The Contrarian: An Ingenious Solution To The Oscars’ Popular Film Problem


By Spencer Davis. I can trace the exact moment I fell in love with the Fast & Furious franchise to a particular scene in Fast Five. A friend of mine, already indoctrinated in the idiotic joys of the series, suggested we catch the midnight showing on opening night. It was an idea just stupid enough to be brilliant! About half an hour in, there’s a chase scene that culminates in Paul Walker and Vin Diesel going over the edge of a cliff in a Corvette convertible, climbing onto the trunk of the car in midair … and with perfect timing, leaping safely into a river just before impact. As this all unfolded in glorious slow-motion, someone in the audience shouted, “Academy Award!!!!” and the entire theater erupted in laughter. I was sold for life.

If you heard yesterday’s announcement that the Oscars will be unveiling a new category, Best Popular Film, then you probably know why I bring this up. Everyone knows the impetus for this is the telecast’s spiraling ratings, and the best and the brightest minds at the Academy have apparently decided that the way to pull viewers back in is with a shorter, 3-hour show and a new category dedicated to the shitty blockbusters that make all the money.

I have a modest counter-proposal: NOMINATE BETTER FUCKING MOVIES.

“Better” of course is in the eye of the beholder, but I’d submit that it contains both a subjective and an objective element. Two movies may both hold incredible artistic merit, but one that can display that merit in a way that earns the mutual love of both critics and everyday people is one that has achieved something more than the divisive, experimental indie film that earns the insistent praise of a tiny contingent of film school dickheads. Movies are art, but they are also popular entertainment. And there was a time when the two weren’t mutually exclusive. Yet the focus of the Oscars over the past two decades has noticeably veered toward smaller and smaller films—smaller in terms of budget, smaller in terms of audience. And somewhere along the way, the award became less an exercise in selecting the “best picture” and more a pageant to the voting membership’s rarified taste. After all, if ordinary people liked it, how fucking good can it be?

What’s remarkable is how the Academy can on the one hand treat popular success as a negative indicator of quality, and on the other hand, express complete bewilderment that their show isn’t popular anymore. What’s even more remarkable is how, even setting classism aside, your average Best Picture contender these days is, as the great French film director and scholar Jean-Luc Godard might say, “le crap.”

Let’s take a look at some recent Best Picture winners. The Shape Of Water? The Venn diagram of people who wanted to see that movie is the overlap of two circles: people who will watch literally anything Guillermo del Toro makes and people who reeeaaally took the wrong lesson from The Little Mermaid. Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)? A movie so far up its own ass that they couldn’t get even past the point of giving it a goddamn title without reeking of unearned pretension. Spotlight? The average American can’t muster the energy to read a newspaper much less watch a movie about one. The King’s Speech? You mean I get to see a movie that combines the excitement of British period pieces with the excitement of speech therapy? And The Artist? IT’S MOTHERFUCKING SILENT.

It didn’t used to be this way. In the 90s, Oscar front-runners included quaint little pictures like Dances With Wolves ($184 million), The Silence Of The Lambs ($272 million), Schindler’s List ($321 million), Forrest Gump ($678 million), and Titanic ($Eleventy kajillion dollars). Lo and behold, people watched the Oscars.

But since 2010, the Oscars have awarded their top prize to a group of films that averages $63.6 million in domestic box office. To put that in context, that’s about $22 million less than the fucking Emoji Movie made last year. It’s $10 million less than something called Captain Underpants. It’s still slightly less than A Dog’s Purpose, which was a movie so terrible that even dogs can’t watch it. All told, forty-five movies released in 2017 made more money than the eventual Oscar winner. Forty. Five. Even Dunkirk and Get Out, the biggest hits among the nominees, were only the fourteenth and fifteenth most watched movies of the year. The other six nominees averaged $46.8 million, which puts them on par with box office dynamite like Smurfs: The Lost Village and Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween.

Some might say there’s a correlation between how many people have seen a movie and how many people will care whether it wins an award. Sadly, those who might recognize that don’t seem to be Academy members.

Now roughly 17% of the internet is comprised of articles about how the Oscars snubbed The Dark Knight, so I don’t need to rehash that debacle—except to say that the ten-nominee format adopted in 2010 was supposed to solve this problem. It didn’t. Movies that will one day be looked back upon as the essential films of their era in terms of cultural and historical influence—The Avengers, Frozen, Wonder Woman, Bridesmaids, The LEGO Movie, anything in the Harry Potter series—have gone ignored by the Academy, despite earning plenty of contemporaneous critical praise. Other commercial successes, like Gone Girl, Straight Outta Compton, Star Trek, Logan, Magic Mike, Deadpool, Creed, Baby Driver, and Blade Runner 2049 garnered plenty of potential Oscar buzz during the year, only to be turned away by the Academy like Ray Romano trying to get past the velvet rope at a Hollywood club.

Instead, the Academy has given their slots to the likes of Philomena, Nebraska, The Descendants, Fences, Amour, A Serious Man, Phantom Thread, Lion, The Post, Darkest Hour—films that, whatever their artistic merit in the here and now, won’t be remembered thirty years from now on a TCM Employee Trivia Night, much less by your average moviegoer.

That’s why the Oscars have lost their way. While the track record has always been far from perfect, you could at one time count on the Oscars as a reasonable barometer of the movies that people will ultimately remember. Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, All About Eve, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Godfather, Annie Hall, Rocky. Even if you haven’t seen them, you know them. You know they mattered. Now how many of the Best Picture nominees of the past decade can you really say that about?

Even when a popular movie slips through the cracks like Mad Max: Fury Road, Avatar, Inception, The Martian, or Hidden Figures—you know, movies that were viewed by anyone who doesn’t already have a subscription to Sight & Sound—we all know damn well that the nomination itself is the prize. We know that when the envelope is opened, the arbiters of cinematic greatness are never going to pass over a Shape Of Water or a Three Billboards or any other obscurity that will announce to the world the superior taste of the avant garde, sophisticated set. So how many viewers are really going to tune in to a three-hour broadcast just to watch their favorite movie get a ten-second clip and a pat on the back in the final minutes? And if a condescending, elitist prick like me can understand this basic concept, why can’t the Academy?

Instead, they’ve taken tokenism to a new level, giving these movies an “award” that’s only an award in the same sense that getting a fist bump from Guy Fieri is compensation for losing out on a Michelin star.

People will watch again when the Oscars start nominating and rewarding films that they can actually love. It doesn’t have to mean big box office, but it does have to be films that they can connect with on a personal level. Until Oscar voters stop falling for flash-in-the-pan gimmicks like long, uninterrupted camera takes or fucking fish men, viewers won’t care. Until they stop equating “indie” with “quality,” viewers won’t care. Until they come out of their bubble and learn to tell the difference between the movies that will last and the ones that will fade, viewers won’t care. Until they recognize that popularity and art don’t belong in separate categories, viewers won’t care.

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