Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proposed the idea of introducing a new Academy Award category, Best Popular Film – an award that would honor the blockbuster films that are perceived as being relatively neglected by the Oscars. This is emblematic of the increasingly neurotic organization that has been desperately trying to win back viewers, which the awards telecast has been steadily hemorrhaging since the early 2000s. It’s easy to see their concern, with the advent of streaming apps that lessen the urgency of live television, a massive increase in the sheer number of options for viewers, and, in the case of the Oscars, social media that allows potential viewers to follow along with the results online without committing themselves to a 3+ hour telecast. Yet somehow, the Academy remains convinced that there is some magic fix that will increase viewership.
So their natural impulse is to tweak the formula. This is nothing particularly new for the Oscars: they’ve been attempting to optimize for the past ninety years, with mixed results. But the Best Popular Film maneuver prompted an immediate backlash. The Academy quickly reversed course and abandoned the concept. Yet the impulse remains an intriguing shadow hanging over the Oscars. The Academy has long fought against the public perception that they are elitist and out of touch with the average moviegoer, awarding dry, obscure arthouse films that critics love but most audiences have never even heard of. There’s a sense that the gap between the Academy and the American filmgoer has grown so wide that they are no longer relevant to one another. The “ivory castle” argument is one of the most common and enduring criticisms of the Academy. But is there actually merit to it?
In fact, throughout much of Oscar history, there’s been a remarkably healthy balance between films that appealed to critics and major box office hits. If we’re looking at box office returns as a metric by which we can judge popularity (and focusing on domestic box office numbers rather than worldwide as more relevant to the Academy Awards), there’s clear evidence that blockbuster films have always been featured significantly at the Oscars.
Since the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1929, 36% of all Best Picture nominees have been among the top ten highest grossing films of their respective year. Out of the 91 Best Picture winners that have been crowned thus far, 57 have been in the top ten at the box office, and on 21 occasions the number one highest-grossing film of the year was also the Best Picture winner. (The last time this feat was accomplished was in 2003, when The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King took home the top prize.) Eighty awards ceremonies have seen at least one top ten box office hit amongst the Best Picture nominees. Given all this, is it fair to suggest that the Academy Awards have an inherent bias against “popular” films?
Before we make a final assessment, it’s important to acknowledge the changing landscape of the film industry over the past twenty years, and while old data is useful, a closer look at the most recent decade may paint a clearer picture. What’s immediately obvious is that in the age of an all-powerful Disney behemoth, looking at the top end of the highest grossing films of each year is a much less useful metric to judge popularity. Every year shows the same pattern: a small but wildly successful group of movies that, through the manipulation of cinema conditions, are able to easily eclipse all other non-franchise films. They are able to command access to greater numbers of screens across America, and tap into global markets that aren’t realistic for the average movie that’s not a superhero film or family-friendly cartoon. What we can see, looking at the box office returns over the past decade, is that the traditional dramas and comedies that used to make up a much larger share of the cinema landscape are not necessarily making less money than they had in the past. In fact, what we’re seeing are franchise films gaming the system and reaping benefits at the box office, with dozens of showings each day at most theaters, playing in more expensive formats, and often adding a scene or two to the film and re-releasing it months down the line.
If we look at just the past ten years of Best Picture nominees, there is a decrease in the number of films that reach the threshold of the top ten highest grossing films in their year — 2012, 2013, 2017, and 2018 have no films that fall into that category. But still, when we look at the actual numbers, 36% of nominated films earned at least $100,000,000 at the domestic box office, which can safely be considered commercial success for all but the most expensive of films.
And if we’re taking into account accessibility for the average moviegoer, or the likelihood that a nominated film would be playing at a local theater based on the number of screens nationwide, there are also reasons to be convinced that popular films aren’t underrepresented. Only five nominated films this decade have received a limited release (which Box Office Mojo defines as under 600 screens), and three more were shown in theaters for a short time in conjunction with a wider Netflix release. Twenty-six nominated films in the 2010s went into “saturated release” (over 3000 screens), which makes it incredibly likely that they would be playing in every chain theater around the country.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that the vast majority of films released fall somewhere in the gap between Marvel and Malick, the juggernaut franchise playing on 4000 screens and the arthouse auteur playing in 400. And while the Academy occasionally chooses to honor both extremes, it is disingenuous to suggest that because the Oscars generally focus on the films that exist in the middle, they are ignoring the ones at the top of the food chain that already receive a great deal of attention without the prestige of an Academy Award.
There is one final point worth considering, and it is a doozy for those thoroughly entrenched in Oscar criticism: does it really matter? Are the Oscars around to reward popular films that make a lot of money and everyone has already seen, or are they meant to champion the best that cinema has to offer? This may be foolishly optimistic, but it seems their greatest value comes from two places: introducing audiences to films of quality they might not have otherwise sought out, and giving filmmakers a platform that allows them to create more art in the future. Film fans can go around in circles over whether the “right kind” of movies are being nominated, and the Academy can tear their hair out deciding if adding a billion dollar hit to their Best Picture line-up will net them a few extra viewers. If they’re still accomplishing those two objectives, the Academy Awards can stick around for a while.