Academy Awards vs. Popularity: And the winner is…

I just read a Wall Street Journal article about the Academy Awards. It pointed out the now well-established discrepancy between what films win awards vs. which ones make the most money (i.e., are the most popular). The not-so-hidden subtext was there is something wrong here — and what’s wrong is that the Academy voters are “out-of-touch.”
I disagree. This situation is here is typical across all forms of art and entertainment. It’s not just a movies thing — and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the Awards process.
Take a look at the New York Times’ Best Seller lists for books. How many of these books go on to win a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award or a Nobel Prize or any other well-regarded award? The answer is almost none.
Or take a look at the Emmy Awards. Last year’s top winning shows were Veep, The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies and an episode of Black Mirror. The ratings of those shows were nowhere near the most popular shows (like NCIS or America’s Got Talent) which got no Emmy awards.
And so it goes. Sometimes there is overlap in popularity and awards — but that is the exception more than the rule. Movies are no different than other media. And rightly so.
To me, it reflects a basic truth: The “best” (as judged by critical standards of knowledgeable people) is often not what is most popular. Otherwise, a velvet Elvis would be hanging next to the Mona Lisa. If you want to see awards based just on popularity — watch the People’s Choice Awards.
That said, the Academy Awards do not have an unmarred history of picking quality over popularity. There are many occasions where the Best Picture award went to mediocre popular movies. And numerous articles decried those “injustices” at the time (and do so even today). I view the current situation as an improvement.
It is also true, as the WSJ article points out, that the gap between Oscar voters and the public has widened in recent years. There was a time when a truly great picture both won the Best Picture award and was among the most popular of the year (e.g., The Godfather). This almost never happens anymore. The WSJ attributes this to a shift in viewing habits (with more and more viewers watching the latest Netflix movie rather than going to the theater) and to the importance of international markets (which reward comic-book, sci-fi and action movies above all else) for box office success. Again, I don’t view this as indicating that Academy voters are “out of touch.”
In fact, I was astounded by one statistic in the WSJ article: The average American sees only 4 movies a year! And these are almost all super-hero blockbusters like Wonder Woman. Given that, how can you expect the public to make any sort of informed judgment on what is the best of the year?
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