Oscar’s Popularity Contest

Is it quality or quantity that defines a Best Picture winner? Can it be both?

Every year since the late 1920s, the Academy Awards (or Oscars, as they are more commonly referred to) have honored the best and most acclaimed films of the previous year. The ceremony is supposed to serve as a celebration of great movies that have a true impact on the people who watch it and that showcase incredible talent. Movies that have won the coveted Best Picture award at the Oscars include The Godfather, Titanic, Forrest Gump, and many more must-see film classics that won over the hearts of both audiences and critics. 

However, the landscape around Oscar nominations and the films that win awards has changed over the past 20 years. When the Oscar nominations are released now, they rarely contain the popular crowd-pleasers of the previous year — they now lean towards independent filmmaking and lesser-known movies (at least among general audiences). Critics are embracing this approach, for it amplifies some lesser known voices in the industry and cuts through the noise to find the truly great material. The average moviegoer, however, is less ecstatic about the approach, for now the Oscars are awarding films that only critics and people within the industry have seen.

Partially as a result, the Academy Award ratings are the lowest they have ever been, sometimes lower than the ratings of a regular running television that airs the same night. If audiences have no investment in the movies being celebrated, then why would they tune into the ceremony in the first place? This new phenomenon also somewhat lessens the widespread cultural significance of a ceremony like the Oscars, because the vast majority of people do not care about an unknown project no matter the milestones it achieves by winning.

This change in the awards’ environment raises the question: why have we moved away from giving popular movies Oscar contention? Are the box office winners just not as good as they used to be?

The answer to the latter question is mostly no — the top grossing movies of the 2010s, for example, are all fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with the only exception being Disney’s 2019 The Lion King remake. Despite this, none of those films have won Best Picture at the Oscars and only one (Black Panther) has been nominated. But what else do these films all have in common that could make the Oscars want to ignore them? Answer: all of the top grossing movies of the 2010s are all remakes or sequels of some kind.

Jason Fraley, the Entertainment Reporter for radio station WTOP, has been tracking these statistics for years. “A top ten grosser picture used to win best picture like 90% of the time,” Fraley explains. “From the 80’s on it started to really go down because that’s when sequels blew up.”

Most Academy voters, while appreciating the work that goes into a great sequel, want to reward the filmmakers that are producing original products rather than an add-on to a previously established concept.

“I can totally understand that Oscars voters want to reward the original idea,” Fraley said. “It seems like they want to honor an artist that came up with the idea themselves with something new and fresh and cool, edgy, artsy, as opposed to someone who came along 20 years later and is riding off the coattails of what someone did before.”

Before 20 years ago, the original movies were the ones that made money at the box office, but now all the public seems to pay money for are franchises they are already familiar with. Almost every single film that becomes a household name among average American viewers in 2023 is some kind of sequel, reboot, remake or whatever other term one could use for a continuation of a profitable story.

“I miss the days when the big movies were the Oscar winners.” Jason Fraley, WTOP Entertainment Reporter

The new modern classics are still being made everywhere but they are not heavily profiting anymore, which is both stifling the funding for original filmmaking and causing the appreciation of this work (i.e. the Oscars) culturally irrelevant to many. This clear gap between what the critics want and what studios/the general public want is vast, but both the Oscars and the public can do something to compromise their interests.

The main practice moviegoers need to take up is supporting original films they think look interesting. It is one thing to go see a movie simply because it is a sequel of a movie you like, but another thing entirely to go see a film because it has a compelling concept that fascinates you. Countless original movies that are not seen by many are made hundreds of times per year, and if these films become more profitable then more money, and therefore attention and acclaim from broader audiences, will be spent towards original filmmaking.

Secondly, the Oscars and other awards’ ceremonies need to consider honoring sequels, horror movies, and other often ignored genres more often. This sounds counterintuitive, but high-profile acclaim for truly great and original sequels will not only tell Hollywood studios how to create worthwhile franchises, but will also give audiences a reason to tune into the Academy Awards. This would cause two worthwhile shifts to occur: more original filmmaking will make money at the box office and more sequels or remakes will be worth nominating for awards instead of being throwaway cash grabs.

Will either party make these changes in the near future? Most likely not, but if the Oscars want to remain a fixture of movie culture, then some kind of shift needs to occur. Even though the Oscars often honor great movies during the ceremony, they need to broaden their horizons and begin honoring every type of movie, instead of just small independent films that few have watched.

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