What makes a film ‘good’? Is it the range of emotions felt? Is it the predicted longevity of the impact of the art on society? Is it good if it wins an Oscar? Many great questions have been asked by many great minds on the philosophy of art. Put more simply, we can ask, is Shrek better than A Beautiful Mind?
20 years ago, at the 2002 Oscars, A Beautiful Mind picked up the Best Picture award, beating out fellow nominees including the first Lord of the Rings, Moulin Rouge, Gosford Park, and In the Bedroom.
Shrek won the first-ever Best Animated Feature trophy, beating out Monsters Inc and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Shrek and Monsters Inc were both released to critical acclaim and grossed an average of $500m each at the box office.
If a film receives good reviews (meaning it’s liked by critics) and makes a lot of money at the box office (meaning it’s liked by the public) then surely that film is ‘good’ enough to be an Oscar contender? Or is there something else at play?
Shrek made more money, and received higher critical acclaim than A Beautiful Mind – so was Shrek undeservedly snubbed? And why do the Oscars have such a hard time deciding on a Best Picture?
The Oscars have had an up-and-down relationship with popular opinion. Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, film scholar Gene Del Vecchio examines the shift in tastes:
“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.”
It’s this fork in the road that leads to where we are now. The Academy stopped thinking about what it means to award best films, and instead pivoted to awarding Oscars that represented how they wanted the outside world to see Hollywood (see: the forgettable The Artist in 2011 and the simplistic and reductive Green Book beating truly impactful Black Panther in 2018). Yet this focus on external optics has led to the lowest viewing figures in history and an apathy for the whole process.
So where are we now? This past year, James Bond’s long awaited return with No Time To Die gave the adrenaline shot the cinema industry needed, before Spiderman: No Way Home became the sixth highest grossing film in history – simultaneously adored by critics and fans alike but ignored as a contender for Best Picture.
However, in recognition of the growing divide, the Academy has decided to introduce a new award – the Oscars Fan Favourite. The award is voted for via Twitter, with fans able to vote up to 20 times per day. As expected, this has caused carnage with online fandoms mobilising to rig the vote in their favour. An epic battle of Johnny Depp fans vs. Camilla Cabello stans vs. Tom Holland supporters vs. MCU obsessives. A brief Google search would have shown the Academy that a 20 entries per day Twitter vote is sure to lead to a Boaty McBoatface biopic about a ship becoming an Arsenal footballing legend, soundtracked by BTS.
For all the good the Academy has done in recent years with examining their membership and voting process, what does the introduction of a popularity contest award really say? That the moviegoers, paying for the industry to produce films, paying for the lavish ceremony, clearly don’t know what’s good for them?
Streaming services, traditional TV, and cinemas will hope for a solution that avoids a new schism emerging between blockbusters for the big screen and drama’s that only exist through streaming services.
We can learn a lot from the Oscars’ struggle to grapple with the mainstream audience of their own industry. It’s a battle that brands will have over their lifetime as they attempt to reinvent themselves to win over new audiences while pleasing current advocates.
The Oscars debate shows that you cannot be all things to all people. A clear strategy, an understanding and respect of the audience, and a willingness to adapt are key in a time of quickly shifting values.
So in 2023, maybe it’ll be time for the Oscars to take off the tuxedos, recognise the mainstream, and please the public by retroactively awarding Shrek the Best Picture prize it clearly, so richly deserved.