Popular Film, Criticism, and the Oscars

On August 8th, 2018, the organization behind the Academy Awards announced that they were going to issue a new “Best Popular Film” category. Needless to say, an announcement like this stirred a lot of controversy. When I first heard about it, I initially agreed with many of the naysayers. I was worried that this was a pity party for popular film, that it was patronizing, and would likely keep films like Black Panther from having a shot at Best Picture (which it 100% deserves, by the way). Many theorize, and I agree, that the success of Black Panther may have contributed to the new category. Perhaps the Academy didn’t think it could include the superhero film in their Best Picture lineup, but also wanted to avoid another #OscarsSoWhite backlash. Good luck with that.

The announcement also begged the question, what exactly is popular film? And why is it different from the Best Picture category? Now that’s another topic for another day, but for the purposes of this video, we’re going to assume that popular film is about what you’d expect: the superhero, Star Wars, or Mission Impossible films of the day.

Now, while the concept of a popular film category is problematic for a number of reasons, I eventually thought about it more and began to come around to the idea. At least in part. You see, some films just don’t belong together, and should not be compared in a single critical award. Many awards know this. The Golden Globes, for example, split their awards based on genre, like drama and comedy. Sometimes it’s hard to even compare stories within the same overall genre. For example, I never really liked people who tried to say that Star Trek was better than Star Wars or vice versa. Because even though they both take place in space and have the word “Star” in their title, the similarities basically end there. One is a space fantasy adventure, and one is an optimistic space exploration story. So even at the sub-genre level, these stories carry very different expectations.

Speaking of which, expectations are one of the most important factors to consider in how a film is either liked or disliked. In my research on writing in specific genres for my book business, I’ve discovered that people really don’t like originality like they say they do. With books, people tend to read only a certain handful of genres, and they get upset when a book doesn’t follow the common tropes usually found in that genre. For example, if you have a book cover that suggests young adult fantasy, people are going to be upset if you don’t have some kind of romance in the book. Preferably a love triangle. Because without that you’ve just written a different kind of fantasy, not a young adult fantasy. In short, you don’t make promises in your marketing and deliver something different.

Now this is probably why the 2009 Star Trek was not well received by Trekkies, or the mainstream Trek fans. Critics loved the new Star Trek, which received a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s higher than any Trek film that came before it. Yet many fans saw it as a betrayal of what made up the fundamentals of Star Trek. It was more of a gritty, big budget space war film, meant to appeal to a broader audience. It did its job perfectly, even if it didn’t fully the expectations of its former niche market.

Expectations are also the same reason why more fans seemed to like the recent Avengers: Infinity War, but there were also many who did not like Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The former met expectations more than the latter, which instead paved new ground as to what a Star Wars film could be. It was different, and definitely did not fulfill expectations. But that’s a can of worms topic that we will probably have to discuss in a seperate video.

Bottom line is that people have expectations of what is good and what is bad. Violating these expectations is what might cause someone to label a film as a “bad” movie.

But what about professional critics?

Film critics clearly had a different view on films like the 2009 Star Trek, or Star Wars: The Last Jedi, favoring both far better than many of the fans. Why is that? Well, to answer that question, we must first take a look at the role a critic plays in our society and how they differ from fans.

First of all, we’re talking about professional critics here, mostly for film, though much of the same could be said of other storytelling mediums. Not the bloggers, not the YouTubers (even though I count myself among that group).

Critics serve a role in helping us understand if we should or shouldn’t watch a film. But it’s a lot more than that. When done well, film criticism will educate us about storytelling, and cause us to think in ways we might not have done otherwise. Perhaps the most famous film critic, Roger Ebert, said this about critics:

“A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.”

The age of the Internet has led to a lot of watered down critics, critics who don’t get much further than saying they liked one story or didn’t like another. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These critics likely speak to a demographic of like-minded people, and therefore their criticism will be valued as indicative of whether that audience is likely to enjoy a story or not. I’m often guilty of this in my own reviews, because I’m not writing to help deepen a person’s understanding of the story (like I’m trying to do with this blog), I’m just letting my audience know if I think they will like it or not.

But true criticism is highly educated in the craft they review, whether that be film, gaming, literary fiction or, indeed, popular storytelling.

But let’s stop there because you might be thinking, well what does all of that matter if criticism of a story is all subjective? And that is a very good question. Let’s take a look.

Recently I had an experience where someone I knew mentioned a book they loved and wanted to get his kids to read. I casually mentioned that the book wasn’t really good. He grew upset at this and told me that was just subjective. Which that got me thinking…

Is it?

In that instance my friend was trying to tell me that my opinion was subjective as a way of validating his own. As if to say that my criticism wasn’t valid because he felt differently. And opinions are one thing, it’s totally okay to like something that most people do not. That’s your opinion. I for one love Return of the Jedi more than any other Star Wars film, even though I know it’s critically not the best of the bunch. Liking something is your opinion, and no one can argue with that. I would argue that having an opinion is not what professional critics do, and I’ll tell you why.

Now, before you angrily sound off in the comments, let me point out that at a certain level, my friend was right, criticism is subjective. It’s based on a system of values and expectations like I mentioned before with genre. We expect good stories to do things a certain way, and “bad” stories don’t do those things. These expectations do shift over time. But then why would it seem like heresy to suggest that, say Iron Man 2 was the best movie Marvel’s ever made. Not that you like it the best, that’s another thing, but that it is the best. That would be a tough pill to swallow, and a claim that most educated critics will not make.

And if everything were to be completely subjective, that would essentially negate the need for educated critics. So where do we draw the line?

Critics subscribe to generally accepted schools of thought. These are standards of good storytelling. And there are a lot of different types. We call these critical frameworks which help guide a critic in their analysis of a certain piece. Now this is where subjectiveness comes into play. A critic can choose to value one or several frameworks over others. And favorability of certain frameworks can shift over time and across cultures.

But that being said, there are standards of storytelling that are considered timeless. These are best identified by looking at popular stories that have withstood the test of time and see what they do, like the works of William Shakespeare. You could also look at elements that pop up in all cultures throughout the history of storytelling, such as the monomyth identified by Joseph Campbell in the Hero with a Thousand Faces. Identifying your list of criteria is essential in criticism, and this is basically what you would learn when studying film or storytelling. You would learn the “rules” for crafting a good story.

Once you have identified your preferred critical framework, it becomes much easier to say a story is bad or good within that framework. For example, if you’re doing a feminist read of a text and the bechdel test is part of your list of criteria, it becomes easy to identify if a story does or does not pass the bechdel test. It either does, or it doesn’t, and there’s no opinion either way. And with that reading, a story that passes the bechdel test would be rated higher. Obviously a story is judged on more than just one criteria like this one but you get the idea.

Now it’s possible to favor multiple frameworks or multiple readings of a given text, which is why some critics come away with seemingly different opinions. This is actually one of the reasons why it’s important to have diversity in film criticism. A feminist reading of a text will likely be far different than that of a straight white young male (which yes, I acknowledge I’m one of those). Reading these diverse opinions will succeed at the purpose of true criticism, of teaching you and helping you appreciate storytelling even more.

Now you might say, Jason, this really isn’t helping your argument that criticism isn’t entirely subjective and I just don’t really need to care about it. Well hold up a minute. Critics may differ, even a lot at times, but when you add them all together, they do tend to agree about a lot of things on the whole. Rotten Tomatoes has a lot of problems, but overall I think it does a decent job of showing the trends for films that critics generally like, and films they generally don’t. It also does one thing the academy awards previously did not: It gives popular film an equal chance at its highest rankings. Only a few “popular” films have ever won the best awards that the Oscars have to offer. Most notably The Return of the King. But these films are few and far between. Rotten Tomatoes on the other hand will have films of all genres and popularities reaching into the top 10%.

However, we again come to that popularity question. You see, in 2017 Rotten Tomatoes gave The Shape of Water a 92% rating. That film eventually went on to win Best Picture for the year. But you know what else had a 92% rating on RT? Thor: Ragnorok. Now, don’t get me wrong. Thor:Ragnarok was an incredible superhero film, and fully deserved its 92%. But the two films simply can’t be compared to each other, even though The Shape of Water also falls under the broad genre of Speculative Fiction. And while I think Thor: Ragnorok is deserving of at least some kind of award nomination, I wouldn’t pit it against something like The Shape of Water.

So that’s why I’m in favor of a popular film category of some kind, just as I am in favor of an animated film category. If the academy hadn’t backtracked on their decision to have a popular film category, my only fear would be that popular films would never be eligible for Best Picture and Popular film.

And that brings me to my last point. The films that win best picture are generally considered “good” by critics according to the generally accepted criteria we discussed earlier, and that also shows on review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes. But many, if not all, of the winners also have one other thing in common. They’re not hugely popular with general audiences, with the winners from the past 10 years making a combined $710,270,801 domestically. In comparison, the recent release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought in $936,662,225 alone. So what does it say about the films the Academy selects if they don’t have the same popularity as other blockbusters?

Some would draw the comparison to fast food, saying that a film critic shouldn’t care about popular film any more than a food critic would care about McDonalds. But that’s not exactly an apt comparison. Fast food is popular because it’s convenient, readily available, and pumped full of sugars, fats, and chemicals that cause the consumer to crave more and more. Popular film is different. Sure, you have some films that appeal to basic trends with little substance, but overall having a good story is still the best way to create a popular hit. The Star Wars, Harry Potters, and Marvel Cinematic Universes of the world became popular not because they were using some cheap tricks to gain viewers, but because they were genuinely good stories (for the most part). The box office flop of DC’s Justice League is a great example of how a film can have huge brand potential, with two of the biggest names in superheroes, and still flop at the box office because it simply wasn’t that great according to the values generally accepted by critics and audiences.

I believe that it’s a good idea not to compare films like the latest superhero film to those that typically win Best Picture. Purely from a genre perspective, they tend to be too different to compare. Critics simply can’t use the same critical framework to critique them both. But at the same time, if the films that consistently win Best Picture do not resonate with audiences in the same way that, say, Black Panther does, then perhaps we need to take a closer look at our values in criticism.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. When I was in college we read a story that I think is relevant here. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t find the original source of this story when I was researching this post, so if you know where I can find it, please let me know in the comments.

A professor was teaching a class in a particular classroom. As part of the class, he wrote up a list of last names, corresponding to the authors of the textbooks they would cover that year. That class finished and the professor left the room. He later returned to teach a class that analyzed poetry. When he arrived, the class was already assembled and the names he had previously written on the board were still there. But instead of assuming they were a simple list of names, the class thought that they were some kind of poem, and had come up with all sorts of possible interpretations while they waited for their professor. At first, the professor thought this was silly, as the list of names were just that, and not poetic in the slightest. But when he thought about it, he realized that just because he had no intention of imbuing the names with any additional meaning, that didn’t mean that meaning did not now exist. The students, in interpreting the list of names as they had, had essentially given them a meaning that hadn’t been there before. And who was the professor to tell them that they were wrong? And at a fundamental level, that’s what all storytelling is really, it’s humanity assigning meaning to things.

It’s clear that popular films mean something to a lot of people, more so than most of the films that win Best Picture. Of all the subjective choices we make to determine our criteria for a story, shouldn’t resonation with a broad audience mean something to critics? Perhaps, if only to let us know that there’s something there worth exploring.

But what do you think? Did you like the inclusion of the popular film category, or do you think the Academy really missed the mark, and are glad they backtracked that decision? Let us know in the comments below!

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