Director Gary Ross also comes from that ilk of Academy Award pedigree. His previous film, “Seabiscuit” was nominated for a handful of Academy Awards in 2003, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Costume Design and Best Picture. Ross’ film before “Seabiscuit,” 1998′s “Pleasantville,” also had a handful of nominations. In many ways, “The Hunger Games” shares the same art direction and costume quality as “Seabiscuit,” and it also has that same social and political satire as “Pleasantville.” It’s not really out of the realm of possibilities that “The Hunger Games” will be nominated for Best Picture. Gary Ross has been to the party before and more importantly, he knows how to get there.
“The Hunger Games” could’ve easily been a disaster both in quality and at the box office. While not a perfect film, I feel it has great entertainment value that may garner a number of nominations come awards season. But there’s no telling if “The Hunger Games” will have the kind of staying power to keep within the conversation for a solid year. The film will remain in theaters for at least two months, then it won’t hit home entertainment until six months later, so roughly around November 2012- unless Lionsgate really wants to extend it to a Holiday Blu-ray/DVD release to perhaps make more money. Hey! That’s around awards season. When January 2013 rolls around and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announce their Oscar nominations, it wouldn’t be so unbelievable to hear the presenters say, “may the odds be ever in your favor,” before the announcement. Didn’t Jennifer Lawrence announce the nominations a few months ago? Maybe in 2013, Elizabeth Banks can participate in the Oscar announcement.