The topic of popular films vs best films was on my mind when recording our Dr. Strangelove episode, wherein I noted that the top grossing film of the year does not often win the Best Picture Oscar anymore. Furthermore, I predicted the top grossing film would never again win the Best Picture Oscar, ever. Shortly after publishing that episode, the Academy made their announcement and now it seems I’m the only person on the internet not pissed about the Oscars’ new Best Popular Film category. Here’s why I’m okay with it.
1) I enjoy the Oscars for what they are: Hollywood’s self-congratulatory extravaganza. They can include whatever categories they like and I’m not gonna hate. I don’t believe awards categories are sacred, and I don’t see this new category hurting the Best Picture category any more than Best Animated Film or Best Documentary hurts it. The new category is a way to recognize a larger array of films. Same reason they expanded Best Picture to allow up to 10 nominees.
2) The Academy wants to increase their television ratings and I’m fine with that. The Oscars are Hollywood’s Super Bowl, and the telecast props up the whole affair. Of course they want to keep ratings up! Every television show on the air wants to keep ratings up! The more people watching the show, the more people are exposed to the films nominated in all the categories.
3) If you think this new category somehow makes the awards less pure, then let me point you at the Grammy Awards. I don’t hear many complaints about the Best Pop Vocal Album category or the Best Pop Solo Performance category. “Pop”, of course, is short for “popular”. In music “pop” is also a genre – I get it – but it stems from the same place, pop music is popular music, and was thusly named. The Oscars don’t award genres, but maybe they should. If the Grammys can have Best Rock Album and Best Rap Album, and also have all genres compete for Album of the Year, why can’t the Oscars do that? I would love to see Best Pop Film, Best Horror Film, and Best Comedy Film all competing with Best Dramatic Film for Best Picture.
4) It’s an update that reflects changes in the film industry. The films people pay to see are different now than they were 20 years ago, 40 years ago, etc. This is exactly why I predicted the top grossing film will never win another Best Picture Oscar: what audiences will pay for, and what is considered great cinema, have diverged further from each other over time.
The last time the top grossing film won Best Picture was 2003, with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It has happened a total of 4 times since 1980, while prior to 1980 it happened 3 or 4 times every decade. Making room to recognize the films that best separate customers from their money seems appropriate. Film-making is a business, after all.
5) I don’t believe the nominations will consist of a shit-show of mediocre entertainment. I’m genuinely interested to see which films will be nominated and win this category.
In fact, so interested that I did some research and crunched some numbers to determine what this category’s nominees might have been for 1988, 1998, 2008, and 2015-2017.
In an attempt at objectivity, I’ll define “popular” as the 30 top grossing films of the year, and I’ll define “best” as the movies with the highest critical ratings among those top 30 grossers (calculated by adding the movie’s IMDB score, Rotten Tomatoes percentage, and Rotten Tomatoes average rating, and listed in the “Score” column of the data below).
Starting with 1988, your nominations for Best Popular Film could have been:
- Die Hard
- A Fish Called Wanda
- Midnight Run
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Seems like a pretty decent lineup to me. None of these movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1988, so we’ve got five quality films that were also popular crowd-pleasers. At least 2 of those are bona fide classics (Big, Die Hard) and I’d feel good about either of them winning this category.
Jumping ahead to 1998, your nominations for Best Popular Film might have been:
- A Bug’s Life
- Saving Private Ryan
- Shakespeare in Love
- The Truman Show
Both Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love were nominated for Best Picture, two examples of “popular” films that made the cut for major award consideration, with many more examples to come. To be cynical for a moment, let’s assume Academy members won’t nominate the same movies in both categories. If we reserve Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love for only the Best Picture category, then Best Popular Film would look like:
- A Bug’s Life
- The Truman Show
I don’t love this lineup as much, but I would have been rooting hard for a The Truman Show win here. Maybe instead of 3 animated films There’s Something About Mary could have landed a nomination.
Moving on to 2008, your nominations for Best Popular Film could have been:
- The Dark Knight
- Iron Man
- Kung Fu Panda
- Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for Best Picture, so maybe that gets swapped out for Gran Torino instead. And depending on the mood, something like Tropic Thunder could slip into this category too. Again, This would be a fun race. Most people would be pulling for The Dark Knight, but WALL-E could be a dark horse!
Now let’s see what the nominees for recent years would look like. First, 2015:
- Inside Out
- Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens
- Straight Outta Compton
Now that’s a hell of a competition right there. I like all 5 of those movies, and that’s after leaving out The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road because they were nominated for Best Picture. That makes 7 really solid films for this “popular” category.
- Hidden Figures
- La La Land
This looks a lot like the actual Best Picture nominees of 2016, 3 of them overlap. Perhaps Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, or The Jungle Book would take the place of the Best Picture nominees.
And finally, 2017:
- Baby Driver
- Thor: Ragnarok
- War for the Planet of the Apes
Another high quality set of films, and again, this is after removing top contenders Dunkirk and Get Out because of their Best Picture nominations.
Okay, I can’t resist, let’s look at 2018. With 4 months left in the year, your potential nominees:
- Avengers: Infinity War
- Black Panther
- Incredibles 2
- Mission: Impossible – Fallout
- A Quiet Place
Not a bad lineup. Something like Game Night or Ready Player One could also slip into this category, plus there’s a lot of movies still to come for 2018.
Look at those lists of nominations again. I’ll bet there are movies you love in those lists. Why wouldn’t you want them to have a chance at winning at Oscar?
While I don’t mind the new category, I do mind awarding Oscars during commercial breaks. I’d rather see the awards handed out live. If they want to make the show shorter, cut the bullshit skits and bits, so few of them are funny or memorable.
For your consideration.