It’s true that the Oscars used to go to more popular movies, but what’s changed isn’t the kinds of movies the Academy nominates so much as the movies people are going to see. Take The Godfather and The Sting, which Joe Scarborough cites as examples of the good ol’ populist days. The Godfather took in $133 million in 1972, more than $788 million in 2018 dollars, and The Sting did even better the following year, earning the present-day equivalent of $870 million, which would have crushed The Last Jedi’s best-of-2017 $619 million. Granted, that’s like measuring a contemporary TV show against the MASH finale ratings or a newly released record to Thriller’s album sales—those days of monocultural domination are gone, and we will not see their like again. But even movies like 1984’s Amadeus, about the life of Mozart, and 1980’s Ordinary People, about psychotherapy and Judd Hirsch’s cardigans, were top 20 box office hits of a kind almost unthinkable today. Work your way down the list of 2017’s box-office champs and you’ll get to 24th place’s Wonder before you find anything like their equivalent. Even The Post, a classically rousing Hollywood tale starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, barely made it into the top 40.
There’s some indication that the Oscars’ ratings rise and fall with the popularity of the nominees, but the fact that the broadcast’s ratings are down this year is, as Josef Adalian points out at Vulture, a reflection of the fact that “ratings for almost everything on TV are down these days.”