In recent weeks endless think pieces have populated the Internet about the Oscars and the question of race. A worthy topic, and one addressed in interesting ways in the actual ceremony. (If you haven’t seen Chris Rock’s opening monologue, it’s well worth a watch.)
For me, the most interesting moment in the night’s festivities was this short clip of Rock standing outside a movie theater in Compton asking moviegoers about the year’s nominees. It’s not a new idea—in fact Rock himself did the same bit when he hosted in 2005.
Both times the main gag of the piece is that nobody has seen any of the nominees. In fact, one of the funniest moments in Sunday’s Compton clip is a 20-something woman who thinks Rock is pulling her leg as he rattles off film after film; she comes to the movies all the time, she says, and she’s never heard of any of them. (When Rock insists these are real movies, she asks seriously, “Like, in London?”)
On one level, this, too, is a commentary about race. With the exceptions of “The Revenant” and “Straight Outta Compton,” about the only place you can find color in this year’s nominees is the five feelings in Pixar’s animated “Inside Out.” “Brooklyn” alone is so completely without pigment it can’t be shown on sunny days for fear it will burn.
But it’s not just black people in Compton that haven’t seen these films. Only three of the eight best picture nominees this year grossed over $100 million domestic; and only “Mad Max” and “The Martian” were actually broadly-popular movies. Meanwhile other films that were hugely popular, like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ($925 million domestic), “Jurassic World” ($652 million) or “Inside Out” ($356 million), were barely considered.
The academy is meant to nominate on the basis of quality, as well it should. It doesn’t matter that “Room” made only $13 million in the United States or that foreign film winner “Son of Saul” has only been seen by a handful of people here. They have strong stories and performances and as such merit attention.
But why can’t there also be a place for films that had broad appeal? Why must genre films like “Star Wars,” “The Matrix” or “Blade Runner” always be discounted? Perhaps the next “Captain America” will not measure up to whatever Meryl Streep has in store for us, but look at that trailer: it’s going to be amazing. Why can’t it or its ilk get a Best Picture nod? Wasn’t it for movies like this that the Academy expanded its best picture nominees to a possible ten in the first place?
Obviously, popular does not always equal good. See: pretty much every sequel to every great movie (with the exception of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Godfather II”) and most especially “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” (My theory of sequels—the sequel to a great movie will do extremely well at the box office, but is usually at least semi-bad if not an offensively obvious cash grab. Ironically, if there’s a third film, it’s usually pretty great, but nobody sees it. See: “Jurassic Park III.”)
But popular does not necessarily mean bad, either. I’m sure there’s some who would say that “Star Wars” or “Mad Max” were not very satisfying movie experiences, but not many. The fact is, they were both great films. They deserved nods. “Mad Max” got one; “Star Wars” didn’t.
In the long run if the academy wants to seem relevant, it has to walk a fine line. Art must be supported—I suspect we’d all be better, happier people if we watched more indy and foreign films and less commercial dreck—but so should more popular endeavors.
Maybe the academy should create another category, a second, audience-driven Best Picture award where the winner is determined by our votes. It’s not unheard of; All-Star games have been doing it forever.
It would certainly generate interest. And who knows, it might generate some box office, as well. Because the problem with nominating so many films that no one sees is that over time you’re more likely to alienate moviegoers than to draw them in. In an age of Netflix and streaming, that’s a serious concern.