In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it was introducing a new Popular Film category at the Oscars. After a media and public outcry, the Academy then decided to withdraw this category, determining it “merits further study”. However, the initial ire directed at the award provokes a curious question: what does the term ‘popular film’ mean? Filmmaker and writer Jon Spira lends his voice to the argument, both in definition and the impact it has on the broader film landscape.
When Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its decision to introduce a Popular Film category, the critical press and social media leapt upon it with rancour, despite the criteria for the award being undefined. The category has since been withdrawn, for the moment, with the Academy’s Board of Governors stating it “continues to be actively engaged in discussions, and will examine and seek additional input regarding this category.”
What’s been most intriguing is the hostility directed towards the word ‘popular’. Why don’t people who care so passionately about film respect popularity at this moment in film history? What does ‘popular’ even mean? Surely any film that wins Best Picture at the Oscars or Best Film at BAFTA’s Film Awards has been, or instantly becomes, popular, doesn't it? Perhaps the outcry hints at a deeper problem.
The dissonance between high-grossing movies and what might be perceived as meaningful, commendable films has never been greater than it is now. In the past decade, only five of the 100 films nominated for Best Picture have featured in their year’s top 10 list of highest grossing movies in the US; and notably none of the winners of the category were ranked in the top 10 (see table 1). While many of the Best Picture nominees have performed well at the box office, in both the US and UK (see table 2), from a purely financial/bums-on-seats point of view, the most popular films for the past few years have been superhero movies, franchise movies and family-friendly movies (see table 3).
The dissonance between high-grossing movies and what might be perceived as commendable films has never been greater.
Tastes and audiences change, of course, but does that mean our criteria for rewarding films must too? The blockbuster superhero genre has expanded beyond its popcorn routes to offer such films as the critically acclaimed Logan and Black Panther – the latter prompting cinemas across the US to be booked by philanthropists to screen the movie free for black children due to its depth of respect to, and inspirational qualities for, African-American culture. Might it be time to accept that, for better or worse, this is the new landscape for film, one that the aggressive profit focus of the major studios has created over the last 20 years?
Best Picture winners have traditionally always fallen in the ‘mid-budget’ category – big studios, popular actors, established directors and stories dealing with weighty issues or inspired by real-life situations. All but one of the last 10 Best Picture winners had budgets below $20 million, whereas the top grossing films of the past decade generally had budgets 10 times that. This begs the question: should such wildly different productions ever be expected to compete anywhere outside of the box office?
There’s certainly never been a greater disconnect between the Oscars and the mass audience: the films that are winning Best Picture are not the movies that excite mainstream cinema-goers. In the last decade, we’ve seen this award go to a film set in India with no recognisable US box office stars; a British film about a stuttering monarch; a romance starring an actress relatively unknown outside the UK and a sea-monster; a silent French film; and two intensely thought-provoking films about the African-American experience.
These are all critically acclaimed films – and probably deserve a wider audience (indeed, some did very well in their home box offices) – but is the criteria used to judge them outdated in relation to the current film landscape? Can a single award be expected to encompass mid-budget films of artistic integrity and the monolithic popcorn films that unquestionably help keep the industry running?
The films that are winning Best Picture are not the movies that excite the mainstream cinema-goer.
Perhaps further introspection is needed. It is, maybe, ironic that the word ‘Popular’ has inspired such fury when the word ‘Best’ has gone unclarified and unchallenged for so long.
Academy Awards Best Picture Winners and their Box Office
Year of Release
|Academy Awards||Best Picture||US Domestic Gross ($m)||US Domestic Box Office Rank||Worldwide Gross ($m)||UK Gross ($m)|
|2017||90th (2018)||The Shape of Water||63.9||46th||195.2||10.7|
|2013||86th (2014)||12 Years a Slave||56.7||62nd||187.7||33|
|2011||84th (2012)||The Artist||44.7||71st||133.4||15.8|
|2010||83th (2011)||The King's Speech||135.5||18th||414.2||74.9|
|2009||82nd (2010)||The Hurt Locker||17||116th||49.2||1.3|
|2008||81st (2009)||Slumdog Millionaire||141.3||16th||377.9||52.2|
(sources: Box Office Mojo, IMDb)
90th Academy Awards' Best Picture Nominees (ceremony year: 2018)
|Film Title||US Gross ($m)||US Box Office Rank||UK Gross ($m)|
|The Shape of Water (winner)||63.9||46th||10.7|
|Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri||54.5||52nd||20.9|
|Call Me By Your Name||18.1||108th||2.4|
(sources: Box Office Mojo, IMDb, Oscar.go.com)
US Domestic Box Office Top 10 in 2017 (excl. animated films)
|Position||Film Title||US Domestic Gross ($m)||No. of Oscar Nominations|
|1||Star Wars: The Last Jedi||620.2||4|
|2||Beauty and the Beast||504||2|
|4||Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle||404.5||-|
|5||Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2||389.8||1|
(sources: Box Office Mojo, IMDb)
Jon Spira is a documentary filmmaker and writer. He directed Anyone Can Play Guitar (2009) and Elstree 1976 (2015), and has written on the subject of film for The Daily Telegraph, The Huffington Post and other outlets.