Will New Oscar Voters Be Bold Enough to Embrace Popular Films?

Everyone is curious about how Oscar voting will be affected by the Academy’s new members, with 1,700 individuals (or 23%) invited in the past three years.

For me, there’s only one important issue: Do they like popular movies?

Careful, this is a trick question, because “popular” is hard to define, especially when it comes to Oscar.

This year, worldwide box office was led by “Beauty and the Beast,” which earned $1.2 billion. The global top 20 also includes awards possibilities like “Logan,” “Dunkirk” and “Wonder Woman.” There are other 2017 films that make you feel better at the end than you did at the start, including “The Big Sick,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Downsizing,” “Call Me by Your Name” and “Get Out.”

But what are their Oscar chances? In the past 15 years, Oscar voters have leaned toward dark material.

For most of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ 90 years, popular films got regular Oscar attention. Among the many hit movies nominated for best picture: “She Done Him Wrong,” “The Thin Man,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” “The Fugitive” and “The Sixth Sense.” None seems like “Oscar-bait,” but all have remained fan favorites and all deserved awards recognition.

On a dozen occasions, a year’s biggest-earning movie was also the best picture winner, including “Gone With the Wind,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Godfather,” “Rocky,” “Rain Man,” “Forrest Gump” and “Titanic.” But this hasn’t happened since the 2003 “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” As Hollywood relies more and more on CGI spectacles, the Academy and movie fans seem to have parted ways.

In 1990, “Home Alone” topped the domestic B.O. and “Ghost” was the global winner. Those were not tentpoles, but relatively modest films. Still, they were great examples of storytelling. The world changed with the 1993 “Jurassic Park.” CGI had never been used so extensively or effectively. Audiences had a new standard for what they wanted. But AMPAS voters seemed to pull back; this isn’t the kind of storytelling that they aspired to when the entered the industry.

In the past 20 years, the annual global B.O. was topped by three “Harry Potter” movies, two “Star Wars” films, two “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, two Marvel movies, two “Lord of the Rings” movies, two Michael Bay films (“Armageddon” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction”), two James Cameron movies (“Titanic” and “Avatar”), three computer-animated movies and two one-offs (“Mission: Impossible II” and “The Dark Knight”).

Do you see the pattern? Audiences like Hollywood CGI fantasies and sequels. In general, Oscar voters don’t.

TV ratings for the Academy Awards are rocky and the common audience gripe is still, “I’ve never heard of these movies.” Academy voters bristle that it isn’t a popularity contest, but the fact remains that the Oscar lineup increasingly leans toward small and esoteric films, while popular movies are not taken seriously.

One extreme example: When nominees for 2005 were announced, all of the best-pic contenders (“Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Munich” and “Capote”) had earned less money at the box-office than “March of the Penguins,” a documentary nominee. To repeat: A documentary had earned more than the best-picture contenders.

This isn’t a criticism of AMPAS members, but merely an observation that the divide is getting wider between movie audiences and moviemakers. Some of 2017’s best picture contenders can be described as hard-hitting, wrenching and worthy. But where’s the fun? That stack of awards screeners is looking more and more like homework.

So for all of you new voters, and don’t be fun-ophobic. There’s no harm in admitting that you enjoy a movie.

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