If there’s one thing that has become clear in the recent ceremonies of the annual Academy Awards, it’s that the judging panel for these prestigious awards aren’t accustomed to nominating what we might call ‘blockbusters’. Unless this rising genre of summer hits produces a flick which boasts either a technically-beautiful race of tall Smurfs, or indeed a set of beloved animated toy characters returning for their swansong, it seems as if there’s no hope of it reaching the higher ranks. Much to the displeasure of countless fandoms, then, hit franchises like Harry Potter, Batman and Pirates Of the Caribbean have been constantly deterred away from any awards beyond Visual Effects or Sound Editing and the odd throwaway performance recognition.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the strong list of judges that makes up the Oscar panel should attempt to cater their choices for the awards completely to a mainstream audience- because let’s be honest, who really wants a Transformers 4 getting ‘Best Picture’ for 2014?- but I do think that the frequent lack of recognition of the vast majority of the current cinematic audience is going to become the downfall of the Academy Awards unless something changes. Speaking to many of my colleagues of this year’s shortlisted entries for the ‘Best Picture’ category, the response I had to poorly advertised movies such as The Artist, Hugo and The Tree Of Life was that they had “never heard of them”. It’s entirely up to the judges as to what movies they pick, and yet if they continue along a road of choosing films which are increasingly less registered by the general public as important and influential pieces, the panel risks alienating a fair degree of viewers from interest in its annual ceremonial broadcasts.
More importantly, though, in ignoring some of the best-selling films of each year through their strive for alleged filmic quality, the panel are missing the point. Much as the ‘blockbuster’ has become the source of much debate and cynicism, it’s a kind of film which no other genre has yet been able to match in terms of scale and ambition, and thus one which the Oscars should recognise for a number of key reasons…
In 2010, James Cameron’s Avatar stood out as something of a landmark for popular cinema in its nomination for the ‘Best Picture’ award. It is rare that a film that has met such commercial success is also nominated for an Oscar of this prestige, a fact that we need only look at the recent dismissal of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Dark Knight from the category to prove. We should never forget that any film that manages to reach the list of the Top 5 highest-grossing films of all time as Part 2 did last Summer represents a stunning achievement in modern cinema.
Similarly, The Avengers is currently breaking records everywhere across the board, and I can safely say having seen the fantastic superhero ensemble that its success is well deserved. Yet do we seriously expect to see such a stunning pay-off to nearly half a decade’s worth of anticipation even considered for the Oscars? I do not say this based on wanting Avengers to fall, rather in the midst of an inevitable trail of hopelessness provoked by the shunning of flicks like Deathly Hallows in the past. Whether by creating new categories or indeed by allowing blockbusters to hold further precedence, Oscar judges should undoubtedly begin to recognise these commercial achievements in some way greater than simply judging them upon what they deem to mean narrative merit.
Let’s return to the final Potter outing for a moment. In the space of a mere two-hour running time, this glorious finale to one of the film industry’s most notable franchises brought us a grand war of wands and monsters; a visceral and haunting collection of scenes where the countless deaths the quest of the Boy Who Lived were brought into full perspective; and above all a thrilling final battle between Harry and his arch-foe Lord Voldemort. There were few other films in 2011 that could possibly have hoped to match such scale, such sheer ambition both on the part of J.K Rowling and the screenplay artist who adapted her final book, and indeed of David Yates and his production team, so for them all to receive little-to-no full acclaim for their dedicated work was close to criminal on the part of the Oscar panel.
Much as critics love to laud attempts to restore the silent cinema genre or to shock with dark family drama, they rarely seem to commend those films which go out of their way to stun and dazzle with their unique, ground-breaking ideas rendered near-perfectly by outstanding special effects and a tangible sense of danger and adventure. To me, last Summer’s Super 8 did just as fine a job of resurrecting a ‘retro’ style of camera and cinematography as Hugo later did in the Winter months, yet again the former blockbuster scooped up a grand total of zero nominations in this year’s awards while the latter managed nine and won a strong number of them.
In order to illustrate this reasoning, I need only rewind back a few years to the 2004 Academy Awards ceremony. The winner of ‘Best Picture’ that year was none other than The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King. This victory represented a deserved rise that Peter Jackson’s critically acclaimed film trilogy made from its ambitious beginnings with Fellowship Of The Ring in 2001 to have become a series held in extremely high regard by its finale.
Again, I think it is fair to class Return Of The King as a classic blockbuster, and indeed to see how the slow and steady rise its franchise made in public opinion made it feel as if the ‘Best Picture’ award it received at its end was thoroughly justified, garnering rapturous applause on the evening. What, then, has changed since 2004? The Oscar panel appear to have thrown away the notion of an audience developing a growing relationship with the characters of a franchise (Potter standing perhaps as the most notable recent parallel to Rings) towards total backing of the finale gaining an award for ‘Best Picture’, now focusing on more standalone, subtle pieces which tend not to have been viewed by nearly as many film-goers and as such which do not hold nearly the same kind of longevity in terms of recognition and popularity towards their receiving an award.
As I mentioned earlier, should those who run the Academy Awards want the prestigious ceremony to become once again a more globally renowned mainstream broadcast (thus garnering higher viewing ratings), the judging panel for the Oscars need to begin to understand that the films they choose should garner a certain amount of recognition. Thus, it might actually be more desirable for franchises to be included in the higher categories, simply because the odds of their latest instalments having been seen are far greater than the odds of the likes of The Lovely Bones having been seen.
4. Critical Opinion
The assumption even that film critics do not regard blockbusters as highly as they used to is one that annoys me greatly. If we use Metacritic to garner an average score for some of the most popular shunned entries in the genre, we can find that Deathly Hallows: Part 2 managed an average review score of 87%, the exact same value as ‘Best Picture’ nominee Moneyball and an even greater ranking than other nominees including The Tree Of Life (85) and Hugo (83). No average system is infallible, but nevertheless it is impossible to ignore these statistics and thus it is clear to see that blockbusters can and do regularly best some of those films which are chosen over them to be nominated, something which I believe is not taken account of enough by the Oscar judging panels of today.
5. Different Blockbusters, Different Esteem
I want to wrap up with this final brief point. Earlier this Summer, Universal Pictures brought us Battleship, a Bay-esque CGI romp that garnered mediocre reviews across the board. A common misconception when referring to the blockbuster genre is that I might be talking about this example of a ‘summer popcorn blockbuster’, i.e. films which are far lower regarded than other blockbusters like Avengers and Lord Of The Rings.
I’m definitely not suggesting that this kind of overblown, shallow filmic experience deserves more recognition, quite the opposite, but I think that such a misconception has formed is a key element in the reasoning behind the degrading of the modern blockbuster in Oscar awards ceremonies. The sooner that upcoming judging panels can make the distinction between Transformers and Super 8, between The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Deathly Hallows, between Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance and The Dark Knight (lord knows, you need your eyes tested if you can’t manage that last one) the sooner they’ll begin to realise that the success, ambition and longevity of the ‘greater’ of the two types of blockbuster warrants far more recognition in the Academy Awards than they have been receiving in recent ceremonies.