Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the folks who give out the Oscars — announced they’ve added a major new category, the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. Movie fan websites exploded. The basic reaction across the internet was “Why?” Opinions about whether the academy needs this new award were decidedly negative. The whole thing was hilarious.
One perennial question discussed on the movie fan websites is why movie theater attendance is down. Most websites agree that it’s at an all-time low. They wring their hands about what studios can do to increase attendance at movie theaters. That’s an easy one — have y’all noticed how much it COSTS to go to a movie these days? I don’t know why the websites are so confused when the answer is that simple.
Another oft-asked question — why is the viewership for the Academy Awards broadcast at an all-time low? My theory on that one isn’t as solid as the last one. However, if we just look at films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, I don’t think average moviegoers see those films. I haven’t seen a film nominated for Best Picture in a movie theater since 2009, and that’s the year they resumed TEN nominations for Best Picture instead of five. Of the 90 films nominated since then, I’ve seen only 16 — that’s 18 percent — either at a theater or at home. There were three years where I didn’t see ANY of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture. And I LOVE movies.
Some of those movies are on my to-see list, but many of them never make it to the Gadsden market. Some are only shown here after they’ve won Best Picture, but most nominees simply are never shown here. Of last year’s 10 nominees, I’d only heard about three of them; the other seven were complete mysteries to me.
Gadsden likes popular movies — presumably the ones the new award category aims for. The 1984 Oscar winner for Best Picture, “Amadeus,” played in Gadsden for less than a week — it literally opened on Monday and closed on Thursday. I remember it clearly because I wanted to see it and thought I’d wait until the second week when the crowds had died down. The Denzel Washington/Gene Hackman submarine epic “Crimson Tide,” which came out the next May, stayed here for months. I remember wondering if that long stay had to do with the title, even though the movie has nothing to do with University of Alabama football. Both are great movies, but “Amadeus” truly deserved the Best Picture award that year.
I think that’s the answer, to a degree. Some years find multiple movies nominated that truly deserve the distinction of the Academy Award for Best Picture, but only one can win. In 1994, for example, all five nominated movies probably deserved the award — “Forrest Gump” (which won), “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Quiz Show” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” Five truly exquisite films. I still think “Pulp Fiction” should have won, but “Forrest Gump” more than deserved it. Which one of those five movies would have won the Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film Oscar? I don’t know, but I wonder if the academy would have given “Pulp Fiction” the Popular Film Oscar as a sort of consolation prize.
That’s my fear, that the new Oscar becomes a way of awarding one Oscar to the movie that critics like and the other to the one that the viewing public likes. I doubt we’ll have too many years like 1994 again, where four of the five nominees did extremely well at the box office. Who knows?
Since the academy’s announcement, several websites and bloggers have made retroactive predictions for the last decade or so, most of which are either fairly obvious or come down to only a couple of choices. Those years are mostly easy choices for the new Oscar.
However, there are some years where it wouldn’t be easy at all. Take 1939, for example, the most golden year of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Gone With the Wind” won Best Picture in a field of 10 nominees that included “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Stagecoach” and “The Wizard of Oz.” All 10 of the nominees that year are now considered absolute classics. I think “Gone With the Wind” would have won both the Best Picture and the “Popular Film” Oscars.
In other years, it would have been easier. In 1952, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the Charlton Heston circus epic, won Best Picture over such classics as “High Noon,” “Ivanhoe” and “The Quiet Man.” I love “The Greatest Show on Earth,” but it ain’t the Best Picture for that year. Many pundits consider it the least deserving Best Picture winner, ever.
Granted, there’s a fair amount of 20/20 hindsight in predicting the “classic status” of movies that have stood the test of time. I do know, however, that adding essentially a “Miss Congeniality” Oscar isn’t the solution to Hollywood’s box office woes. The solution is simple — make movies both critics and the public like. It’s been done before.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The opinions reflected are his own.