Are The Oscars Elitist?

Are The Oscars Elitist?

In light of James Cameron’s recent comments about bias at The Oscars, Josefine Bersztel tackles the question of whether the blockbuster is unfairly ignored by the Academy Awards.

In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, director James Cameron openly criticized what he believes to be the Academy Awards’ implicit bias against blockbusters. Cameron, who holds an impressive three Oscars to his name, made the rather bold claim in this interview that the Academy are continually losing out on viewers of their annual show (with last year’s ceremony receiving the third lowest viewership of all-time) as a result of their elitist fixation on telling “the great unwashed what they should be watching”.

It may be the case that many multi-million dollar productions find themselves devoid of nominations at the Oscars, but then again: isn’t the Academy supposed to be celebrating the very best films of the year, and not just those that make the most money? Quite often, in fact, as is generally the case within the movie industry, money does not always equal excellence. Just take a quick look at the top grossing films of 2015. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Furious 7 not only made the most bank at the box-office, but were also notably part of hugely successful franchises and without a doubt the most anticipated blockbusters of the year.

However, just because they made more money, and had more money invested in them, can we really call them better films than the likes of Spotlight or the Big Short? I think not. And I personally believe it has more to do with the quality of said blockbusters as opposed to the purported elitist agenda suggested by Mr Cameron. It’s become an unfortunate pattern in Hollywood that the highest grossing films these days are typically either remakes or sequels, so I think you can hardly blame the Academy for not rewarding these big blockbusters for, what is essentially, a rehash of the same story over and over again.

Besides, Cameron seems to actively ignore that almost every year a blockbuster by one of cinema’s greats does tend to get nominated for Best Picture. It is only on the rare occasion that the calibre of directors such as Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee, make a movie that is not nominated for at least one statuette. The ever-decreasing amount of viewers of the Academy Awards can be said to be a result of many different things, but quite frankly a lack of blockbusters is not one of them. A more likely possibility is the tighter restrictions posed by the FCC on what hosts can joke about, or possibly the increasing amount of competing award ceremonies viewers can watch.

Later on in the interview Cameron also expresses his discontent of the Academy’s bias for ‘acting movies’. By drawing an example from one of his own films, he explains how a film like Avatar, where the ‘[visual] effects are right out front’, is not going to be rewarded the same way as a movie like Titanic, which has visual effects but focuses more on the people and the story.

There are many ways to go about this, but in the case of Avatar, that movie frankly just wasn’t good enough to win. Sorry, James. The Best Picture award goes to the Producer for managing the best team which means that the movie must be outstanding in every category rather than excelling in just one. Whilst Avatar was visually pleasing, when it boils down to it the story was just a modern take on Pocahontas, with the acting being nowhere near as good as the performances seen in Inglorious Basterds and Precious.  

Furthermore, the key ingredient to winning an Oscar is more often than not sheer luck, as we have seen in particular in DiCaprio’s case. Even if you have consistently made first class movies throughout your entire career, there’s always the chance that someone has also made the movie of his/her lifetime that very same year. In the years following Avatar’s nominations, several Best Picture winners have been absolutely outstanding – blockbuster or not. Just take The Artist for example: it was certainly an audacious risk as one of the only black and white, silent movies released in the modern era, yet it still managed to impress audiences worldwide because of its inherent charm and quality. Likewise, Iñarritu’s Birdman impressed with its display of immense talent in cinematography and screen-writing.

Granted some years host a weaker field than others, but that is usually dependent on the quality of movies released that year, not only what movies are elected by the Academy.

By looking at the nominations this year, several of the Best Picture nominations are somewhat larger productions like La La Land, Hidden Figures and Arrival. These films may not have not generated the same money as Star Wars: Rouge One, and Finding Dory, yet they are still blockbusters per definition with an average box office of $106 million.

When it comes down to it, Cameron can moan as much as he likes, but we all know that he’s just bitter that his large blue cat-infested crappy space-Pocahontas got robbed out of most of its 2010 Oscar nominations by none other than his ex-wife.


Josefine Bersztel