What’s Wrong With Being Popular? – The Motion Picture Academy’s Problem with Recognizing Popular Movies

It’s been a consistent struggle ever since the dawning of the film industry.  No matter what era we live in, you will see a broad disconnect between the kinds of movies that general audiences like, what professional critics like, and what people in the industry like.  And for the most part, these differences are inconsequential and really just come down to a difference in personal taste.  But, Hollywood is also an industry that rewards itself every year, and wishes to either rank or crown certain movies as more honorable than the rest.  And it’s only then that these rifts in personal taste extend into more heated arguments.  Beginning in 1927, the Beverly Hills based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began the tradition of honoring the top achievements within their industry each year, creating one of the most coveted awards in the world in the process; the Oscar.  Though it started humbly enough as a banquet at the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, the Academy Awards have since evolved into the biggest prize within the industry, as well as the focus of much of the studios’ efforts and resources.  Oscar campaigning has become an industry within itself, and has only grown to have more influence over both how the industry operates, but also with how the movie-going public responds to all of it.  Movie critics suddenly have more sway now because their consensus over the quality of each new film gives the industry a better sense of what is worthy of nominating and which films will better find an audience.  But there is one problem with that; critics are audience members too, and not one unanimous voice, and some of their personal tastes often clash with what the average audiences want to enjoy, and what the industry itself wants the public to enjoy.

One thing that has become abundantly clear in recent years is that the industry has become less concerned with overall box office when it comes to selecting the best films of the year, and for the most part, the big winners at each year’s Oscars are small, independent dramas that most often earned their way up to the podium due to critical approval.  In general, most of the movies that do win Best Picture at the Oscars, as well as many of the other top accolades, are often deserving of the honor.  But, too often now, they are films that become quickly forgotten as the industry itself moves in different directions.  Can many of you out there say off the top of your head which movie won Best Picture five years ago?  If you’re someone like me who watches the industry closely each year, you probably can, but the average moviegoer likely does not nor do they care (the answer was 2013’s 12 Years a Slave by the way).  In the end, most audiences go to the movies to be entertained, and not to witness a future awards winner.  And more than likely, what ends up being entertaining might not be awards quality material.  Look at some of the biggest franchises in recent years like Fast and the FuriousTransformers, and Jurassic World; all international juggernauts that are perfectly capable of grossing a billion worldwide easily, and yet if you asked for critical opinion on each, you’ll get nothing but disdain.  Despite what ends up being good for the industry’s bottom line, these critically panned franchises can easily be dismissed by the Academy, but then comes the problem when a studio movie is a box office hit, and is a critical darling.  At this point, the Academy is forced into the awkward position of rethinking their brand, which they have so intently cultivated around the aura of prestige.  It raises the question to them whether or not something commercial should be in contention with lesser seen films that may benefit more from what is commonly called the “Oscar boost.”

In order to not be seen as giving an unfair advantage to big studios over smaller production companies, the Academy has largely chosen to distance itself from the commercial side of Hollywood and focus on the more prestiege side of the industry, which is their perogative to do so.  But, the Academy is also faced with the unfortunate aspect that their choice to reward smaller, lesser seen films has resulted in a smaller audience for their own televised broadcast.  The ratings for this year’s Oscars telecast was the lowest of this decade, and this has put the Academy into a position of reevaluating their strategy as an institution.  The Academy has made several smart choices in recent years, like expanding their membership to include more diverse representation both in age and cultural make-up.  But, the lower ratings have also forced the academy to face the reality of popular entertainment being deserving of their top honors and this has led them to making some not so wise choices.  Just this week, the Academy announced that they were making big sweeping changes to their future Oscar ceremonies.  The first change was that below the line categories were no longer going to be televised, and were instead going to be handed out during the commercial breaks and announced later in the show in an edited compilation, all in an effort to reduce the show to a quick 3 hour run-time.  Below the line film industry professionals rightly called foul, as they saw this as a move to focus more on the celebrities being honored rather than the hard working behind the scenes people who never usually get the same spotlight.  The other controversial move was to announce a new category for Best Popular Film, which the Academy sees as a way of recognizing movies that they often ignore, as a means of bringing back the movie going public who will be more familiar with the movies in this category.  Again, this new category was immediately scrutinized for it’s lack of clarity and it’s in many ways dubious dismissal of popular movies in general.

The Motion Picture Academy has had to face the unfortunate reality in recent years that they are slow to evolve with the rest of the industry.  While it is noble to shine the spotlight on movies that often go unseen by honoring it with a prestigious award, the Academy has done so by stacking the odds more in the favor of what they deem worthy rather than what is more deserving.  A large part of the Academy’s problems has been an aging roster of voters, whose personal tastes have tended to clash more often with the average movie going public, which to their credit, the Academy has made strides towards changing.  But, even still, for a commercially popular film to break through and appeal to the Academy’s higher tastes, it has had to be so good that it couldn’t be ignored.  This has managed to happen before, with box office behemoths like Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) winning Best Picture in their respective years, but it often rarely happens.  Sometimes the Academy’s stringent adherence to prestige has resulted in a backlash, as was the case when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) was denied a nomination for both Best Picture and Best Director for it’s year, categories that it might have had a solid chance of competing in.   But, because it was both a Super Hero film and a sequel, it didn’t fit within the Academy’s typical mold, and was left out; though Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker couldn’t be ignored, and was honored with an Oscar.  Audiences expressed their displeasure at the exclusion of the Dark Knight and that added pressure did lead the towards changing their rules, extending the Best Picture race from a field of five nominees to a maximum of ten; ensuring that blockbusters like Dark Knight would have a better shot in the future.  But even despite this capitulation, the Academy still has struggled with having an answer for addressing this popularity problem that is driving down their television ratings and plaguing their relevancy within the industry.

One thing that I see is that the issue is not with too few nominations being made available, but perhaps there being too many awards.  One thing that the Academy has done over the years is create specialized categories that doesn’t particularly honor a specialized trade within the industry, but rather honors a specific type of movie.  These categories spotlight films that fall under the classification of Foreign, Documentary, and Animated.  As is often the case, some of the best movies of the year often are representative of these three categories, and in many ways are deserving of being labeled the Best Picture of the year.  And yet, these categories at the Academy Awards end up being the only place that these movies are recognized in.  Only rarely do we see a film from any of these categories rise above and earn a Best Picture nomination; in fact, within the entire history of the Academy Awards, not one documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture.  For a lack of a better term, these categories have become “ghettos” within the Oscars, as a way of honoring a specific movie while also keeping it out of contention for the top award so that the more typical films get a better shot.  And with a new “Popular” category, the Academy is again creating a sub category to “honor” movies that otherwise it would completely ignore while at the same time stacking the odds better in favor of the prestige flick.  It’s quickly been described as a millennial’s “participation” award, to show that they are spreading the wealth around by giving even popular movies an award.  But spreading the wealth would only apply if each award held the same value, which they don’t.  While each film that wins in the Foreign, Animation, and Documentary categories are usually deserving of the honor, they absolutely should also be contenders for Best Picture as well, and their often sure bet wins in these categories often makes the Academy believe that they’ve given them enough already.  Doing this with a category specifically meant for “Popular” movies would only make the disconnect between the Academy and the movie-going public even greater than it already is.

The term “popular” is also too broad, and can be used to lump all sorts of different types of movies into one category, mainly if they don’t fall under the guise of a prestige flick.  Which leads to another problem with the Academy’s disconnect with popularity, which is their very specific idea of what makes a film fall into the category of “prestige.”  A prestigious film is often a finely crafted drama, often historical, focused very intently on the quality of it’s own writing and performance, and most often has a statement to make; political or otherwise.  These movies often have been dubbed “Oscar Bait,” and far too often you’ll find Hollywood easily taking the bait every year, no matter how manipulative it may be.  There are those years where an outsider voice does pierce through and receives the Oscar recognition without resorting to baiting the Academy, but more often the case will be that in order to get that coveted Award, you’ll have to compromise your vision and appeal to the Academy’s very narrow tastes.  That’s why Steven Spielberg has had better luck at the Oscars with movies like Schindler’s List (1993) instead of with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), because one is a historical drama and the others are seen as “popcorn” genre flicks.  Spielberg certainly deserved his win for Schindler’s List, but his style of film-making had to change dramatically from what we were used to seeing from him before in order for him to win the award.  And he’s not the only filmmaker whose had to change in order to play the Academy’s game.  Historical epic Titanic was a wild departure for director James Cameron, who had cut his teeth with action flicks like The Terminator (1984).  The David Fincher who directed with flashy style with Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999) was easily dismissed by the Academy for years, but the more subdued approach he gave to movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Social Network (2010) brought him into their good graces.  There are also the countless times where comedic actors try to go serious in order to get their recognition (Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Steve Carell in Foxcatcher).  While none of these moves translates into sub-par work, it still shows that artists are less free to make the movies they want to do and still get the Academy’s seal of approval.  And thus that line between popular entertainment and prestigious entertainment becomes more apparent.

Even though I’m piling onto the already notorious reputation of an already disgraced man, but this is yet another way that I feel mega-producer Harvey Weinstein has ruined the film industry.  On top of all his sexual misdeeds, Weinstein was also a bully when it came to campaigning for the industry’s top honors.  His aggressive campaigning on behalf of the movies from his Miramax and Weinsetin Company labels often crossed into borderline illegal territory.  The Academy has even had to combat his influence over their voters by changing many of their rules regarding awards campaigns.  This was especially the case after the surprise upset where his period dramedy Shakespeare in Love (1998) won over the heavily favored Saving Private Ryan (1998) that year.  It was later revealed that many of the voters were swayed by the aggressive marketing push that Weinstein had orchestrated, and not by the fact that they liked it more than Private Ryan.  But even despite the Academy’s attempts to make the field fairer for all nominees, Weinstein’s influence never the less took hold; most effectively so in redefining the idea of the prestige film.  You look at the difference between awards winners before Weinstein came to prominence and those after; particularly in the 90’s.  In that decade, there was a fair mix of popular blockbusters winning Best Picture (The Silence of the Lambs in ’91, Forrest Gump in ’94, and of course Titanic in ’97) alongside smaller films (Unforgiven in ’92, The English Patient in ’96).  But since the turn of the millennium, it’s been prestige ever since, with Shakespeare in Love’s upset marking that turning point.  Weinstein’s goal was to not so much help prestigious movies have a better shot at the Oscars, but to make his own style of prestigious Oscar bait the ideal for Academy voters, and sadly far too many bought into that.  Not all of them were bad or undeserving, but too often these types of movies pushed out more deserving flicks; like when Weinstein’s The Reader (2008) took the slot that should have belonged to The Dark Knight.  Though Weinstein has gratefully been exposed as a monster, and has been shut out of the Hollywood altogether, his legacy continues and the Academy’s latest move feels like a holdover from an era that made it easier for people like him to win over others.

The Academy has to wake up and realize that the answer to making their broadcasts more popular with audiences is to not create a separate category for just “popular” films, but rather embrace the idea that popular movies can be prestigious too.   One thing they should do is to change their notions of what constitutes prestige and what doesn’t, as the Weinstein influence has clearly made that term too specific to be fair to all.  If you look at the industry as a whole, you can see that movies that have lasting power in our culture tend to come from a more commercial beginning and that as often is the case become the ones that influence the next generation of filmmakers and film-goers the most.  Just because a movie is “popular” doesn’t make it not important.  You look at this year in particular, where the most socially groundbreaking film to be released in theaters was not a indie drama, but instead was a Super Hero movie from Marvel Studios; the blockbuster phenomenon Black Panther (2018).  Black Panther hit the culture with such an impact early this year, appealing to an often overlooked demographic that has felt underrepresented by Hollywood and even brought timely issues of social justice and racial inequality to American cinemas in a bigger way than most independent dramas could ever do.  It’s that kind of impact that the Academy would be foolish to ignore when the next round of Oscar voting starts, but by creating this Popular Film Oscar that it is mostly likely going to be a shoe-in for, the Academy will mistakenly believe that they’ve given it just enough.  It’s these movies that make a difference in society, and if the Academy wants to be seen as being in touch with the culture today, they shouldn’t try to marginalize a movie like Black Panther into a “separate, but equal” category.  Popular and prestige are not exclusive, they can be the same thing.  Think about previous years where the Academy got it wrong; we forget about American Beauty from 1999, but we still remember The Matrix, Fight Club, and The Iron Giant from that same year, because of their cultural impacts.  The Academy’s move to boost diversity in membership is a good start, and has shown itself in a more open attitude towards genre flicks lately, with The Shape of Water (2017) becoming the first Sci-Fi Best Picture winner in history.  But the “Popular” Oscar would be a foolish step backward that I hope doesn’t become a new tradition for the Awards, because it’s exactly the kind of “behind closed doors” move that closed off the organization from the regular movie audience in the first place, and put them in the current state of irrelevancy that they now find themselves in.

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