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Vox Popular

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 The category has since been withdrawn, for the moment, with the Academy’s Board of Governors stating it “continues to be actively engaged in discussions, and will examine and seek additional input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.

Phantom Thread

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
2016 89th (2017) Moonlight 27.9 92nd 65 5.3
2015 88th (2016) Spotlight 45.1 62nd 98.3 9.1
2014 87th (2015) Birdman 42.3 78th 103.2 8.8
2013 86th (2014) 12 Years a Slave 56.7 62nd 187.7 33
2012 85th (2013) Argo 136 22nd 232.3 12.2
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)
Dunkirk 188 14th 80.8
Get Out 176 15th 12.7
The Post 81.9 39th 12.9
The Shape of Water (winner) 63.9 46th 10.7
Darkest Hour 56.5 50th 33.4
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 54.5 52nd 20.9
Lady Bird 49 56th 7.5
Phantom Thread 21.1 101st 3.7
Call Me By Your Name 18.1 108th 2.4

(sources: Box Office Mojo, IMDb,


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
3 Wonder Woman 412.6 -
4 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle 404.5 -
5 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 389.8 1
6 Spider-Man: Homecoming 334.2 -
7 It 327.5 -
8 Thor: Ragnarok 315.1 -
9 Justice League 229 -
10 Logan 226.3 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.