Why the Oscars Should Revive the Best Blockbuster Idea (Guest Column)

Illustration by Illosausage

Martin Scorsese's Marvel criticism underscores the need for an honor that bridges the widening gap between voters' discerning taste and the mainstream masses, argues a USC professor.

Dear Academy Members,

Last year, the Academy faced widespread criticism after announcing a new Oscar category for outstanding achievement in popular film. The category was quickly tabled, with critics saying the award was a lackluster attempt to boost telecast ratings and appease some studios. But I am hoping that after a year of reflection, Academy members will rally around the idea. Allow me to explain.

Before the 1980s, Main Street and Academy tastes were mostly aligned as nearly all winners of the best picture Oscar were among the top 10 highest-grossing films that year. Preferences began to diverge in the 1980s, as smaller prestige films would find the Oscar spotlight over larger box office spectacles. Since 2010, no best picture Oscar has gone to a top 10 box office hit.

While mainstream moviegoing audiences broadened their tastes to include superhero, fantasy and sci-fi themes, the preferences of Academy members narrowed to sobering, real-life dramas often laced with timely political and social messages. We need to recognize that both types of films are outstanding achievements, each in its own unique way.

Some legendary filmmakers are critical of this art form. While promoting his latest film, Netflix's The Irishman, Martin Scorsese said Marvel movie storylines are not cinema because they do not "convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being." In interviews with French press soon after, Francis Ford Coppola added fuel to the discussion by calling Marvel pictures "despicable" because they do not provide learning, enlightenment or inspiration.

They are wrong. Having conducted more than 1,000 audience studies for major entertainment companies, I know blockbusters achieve success by creating a deep emotional connection across an immense range of audiences. It's not just about special effects, explosions or vast merchandising opportunities. Anyone paying attention appreciated that 2018's Avengers: Infinity War and this year's Avengers: Endgame masterfully wove multiple storylines and characters together into a seamless, suspenseful narrative of empowerment, fear, bravery, love, loss and inspiration. In so doing, Endgame alone made $2.8 billion worldwide — that equates to roughly 280 million people eagerly paying $10 each to experience the saga at the theaters. In comparison, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight was one of the narrowest appealing recent best picture winners, drawing about 6.5 million people.

Academy members need to accept that Avengers and Moonlight represent different — yet both highly deserving — categories of artistry. Unfortunately, when prominent filmmakers voice opposition to this category of artistry, they are undermining the achievements of a vast number of the Academy's talented members, from producers, directors and screenwriters to crafts and production teams. These films also help keep the industry afloat, often allowing studios to take subsequent risks on funding smaller movies that then often find their way to Oscar recognition. Thus, these blockbusters also deserve your respectful recognition.

The Academy recognized the dichotomy of tastes between its members and the general moviegoing audience when it increased the number of best picture contenders from five to as many as 10 nominees in 2010, with hopes that more popular films would be nominated. But the added slots were quickly filled with mostly smaller and mid-sized prestige films. Even when Marvel's $1.3 billion worldwide hit Black Panther was nominated for best picture this year, it lost to Green Book, a film grossing $322 million worldwide — a quarter of Black Panther's box office haul.

The fix is simple. The Academy should reconsider an Academy Award for outstanding achievement among blockbusters — call it best blockbuster. With that, the Academy would verify the top 10 highest-grossing worldwide box office films and then members would vote for the one that displays the greatest unique achievement. Awards might have gone to Avatar or Wonder Woman. This year, nominations might include Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Chinese sci-fi hit The Wandering Earth, Joker and the upcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. What a race!

Some are concerned that if a film is nominated for best blockbuster, then Academy members might not include it for best picture. I believe a truly great film would make both lists. The new category might also net a larger audience for the Oscars. This year's viewership on ABC grew to 29.6 million, likely boosted by Black Panther's seven Oscar noms, including best picture.

While some might question that a blockbuster award would be a grab for TV ratings and advertising cash, that ignores the issue of the Academy's cultural relevance. The 33 percent ratings drop of this year's Emmy Awards, partially because of the vast number of nominated shows that few viewers watch, is an ominous message for the 2020 Oscar telecast: Be culturally relevant or die.

I hope many of you agree. If so, reach out to Academy president David Rubin and the board to share your views.

Thank you,

Gene Del Vecchio
Author of Creating Blockbusters
Faculty, USC Marshall School of Business

This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.