(CNN) — The Oscars have never been exactly predictable, but Hollywood’s biggest night used to consistently reward crowdpleasers.
In the ’90s, box office smashes like “Forrest Gump” and “Titanic” took home best picture, and original hits like “Ghost” and “Beauty and the Beast” reliably earned nominations for the top prize.
But over the last two decades, the Oscars have largely avoided rewarding the blockbuster films that once dominated the awards. For every “Gladiator” and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” there’s a “Crash” or “Green Book” — films that didn’t command the box office to the same degree or particularly enchant many critics and viewers.
Earning a nomination — and eventually winning — an Oscar is no easy feat, and many of the biggest box office smashes of the year don’t stand a chance at best picture. And if they are nominated, like “Avatar: The Way of Water,” awards prognosticators don’t expect them to win.
CNN consulted experts in film and awards shows on why some of the year’s biggest hits are passed over at the Oscars — and whether the 2023 awards could change that pattern.
Best picture voting doesn’t reward risks
Oscars voting is straightforward until it comes to best picture, said Christopher Rosen, digital director of Gold Derby, an outlet that tracks and predicts the biggest awards season races.
For every Oscar category except best picture, the nominee with the most votes wins. But Academy members use a preferential ballot when voting for best picture, ranking the nominees in their preferred order. The system was put into practice in 2010, he said, one year after the number of nominees in the category was expanded from five to up to 10.
Films with the fewest first-place votes are eliminated first, unless one of the films manages to score more than 50% of all number-one votes, Rosen said. This is rare, though, so ballots are whittled down and films are knocked out until one film ranked consistently high across a multitude of ballots remains. Polarizing films have a harder time winning best picture with this system, Rosen said.
“It’s possible then that the best way to win best picture in this current system … is to be simply well-liked,” Rosen told CNN.
Blockbusters today aren’t like ‘Titanic’ or ‘Forrest Gump’
It’s not that Oscars voters are anti-blockbuster — it’s just that blockbusters today are less original fare like “E.T.” and “Titanic.” Instead, there are more sequels, reboots, prequels or other variations on familiar IP (intellectual property), experts told CNN.
The Tom Hanks-starring drama “Forrest Gump,” for example, was a “cultural event” upon its release, Rosen said, and became one of the highest grossing films of 1994 before it won best picture. If “Forrest Gump” was released today, Rosen said, it would likely be a “much less successful theatrical film” or limited series, if it was made at all.
“These days, the top-grossing films are usually either sequels, superhero movies, or sequels to superhero movies,” said Dave Karger, a Turner Classic Movies host and Entertainment Weekly award correspondent. “Those aren’t the kind of films, by and large, that speak to the Academy.”
The advent of streaming and box office domination of Disney has changed the kinds of films that audiences seek out at home versus in theaters, and with so many streaming services, there’s a glut of films buried within algorithms that some viewers may never find. With Covid-19 in the mix, it takes something special to convince audiences to buy a ticket to watch something — theatergoing can feel like more of an event than an everyday activity. The formula for box office success is narrowing, too, but familiar IP is a major draw. That means fewer original blockbusters like “Gladiator” (which is now has its own sequel in the works) and more installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Movies used to be a monoculture, but even the biggest movies don’t really approach the kind of universality that something like a popular television series might,” Rosen said.
Oscars voters tend to reward ‘important’ films
The type of film that used to win an Oscar has evolved throughout the awards show’s existence.
“The Oscar pendulum swings between the gritty and the grandiose, just as popular tastes do,” said Loren PQ Baybrook, the editor-in-chief of the journal Film & History and a film professor who has taught at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. “Movies almost can’t help but lurch from one extreme to another … the same goes for the people behind the movies: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”
The films that wind up getting nominated for Oscars don’t have much in common these days. Some have a veneer of prestige based on creative teams or source material, while others have indie credibility or the mass approval of audiences — but Academy voters do tend to reward “important” films, said Karger. These films “speak to the times or offer some kind of social message,” he said.
That emphasis on “importance” might be why “Black Panther” became the first Marvel film to be nominated for best picture in 2019, Baybrook said. (Rosen also noted that the 2019 ceremony saw higher ratings than the previous year.) It was among the first superhero films with a primarily Black cast, and it received some of the best reviews of any Marvel film. And after years of Oscars viewers calling out the lack of Black nominees, the voting body finally nominated a film that was “able to accommodate complex racial questions at the blockbuster level of production,” Baybrook said.
Of course, “Black Panther” didn’t win that year — the 1960s, Deep South-set comedy “Green Book” did (it also attempted to address race, but many critics believed it did so clumsily). Academy voters tend to “vote with their hearts, not their heads,” said Karger, which explains how less acclaimed films like “Crash” and “Green Book,” which may have struck an emotional chord with voters, can score the top prize.
As for this year’s nominees, “they are all over the place,” Baybrook said. There are blockbusters and biopics, art films and crowdpleasers — studio tentpoles “Elvis” and “Top Gun: Maverick” are just as at home among the nominees as critical darlings “Tár” and “The Banshees of Inisherin.”
“I think we’re looking at the middle of the pendulum swing in the history of nominations, a period of apparent balance when the Oscars look eclectic and seem focused on the substance and style of the films themselves,” Baybrook said.
When their favorite films aren’t nominated, some fans stop watching
Over the last few years, the Oscars have had a viewership problem. The show is long — usually stretching over three hours — and viewers have little incentive to watch when they don’t expect their favorite films to win, said Juju Green, a film commentator on TikTok with more than 3 million followers who loves superhero blockbusters and prestige fare in equal measure.
Nominating a film like “Black Panther” in 2019 and not rewarding it felt like a play to attract wider audiences to watch the ceremony, Green said, with little reward for the audience.
“It alienates the general audience” when the year’s biggest films — which, granted, typically includes fare that Academy voters avoid — are missing from the Oscars telecast, Green said. That’s likely one reason why the Academy included a “most cheer-worthy moment” honorary category during last year’s ceremony that fans could vote on (they settled on a scene of DC superhero the Flash entering the Speed Force in Zack Snyder’s extended cut of “Justice League”).
But ultimately, even though arguments over whether the Oscars still “matter” will likely continue for as long as the Oscars exist, filmmakers will still create without the expectation of earning the gold statuette, Green said, and audiences will still trek to theaters to see the next Marvel movie or whichever film Tom Cruise defies gravity in next. But those films, even if they lack the same artistic ingenuity of original films like “Tár” or “The Banshees of Inisherin,” still matter to audiences, Green said.
“These are the movies that bring in hundreds of thousands of millions of people,” he said. “People experience these things together — that in and of itself is something so special.”
That’s why fans and film buffs like Green are celebrating the success of a film like “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which feels like a blockbuster in its scope but also, with its butt plugs, talking raccoon and hot dog fingers, tries weird things that most mainstream hits would shy from. If it can be overly broad or bloated with ideas, as some critics have said, it’s also more earnest and sentimental than many of the other contenders.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” has heart in spades. Karger predicts it’ll run away with best picture this year.
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