By Sean Gardner
Now that the loud explosions of the summer blockbusters have become mere echoes in the the distance, Hollywood is set to roll out the next batch of Oscar contenders. Between now and New Years, there will be a mad dash of films vying for a spot in the Academy Award nominations, announced in January. But, do the Oscars matter? Are they even relevant anymore? I would not say they are completely irrelevant… yet. But, they are in danger of becoming so.
There are a few things that make me question the importance of Hollywood’s “most prestigious award.” First, the television broadcast where they announce the winners is excruciatingly boring. It is often hosted by unfunny comedians telling unfunny jokes. There are long gaps in between the major awards, with too much time spent on “side activities,” making the broadcast drag on unnecessarily. Does anyone really tune in to the the Oscars to watch Ellen take selfies and hand out pizza? Or to watch every single Best Original Song be performed in its entirety? I don’t think so. The broadcast is too long and too boring to draw anyone in but the dedicated movie buffs.
The second and more important reason the Oscars are in danger of becoming insignificant has to do with what films actually get nominated. The Academy has a habit of nominating films the vast majority of moviegoers have never even heard of, let alone seen. The last time the Best Picture winner was also the year’s number one box office earner, was 2003’s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. It has also only happens three times since 1980: Titanic in 1997, Forrest Gump in 1994, and Rain Man in 1988.
This discrepancy between award winners and blockbusters was no more apparent than in 2008. The Academy, at the time, only allowed five films to be nominated for Best Picture. In 2008 they nominated Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader, Milk, and the winner Slumdog Millionaire. The average box office gross of these movies was about $70 million. All of these films were virtually unknown then and are beyond forgotten now.
All the while, another film released in 2008 made $500 million in North America alone, reached a critic rating of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, received eight other Oscar nominations, but for some reason, was snubbed in the Best Picture category. That film is The Dark Knight. Since 2008, it had proven to be more than just a Batman movie. It is a seminal moment in the history of filmmaking. It is more cinematically influential, more culturally relevant, and more discussed among movie buffs and casual fans alike than any of the other five aforementioned nominees. Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece had more total Oscar nominations than two of the Best Picture nominees and made more money than all of them combined. The fact that it was not nominated for Best Picture highlights the extreme disconnect the Academy has with the regular people who keep their business booming.
Since 2008, however, the Academy has attempted to close the gap between the Southern California aristocracy and us common folk. The very next year, in 2009, they increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to a possible 10. Theoretically, this allows films like The Dark Knight, Avatar, Toy Story 3, and Mad Max: Fury Road to be nominated when, historically, those types of films would have been left out. But those examples are too few and far between. The vast majority of nominees have been the same obscure “festival darlings” the Academy has always nominated.
Furthermore, the Academy has flirted with the idea of adding a Best Popular Picture category. Unfortunately, this reeks of an attempt to have their cake and eat it too. The Academy gets to keep nominating the artsy-fartsy stuff for Best Picture, but now the blockbusters get some recognition too. No conflict, everyone’s happy, right? Not so much.
Having a separate category for popular films presents it’s own set of issues. It cheapens the winners of both categories. A film is either not popular enough, or not “artsy” enough. It also raises some questions. Is a well made film ineligible for Best Picture because it’s too popular? What would even determine a film’s popularity? Box office and ticket sales? Audience opinion rather than critic opinion? Could a film potentially win both awards? If so, then what is the point of the separate category? There are just too many ways where this could go wrong.
Now, I do not know the complex inner workings of the Academy and how they decide what changes they need to make. However, I will nonetheless make a few suggestions. If they want to draw more “middle of the road” moviegoers into their broadcast, they need to nominate movies that those people actually see that are also skillfully crafted. The world of movies is not divided into “well made” movies and “popular” movies. The crossover section of that Venn diagram is larger than the Academy wants to admit. Nominating films like Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Creed, Harry Potter, or any other franchise film for Best Picture is the best way to boost the ratings of the broadcast and to become more relevant to people other than the Hollywood elite.
Additionally, if the Academy is dead set on adding categories, then they should add Best Stunts instead of Best Popular Picture. Popular, blockbuster movies are almost always filled with large action set pieces displaying the talents of all kinds of stunt people. Having a Best Stunts category gives the Academy a legitimate way to honor “popular” films. It is also a way to recognize an under appreciated group of filmmakers who often quite literally risk their lives for our entertainment.
If the Academy wants to stay relevant, they need to make some changes. I think they know that, which is why they have tried to adjust things here and there. Tried, but ultimately failed thus far. This saddens me as a film lover. I want the Oscars to stay relevant and prestigious. Having these awards may seem self-congratulatory, but they create a bridge to a rich history of filmmaking. Let’s hope the Academy makes the necessary adjustments to keep that bridge from crumbling into a river of irrelevancy.