Why “Achievement in Popular Film” Might Be Necessary: Looking Back At 15 Years of The Oscars Veering Away From What People Actually Watch

Last week, the Oscars announced a series of changes to the upcoming 2019 telecast, one of which in particular set the internet ablaze with criticism. At the 91st Academy Awards, a new category will stand alongside Best Picture, as “Achievement in Popular Film” seeks to steer the Oscars away from the criticism that the Academy doesn’t recognize movies that people watch anymore. The real reason seems to be that ABC, the network that airs the show every year, is concerned about sagging ratings (and I’m sure it helps that their parent company, Disney, usually release the year’s most popular films). The criticism has been fierce from many sides, varying from uncertainty over how the Academy will handle such a category, with so few details yet provided, to ambivalence over the idea of recognizing movies that are already “honoured” with hundreds of millions at the box office, and straight up anger and derisiveness over the idea of the Academy creating a conciliatory, possibly second-class award to stand in the shadow of Best Picture, especially in a year where there is already a fierce fan campaign to get Black Panther in the race, with many derisively (and, to be honest, pretty offensively) comparing the announcement to segregation.

While there are many good points among the naysayers, I’d like to at least wait and see what the parameters of the category are, if not to see what effect it has on the actual telecast. I also reject the idea that this is a rash decision from a “panicked organization”. Because if you look back at the last 15 years of Oscar history and try and step into the mind of a voting member of the Academy, it becomes clear not only that there is often no real consensus over what they might want to reward as popular film, but also that this is a change many years in the making.

The article that follows will take a look into the patterns in and around Best Picture since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King reigned supreme in 2004 that may have led to this decision. At the same time, I have also prepared a separate article looking back at the last ten years and predicting who may have taken home this award ever since 2008, the year where The Dark Knight’s snub led to the Academy expanding Best Picture to up to ten films. But for now, let’s go back all the way to 2004:

Ever since the 76th Academy Awards, when The Lord of The Rings: Return of the King swept every category it was nominated in and took its spot among the highest earners to ever win Best Picture, the Academy has steadily regressed to a place where it values art over popularity and anything else. Despite the fact that, in the last couple of decades, studios have found creative and interesting ways to intersect art with the kind of populist qualities that drive audiences out to movie theaters,the idea of what an Oscar-caliber film even is has gotten much smaller in space and much more closely tied to art and message, rather than being that year’s crowning achievement in film.

I’m not trying to make any sort of judgment about whether or not this is right, or whether any of the Best Picture winners since Return of the King are unworthy (other than probably Crash; fuck that movie), or even that the Oscars should at all be concerned with awarding movies that make more money, but the facts paint an interesting picture:

In 2004, Return of the King became the last film to both win Best Picture, and come in first overall in the yearly box office, with a $377M tally domestically. In fact, of the 14 movies that have since won Best Picture, only five have even made $100M, what has long been an industry benchmark for success, and only two of those films (Argo and The Departed) reached this milestone before any awards hype would have boosted their tallies. On top of that, those two films and Million Dollar Baby are the only ones to have anything close to a big budget (The Departed comes in at $90M, the other two in the $40M range), with the rest all hovering around $15M-$20M, and all the way down to the $2M microbudget of Moonlight. And while Oscar does add to most films’ box office, it none of these 15 films managed to become smash hit blockbusters like Return of the King, even with the boost. The five films that reached that $100M milestone all hovered around 15th place in their respective years top box office, while the rest varied wildly, mostly unphased by Oscar, bottoming out in 2009 with The Hurt Locker, which only made $17M in theaters.

Like I said, box office success doesn’t really reflect the quality of a movie. Not only does it vary wildly based on the resources of the film’s distributor, the movie business has changed a lot in recent years. But the dichotomy between what makes an Oscar movie now and what made an Oscar movie back then and all the way back through the 90s is worth taking a look at, and it’s real, as proven by the expansion of Best Picture to up to 10 films. Prior to this seemingly defining moment, box office success and Best Picture often intersected, as the Oscars regularly awarded top 10 performing films. In fact, on two other occasions, like with Return of the King, the box office crown and Oscar were shared by the same film (Titanic and Forrest Gump). Beyond just the winners, plenty of popular films were regularly in contention for Best Picture and other major awards.

So, what changed so drastically in the last 15 years? Well, like I already mentioned, you could first and foremost point to some drastic changes in the movie industry since the rise of the internet. With streaming cheap and accessible, and no shortage of content, it’s become much harder to coax people out to their homes and into theaters. That’s led to a content explosion, with studios producing more, often cheaper content on both the small and big screens, and it’s led the big six studios to focusing their money on a handful of tentpoles. In the 90s, the top movies made somewhere between $200M and $325M domestically. Anything more was an anomaly. Since 2015, there has been no less than three $400M+ movies every year, a figure that’s become even crazier this year, with three Disney movies pushing up against $700M, and that’s before factoring in foreign markets which can push the top movies past $1.5B and beyond, especially thanks to emerging markets like China which didn’t even exist back then.

Now, those numbers mean a lot of things. It means that with a the risk of a $150M+ budget is worth it for the big studios if it means a billion dollars in worldwide revenue. It means that their funds are tied in a few big budget movies, effectively eliminating the mid-budget films that dominated the box office in the 90s and challenging creators (of which there are many more of now) to make more out of less, leading to a yearly success story like Get Out last year or A Quiet Place in 2018, excellent low budget movies from driven, talented auteurs seemingly capable of making success out of nothing and bringing in insane multipliers on their microbudgets, feats which go unappreciated by studios focused on a much bigger picture. The problem is that for every Get Out or A Quiet Place, there’s 20 or 40 movies that don’t make back twenty times their budget, effectively making this microbudget gamble thing a wash, unless you’re A24 or Blumhouse, successful indie studios that peddle mostly in genre films that don’t compete for Oscars anyway.

I sort of get it. If one movie out of twenty is going to be a smash hit on a microbudget these days, why would a big studio risk $50M on a Forrest Gump type of movie with similar odds? Pass over three or four Forrest Gumps and you get one Star Wars or Marvel movie that’s nearly a guaranteed hit with the same multiple and international appeal. It unfortunately means that the mid-budget movie is dead, but I get it.

In other words, that means that the mid-budget movies that dominated the box office no longer exist, that studios realized they can make a killing spending exorbitant amounts of money and making astronomical returns on tentpoles consisting mostly of existing IP, therefore forcing creatives with original stories to tell to work on much smaller budgets than the top directors prior to the early aughts. With certain exceptions (like your Scorseses, Spielbergs and Tarantinos working with the remaining goodwill they built in those years, or the odd case of Ben Affleck and Argo), it’s probably the big reason that auteurship and Oscar-caliber films have transferred over to smaller budgets.

At the surface, this isn’t a big issue. Hollywood still makes their money and creative types face challenging but rewarding scenarios of either making more with smaller budgets or creating art in the studio ecosystem of a tentpole. And at the end of the day, the consumer is getting more for their buck thanks to streaming, so long as they’re willing to wait and skip the increasingly expensive and unpleasant proposition of going to a movie theater. The one wrench in the works, as it turns out, is Disney, the one big studio that doesn’t dabble in smaller budget, awards-oriented fare (at least until the Fox deal goes through and they own Searchlight). As mentioned, they also happen to air the Oscars, and there’s more than likely a correlation between the decrease in budget of Oscar-type films and decrease in ratings for the Oscar telecast.

And I get this side of it too. People don’t want to watch an overbloated, pretentious awards show when they haven’t even had a chance to see the movies that are being rewarded, and won’t get to until months later when they hit Netflix. At best they might care aobut the people in them, but the idea of a movie star isn’t even what it used to be (that’s a whole other article). From this perspective, the changes kind of make sense, and if I’m being frank, most of the people complaining are going to watch the Oscars regardless of how they feel about “Achievement in Popular Film” and what that might mean. The Academy isn’t trying to get them to watch, they’re trying to get the people who, by February of next year, will have only seen a handful of movies that will most certainly include Black Panther, The Avengers and maybe A Quiet Place and a couple of other surprises.

But I also get the other side of the coin. The Oscars might not mean anything to the vast majority of the people they’re trying to reach, but it’s important to ensure they still mean something, period. Simply having the equivalent to a beauty pageant in the middle of your self-important industry show won’t guarantee increased ratings and might only serve to alienate the group that actually cares. That doesn’t mean that a new category is the end of the world, but it has to be handled careful. If it is, there’s a chance that a category like this could have a positive effect on the industry, one that returns at least a little bit of glory to the type of movie that used to compete for Oscars but doesn’t anymore. Because it’s not just the fact that Oscar-type movies have gotten smaller in scale. There are good, big-scale movies that simply don’t get recognized anymore.

I discuss this in further detail in the prediction post, but there are plenty of movies since the category expansion that were big in scale but wound up snubbed. Movies like The Dark Knight, Gravity, Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road are both big and scale and really good, yet weren’t able to break the trend, and that’s probably a side-effect to all of the above. The big movies got a lot bigger, the small movies shrunk really quickly and Oscar chose the latter path, ignoring the exceptions that should have been recognized because they were just square pegs trying to fit into round holes. If this category was created ten years ago and rewarded, at the very least, those four movies, then it’s totally justifiable. The best version of Achievement in Popular Film is a category that’s all about the intersection between art and popularity. A category that recognizes movies that maybe don’t fully tip over the scale in terms of quality (however you might measure that), but are important to the industry. The Dark Knight showed us that comic book movies can be good and meaningful. Avatar literally changed the way movie theaters do business. Gravity and Mad Max made crazy leaps in special effects and were big budget, populist auteur films in an age where that kind of stuff shouldn’t exist anymore. Hell, as you’ll see in the other post, I’d even accept a scenario in which a movie like Argo can win both categories, as the rare mid-budget throwback movie that sort of feels like the best of both words.

The problem is that, so far, the Academy hasn’t bothered to reassure us that this category will be something like this, and not simply an excuse to parade around the likes of Kevin Feige and Kathleen Kennedy because they were the producers that made the most money in a given year. Or, for that matter, if the voting members rebel and simply make this a conciliatory second place Best Picture Oscar for the most popular nominee. Maybe I’m being too optimistic about this change, but part of me is disinterested in the overreactionary nature of critics this past week when we don’t yet know what the change will look like. And even if this winds up being bad, then what’s the big deal? At worst, they’ll shutter the category in a few years and go back to the old format or try something else.

It’s no different, really, then that category expansion ten years ago. The Academy already noticed the trends mentioned above and they decided to recognize up to five more films. the change paid immediate dividends, with movies like District 9 and Up receiving Best Picture nods at a time where it was almost inconceivable for science fiction and animation to be up there. Even some smaller movies like An Education probably benefited from this, ensuring that both sides of the coin got something out of it. I’m not sure if this change affected any of the winners, and it certainly didn’t help the movies I mentioned above, but with so many more films being made, it was a positive change. Now it’s time to make another one, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to recognizing movies that mass audiences actually like.

If I’m being honest, this probably wouldn’t have been the first thing I would have changed if I was in charge of the Academy. There is a laundry list out there of potential categories that would be more interesting and that would better serve the industry. “Breakout Performance” would make a lot of sense, to recognize younger talent. The fact that there are no Oscars for the stunt workers that risk their lives to entertain us is absolutely outrageous at this point. And if you’re going to reward more kinds of films, why not go all the way and reward the best comedy, best science fiction, best musical, best horror? Popular Film is not something I would have thought of, but depending on how it’s handled, it could be an interesting tool for voters to play with as a broad, unspecific category.

Nevertheless, barring a crazy turnaround, they’re going to do this for the 2018 Oscar race. And while this year’s likely winner is fairly obvious, I’m curious to both define what “Achievement in Popular Film” might mean, as well as looking at who would have likely won the award in recent years. You can check that out by clicking here. Otherwise, feel free to yell at me about how wrong I am in the comments below or on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on “Why “Achievement in Popular Film” Might Be Necessary: Looking Back At 15 Years of The Oscars Veering Away From What People Actually Watch

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