Flashback: It's time to create an Academy Award for best blockbuster
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Editors' note: This column was originally published March 2, 2018.
When the nominations for the best picture Oscar were announced, not one movie from the top 10 grossing films worldwide was included. That's a shame, but not surprising. Industry insiders have openly disrespected blockbuster films for years.
Oscar winner Jodie Foster recently said of blockbuster superhero films that "studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking — you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth. ... It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world."
Other prominent filmmakers have expressed similar sentiment in the past, erroneously believing that commercially successful blockbusters are ruinous and that the "masses" (that's you and me) are not worthy of attention due to a lack of artistic taste.
Far from ruining audiences, blockbusters often inspire them. The empowerment message in Wonder Woman moved men and women, young and old alike. These films also account for nearly all studio industry profits and salaries. That money often funds the production, distribution and marketing of many small art house films that industry insiders care so deeply about.
The debate between art and commerce won’t be settled anytime soon, but there is something that can be done now to better recognize the movies that spark such passionate interest and fill studio coffers. It's time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create an Oscar for best blockbuster, thus giving great filmmakers the respect they have greatly earned.
Because Oscars for best picture do not often include massively appealing films, award season routinely leads to disappointment. Blockbuster filmmakers and their crews are not given industry respect for their artistry, mass audiences are disappointed that the films they love are not nominated, and television network executives and the academy are disappointed because large audiences are not tuning in to the award show. It's lose-lose-lose.
When the 1997 blockbuster film Titanic won best picture, more than 55 million viewers watched the Oscar telecast. When the 2016 film Moonlight won best picture, only 33 million viewers watched. The difference in worldwide box office for these two films was $2 billion vs. $65 million respectively. Note to the academy leadership: In any other industry, the CEO responsible for such a massive decline in audience interest would be fired.
This great disparity between blockbusters and best picture Oscars wasn't always the case. For most of the 1990s and early 2000s, the best picture Oscar went to a top 10 worldwide box office champ. These included Forrest Gump and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. But that changed dramatically by the late 2000s with winners of the best picture Oscar ranking much lower in audience interest.
The 2009 film The Hurt Locker won best picture yet only made $49 million worldwide and ranked 96th in box office results, the same year that Avatar ranked No. 1 and made $2.8 billion to become the box office champ of all time.
And so it went. The Artist ranked 60th in worldwide box office in 2011, Argo ranked 36th in 2012, 12 Years a Slave ranked 44th in 2013, Birdman ranked 67th in 2014, Spotlight ranked 74th in 2015, and Moonlight ranked 98th in 2016.
While it's true that audiences have expanded their tastes to include superhero movies and other blockbusters, members of the academy have gone to the other extreme by selecting films with topics that have increasingly narrow audience interest.
This year is no exception. The best picture nominees are The Shape of Water; Call Me by Your Name; Get Out; Phantom Thread; The Post; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; Darkest Hour; and Dunkirk. To put this into context, nearly as many people around the world dashed to see Beauty and the Beast last year than all nine nominated films combined!
America's average ticket price of $9 suggests that only about 6 million people cared enough to see Lady Bird — while about 91 million souls rushed to Wonder Woman and 140 million were compelled by Beauty and the Beast, two other movies about empowering women.
Mainstream movie goers love grand films that are emotionally uplifting and immensely optimistic, where heroes win, bad guys lose, romance blooms, fantasy reigns, strong morals are reinforced, happy endings are the norm, and political-social statements are typically absent. They crave escape.
Academy voters increasingly prefer more somber, real life narratives where lives are hopelessly dramatic and messy, morals are ambiguous, heroes aren't always good nor do they always win, happy endings are often scarce, while political and social statements are plentiful. And of course, the academy loves to nominate films with obscure narratives and those about show business itself.
Both blockbuster and art house films are of great value to the industry and society. But art house films overwhelmingly dominate the best picture category.
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A best blockbuster Oscar — call it #oscar4blockbusters — offers a remedy. The top 10 films with the greatest worldwide box office receipts would be automatically nominated for best blockbuster, and academy members would then vote for the one they believe has the greatest artistry.
Imagine the massive interest it would generate to pit last year'sStar Wars: The Last Jedi against Beauty and the Beast, The Fate of the Furious, Despicable Me 3, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wolf Warrior 2 (a Chinese blockbuster), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok and Wonder Woman. What a show!
An Oscar for Best Blockbuster would inspire mass audiences to watch the award show. The improved television ratings would bring more cash to the network and the academy. And these magnificent filmmakers would get respect for their artistry.
That's a win-win-win.
Gene Del Vecchio is an adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and the author of Creating Blockbusters. Follow him on Twitter: @GeneDelVecchio