Saturday 12 January 2019

Popularity Contest: Should The Oscars Honour Blockbusters?

The Oscars used to shower popular films with the praise they deserved. But this has petered out in recent times, and I think it's high time we bring it back.

Last year's acting winners; Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand,
Allison Janney and Gary Oldman.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – or The Academy for short – is suffering something of an identity crisis. Torn asunder by competing ideals – not to mention a whole heap of controversy for good measure – the revered Academy has endured an annus horribilis over the last 12 months. But leaving aside its ongoing issues with finding (and holding onto) a host for its annual Oscars ceremony this coming March, it's a deeper and more fundamental issue that continues to plague the Academy.

The Oscars are dying a slow death. Viewership is in freefall. In 2018, when Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water was crowned Best Picture, an average of only 26.5 million people in the United States tuned in to the live telecast on ABC, a drop of 20 per cent on the year prior. This downward trend has been gaining momentum in recent years, with a range of factors at play, from a lack of digital and streaming options to the length of the broadcast and the gradual decline of free-to-air TV in general.

But above all, the factor that people cite most, is the films nominated. When films with a smaller profile are nominated, the viewership (and general interest in awards season as a whole) tends to be smaller – or at least, that's the pervading opinion. 

The last bonafide blockbuster to win Best Picture:
The Lord of the Rings: The Return
of the King
Last year, only two of the nine films nominated for Best Picture collected more than $200 million globally (Get Out and Dunkirk). The rest ranged somewhere between $41.9 million (Call Me By Your Name) and $179.8 million (The Post). None of the Best Picture nominees cracked the top 10 highest-grossing films of the year; in fact, only two Best Picture nominees since 2010 have featured in the top 10 in their respective years (The Martian and Gravity). The last Best Picture nominee to earn over $1 billion was way back in 2010 with Toy Story 3. The last Best Picture winner (not just nominee) to earn over $200 million domestically and $1 billion globally was way back in 2003 (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). That's 16 years ago.

Essentially, as a filmmaker, you can pick one of two options; box-office smash hit or Best Picture winner. Rarely both. You can't be both the popular kid at school and the one that gets all the academic awards.

Which is why I find it interesting that so many of this year's leading Oscar contenders are 'popular' films. Black Panther, which finished second overall in the list of highest grossing films for 2018, is a genuine Best Picture contender. Bohemian Rhapsody, eighth on the list, just won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and is another hot favourite for a Best Picture nomination. A Star Is Born, another film being showered with awards, has collected nearly $400 million globally. Crazy Rich Asians took the world by storm last August, and word of mouth has carried it to the cusp of a Best Picture nomination. A Quiet Place and Mary Poppins Returns are two other blockbusters getting buzz this awards season. 

Bohemian Rhapsody, Crazy Rich Asians and Mary Poppins Returns; three mainstream films that have
factored into this year's awards season to some degree. Could one of them win something at the Oscars?

Is this the year that the Academy pivots towards honouring more popular fare? Or is it simply pandering to the masses in the hope they'll tune into the telecast? I've seen a lot of cynical people claiming it's the latter. But maybe they just need a lesson in history.

A Best Picture winner that took the world by storm: 1976's Rocky.
Plenty of previous Best Picture winners have been popular with mainstream audiences; look at the likes of Titanic, Forrest Gump, Rocky, The Sound of Music, Ben-Hur and Gone With The Wind. All six won Best Picture and made a heap of cash in the process. 

Other Best Picture nominees include the likes of Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., Ghost, Beauty and the Beast, The Fugitive, Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan and Avatar. So what's the problem with mainstream films continuing to win or be nominated for the biggest prize of them all? 

Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians were landmark films for representation. Avengers: Infinity War was the culmination of long-form storytelling hitherto unseen before in Hollywood. The stuntwork and craftsmanship in Mission Impossible: Fallout is second to none. Who's to say that shouldn't be honoured instead of Green Book, The Favourite or Roma, all of which have a much smaller audience. I'd rather see Avengers win over another stuffy period drama like The King's Speech.

Is Avengers: Infinity War being overlooked during awards season?

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight won
Best Picture in 2017.
Recent Best Picture winners – The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Spotlight, Birdman, The Artist – were all great films (or at least 'good'). All deserved to win. But they're also, to varying degrees, niche. Arty. Weird. Heavy. If the Academy wants its audience to come back, it needs to widen the net. Cater to all tastes. Acknowledge the films that actually get bums on seats, same as they have done in the past. And not just with a special category for popular films, but by continuing to honour them in the biggest category of the night.

Maybe the answer (or problem) lies with people like me. Cinephiles. Film fanatics. Snobs, for want of a better word. People who turn their nose up at the idea of anything featuring a cape, a laser sword or a car chase featuring in the Best Picture race. 

The sad fact is, there are dozens of films that came out in 2018 that deserve our love, praise and attention. Not all of them will be nominated; only one will go onto win. Just because a film has captured the imagination of the masses, doesn't mean it shouldn't be allowed to woo the Academy also. The night should be open to all films, big or small. It shouldn't be about pitting films against one another; it should be about celebrating achievements in filmmaking at every level and budget. Maybe then, people will start to tune in again.

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