It’s finally over. We mean both the Oscar telecast, which ran as long as Gone With the Wind (though with fewer important roles for African Americans), and the three-month death march of critics’ citations, guild awards and expert speculation on who’d win. In case you nodded off, Birdman took Best Picture and Director, and the acting prizes went to Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore for Still Alice, J.K. Simmons for Whiplash and Patricia Arquette for Boyhood–four folks whom most people know from the speeches they gave, not the movies they were in.
This year’s Oscar show, which attracted 37.3 million total viewers, was the highest-rated entertainment program (nonfootball) since last year’s. But it’s also the least watched Oscars since 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture and the year’s most popular film, The Dark Knight, was not even nominated for the top prize. The solons of the Motion Picture Academy took quick, bold action, expanding the Best Picture slot from five nominees to a possible 10, hoping to allow for the inclusion of a few megahits as serious contenders, if not ultimately winners. The following year, when Avatar, the century’s biggest smash, duked it out with The Hurt Locker, viewership rose by 5 million.
This year, the only big hit among the eight Best Picture finalists was American Sniper. The other seven were art-house films–exemplary, to be sure–that mimicked the low-budget Independent Spirit Awards. (Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris called Sunday night’s slate “the Dependent Spirit Awards.”) You see, there is Hollywood, which makes movies the whole world watches, and there is off-Hollywood, which hatches the films that get Oscars. Somebody has to ask: Why does Hollywood hate what it does for a living?
It can’t be as simple as “films” are great and “movies” are dreck. On the Rotten Tomatoes website, which tabulates the reviews of dozens of critics, Birdman pulled a 93 rating (out of 100) and The Imitation Game an 89. But some popular hits also scored with the critics: 91 for Guardians of the Galaxy, 89 for its Marvel sibling Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 88 for Gone Girl and a stratospheric 96 for The Lego Movie. Audiences liked these four films too, paying more than $1 billion to see them in North American theaters (plus another $1.3 billion abroad).
So why weren’t at least a couple of these films nominated for Best Picture? Maybe simply because they were popular. They got their awards as cash prizes, not statuettes. The Oscar winners have become a niche category of little films about big diseases. Another disconnect between Oscar voters and moviegoers: age. The average age of the 6,700 Academy members is about 60, and they see most of the nominated films on screeners at home, like your parents with Netflix. Basically, they want movies to be television: edifying, intimate dramas. The stories they respond to are not of youngsters on grand quests–the action-film template–but of unsung heroes battling infirmities and encroaching death.
Hence the Oscars to Redmayne and Moore. The actor played by Keaton in Birdman and the teacher played by Simmons are failed artists, both of Academy-voter median age, who take out their career frustrations on their colleagues and students. That’s a powerful narrative, but it’s just one of dozens that can inspire terrific films worthy of Oscar attention.
The very first Oscar party, in 1929, had two Best Picture categories: one for “outstanding picture” (William Wellman’s aerial spectacle Wings), the other for “unique and artistic picture” (F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise). Maybe the Academy, obsessed with indie artistry, should return to the double award. Then Avatar could win along with The Hurt Locker, and Gravity with 12 Years a Slave. Next year, even the new Star Wars might have a shot.
This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.