Dave Berri posted the following at the Freakonomics blog:
The “best” picture of 2012 was Argo. At least that’s the film that won the Oscar for best picture. According to the Oscars, the decision to give this award to Argo was made by the nearly 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. . . . In other words, this choice is made by the “experts.” There is, though, another group that we could have listened to on Sunday night. That group would be the people who actually spend money to go to the movies. . . . According to that group, Marvel’s the Avengers was the “best” picture in 2012. With domestic revenues in excess of $600 million, this filmed earned nearly $200 million more than any other picture. And when we look at world-wide revenues, this film brought in more than $1.5 billion. . . . Despite what seems like a clear endorsement by the customers of this industry, the Avengers was ignored by the Oscars. Perhaps this is just because I am an economist, but this strikes me as odd. Movies are not a product made just for the members the academy. These ventures are primarily made for the general public. And yet, when it comes time to decide which picture is “best,” the opinion of the general public seems to be ignored. Essentially the Oscars are an industry statement to their customers that says: “We don’t think our customers are smart enough to tell us which of our products are good. So we created a ceremony to correct our customers.”
He keeps going along those lines for awhile and concludes:
One would hope the Academy would at least pay a bit more attention to the people paying the bills. Not only does it seem wrong (at least to this economist) to argue that movies many people like are simply not that good, focusing on the box office would seem to make good financial sense for the Oscars as well. A recent Slate article argued that the Oscars’ telecast tends to have higher ratings when more commercially successful films are nominated for best picture. So in the future, maybe voters for the Oscars will pay a bit more attention to their customers. These customers may not be thought of as “movie experts.” But these are the people who pay the bills, and therefore, ultimately it is their opinion that should matter to this industry.
What strikes me about this discussion is the mix of descriptive and normative that seems so characteristic of pop-microeconomics. (I should emphasize here that I’m not using “pop” in any sort of derogatory way. I’m speaking of serious economic writing that is intended for a popular audience.)
1. On one hand, you have the purely descriptive perspective: economist as person-from-Mars, looking at human society objectively, the way a scientist studies cell cultures in a test tube. Consumer sovereignty is what it’s all about, with a slightly offended tone that anyone could think otherwise. Who are you, smartypants, to think you know better than the average ticket-buyer, etc. I’m reminded of the perhaps-apocryphal story of the “some academics” who “conclude that bookmakers simply aren’t very smart.”
2. At the same time, we’re given a moral lesson. The Avengers is the best movie because it made more money. It is “the people who pay the bills” whose “opinion that should matter to this industry.”
The difficulty, of course, is that lesson 2 gets blurred if it is folded into lesson 1.
Berri’s argument is that moviemakers should not be paternalistically ignoring the attitudes of their customers in giving awards. But this argument dissolves if you take one step back and consider moviemakers as independent business operators. In that case, their business decisions (to do the Oscars however they want) should be given as much respect as that of moviegoers to choose which movies to watch.
As far as I’m concerned, the Academy can do whatever they want. What’s interesting to me here is to see how the economist’s explicitly non-normative ideology (his implication that the “best” picture must be the one with most revenue, and that any other criteria would be disrespectful of moviegoers) so quickly becomes normative (that it’s “wrong . . . to argue that movies many people like are simply not that good”). To me, it’s a strange mixture of idealism and cynicism. The man from Mars has become a scold.