Popularity versus Art

This year’s Oscars marks a new battleground for the dichotomy of art-house vs. blockbuster movies.  By increasing the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 selections, it looks like the Academy is aiming at allowing the blockbusters a shot at the coveted statuette, and not the other way round.

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Why do I say that?  A look at the past winners in recent years would give a hint or two:  Slumdog Millionaire (2008), a production of just $15 million and a cast of unknown, foreign actors; No Country for Old Men (2007), a $25 million production and not a big hit domestically in terms of box office sales.

Several of the Best Picture contenders in recent years are represented by low-budget indie films, such as Juno (2007) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006).  Mind you, they might have reaped millions from their Oscar nods after the fact.

Not that blockbusters are necessarily artistically deficient, or that indie films must be artistically worthy, but it’s safe to say that blockbuster movies are crowd pleasers and more readily received. Art-house films are offered only in limited release, and appreciated by a much smaller audience.  Their low budget usually means no A-list stars.  It also restricts the profuse use of innovative technology as in big budget productions such as Avatar (2009).  So their general appeal is the essence of the screenplay, the acting, the storytelling within very limited means.

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The two front-runners of this year’s nominations best illustrate this point. The battle of the ex-es aside, Avatar and The Hurt Locker are neck and neck with 9 nods, competing in many of the same categories. But The Hurt Locker appears in two that are crucial in defining its artistic value as a motion picture:  Best Actor (Jeremy Renner) and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Mark Boal), while Avatar falls short in these categories.

From the popularity angle, some refer their contention as David and Goliath.  The Hurt Locker, with a production cost of just $11 million and box office sales of $12.6 million, is miniscule when compared to that of Avatar’s $635 million, so far, and a reported budget of $237 million, one of the most expensive movies ever made.

Another way of seeing the two is the number of theatres screening the movies.  Avatar has over 3,000 theatres domestically, while The Hurt Locker, well, you’re lucky to catch it before it disappears from its limited release.  The DVD is out, so that really helps if you want to see it before the Awards night.

The other contenders pose a similar scenario.  Other than Avatar, four Best Pictures nominees have passed, way passed, the $100 million box office sales:The Blind Side ($242 million)Up ($293 million)Inglorious Basterds ($120 million), and District 9 ($115 million). Slightly trailing behind are Up In The Air ($77 million) and Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire ($46 million).

So what stand out are two little films, meager in comparison in terms of box office sales:  An Education ($9.6 million) and A Serious Man ($9.2 million).Their high acclaim from critics do not materialize in popular reception from movie goers, which is not surprising, for generally, these two groups don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Box office sales are the mark of popularity.  They measure how many have flocked to the theatres and are willing to pay to see a movie. Low ticket sales of course is related to how widely released the movie is, but it also gauges popular taste. There’s the rub, would the Academy members vote for a movie that has been seen by just a fraction of the viewing public?  Would they judge a movie only on its artistic and technical merits rather than the sales it generates?

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Michael Phillips of Chicago Tribune calls the inclusion of The Blind Side in this year’s Best Picture pool “a triumph of the till”.  Many critics are surprised to see it on the list.  And I suppose for Hollywood insiders and members of the Academy, they know very well what the bottom line is.  I’ve heard the argument before: If you want to see indie films and artsy productions, go to Sundance and Cannes.  I can hear them grumble … be realistic, the Oscars is a celebration of the movie business in all its glory and glamour.

I’ve appreciated what one entertainment writer has noted:

… popularity is the spiritual currency of Hollywood’s art. That’s why we call it ‘pop culture.’

It seems that nowadays, spurred on by reality talent shows which generate winners through popular votes, the contention of popularity versus skills or artistic merits is tipped way out of balance.  The critics are now made up of the populace; the panel of judges can only voice their opinion, however biting, but they do not get to vote.

And for the lesser known gems like An Education and A Serious Man, I’m glad they are included in the Best Picture pool, thanks to those who have nominated them despite their meager showing at the box office. After all, besides the money-generating function, film is in essence an art form.  Art for art’s sake or for profit remains the on-going debate.  Of course, the two need not be mutually exclusive… reality is, the financial component often is the main sustenance of a production.  It’ll be interesting to see though how the battle of David and Goliath turns out at the Oscars this year.  The implications could be more far-reaching than just churning out another winner.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

4 thoughts on “Popularity versus Art”

  1. Isn’t it sad that movies are no longer rewarded for being movies (your definition of “art-house” films)but for being extended celebrations of special effects?
    Avatar was amazing in its technical wizardry, but I wanted more story. And until I read this, I had never heard of The Hurt Locker.

    Thanks, Arti!


    Welcome back! Well now’s the time for movies, play catch up before March 7. The Hurt Locker is one riveting cinematic production, and Kathryn Bigelow could well be the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. Also, I’m sure you’ll enjoy An Education as well.

    Movies are visual storytelling… so the bare essence, before any technical effects, there should be first a story to tell.



  2. Your point about story-telling is ~ well, telling.
    I’ve found myself increasingly bored by movies or television shows with overdone special effects. Sometimes I wonder if they’re contributing to a loss of imagination among movie goers.

    I love books or films that are engaging, that pull me in to the storyline or allow me to identify with the characters. When I went to see Avatar, I felt like a spectator. It was an interesting experience.

    As for that popularity/art business ~ it’s everywhere, isn’t it? I have a friend who’s a painter. She does beautiful, compelling work, but sells only 2-3 canvases a year. She says she constantly feels like a teenager with no date for the homecoming dance. No matter how much mama says “But honey, you’re beautiful on the inside!, it doesn’t count.

    I really hope one of the shy little films gets recognized this year – a vote for inner beauty would be nice 😉


    Your paragraph about your artist friend just made me smile… how true! Isn’t it passé to just nurture ‘inner beauty’ nowadays? I’m afraid so. By definition, ‘show business’ is first and foremost, ‘show’,,, it’s all about the glamour, the glitz and glory. That’s why I love to see the underdog win, not blindly though. I feel all the ‘little films’ in the Best Picture category are very worthy productions. I’ll write my review of The Hurt Locker soon… what a powerful film. Seems like you’re very up-to-date with your movie viewing. If you have a chance, do go see An Education and A Serious Man. I’m sure you’ll really appreciate them.



  3. I completely agree. I remember when we moved back from Istanbul how I was blown away by the glitzy graphics on Monday Night Football – and a little disgusted I must say. We need moving pictures to knock our visual socks off all the time?

    Last year when The Dark Knight didn’t get nominated for best picture there was a lot of uproar that many people wouldn’t watch the Academy Awards show as a result. Opening the field up to 10 films this year – with The Blind Side included – is for ratings for the award show, first and foremost, from what I understand based on the NPR stories I’ve heard. I guess the Oscar franchise gets to do what they want, but it makes me take the awards less seriously.

    As for Avatar, I resisted seeing it and finally went because my son loved it and Don wanted to. It took half the movie to get me past annoyed. I finally did get attached to the characters, because character development was one of the good points of the film. I am not a lover of fantasy, and so that is hard for one. And as you say, the story was thin and worn. I kept imagining that if this weren’t a visual feast (not all that appealing to me, frankly, but I did like the little seed spirits), and those were indigenous Native Americans, say, wouldn’t we be watching Dances with Wolves or how many other stories like it? It was very predictable and I felt uncomfortable with the whole thing. But I’m glad I saw it, so when Peter comes home Friday I can discuss it with him. He always challenges me to look at things from every angle. I look forward to it!


    Yes, I remember The Dark Knight uproar when it wasn’t included. As I’ve mentioned, the bottom line is very clear. So this widening of the selections to 10 could well serve the purpose of getting more to go see movies and pleasing a wider audience.

    As for Avatar, you suggested its resemblance to Dances With Wolves… another one I’ve heard is Pocahontas. Just personal preference, when I see a movie, I’m more into the development of story and character than visual effects and techno wizardry. That’s why I always find myself rooting for the ‘little’ indie films. But Peter has his point, and that is so true too… we can’t ignore what’s going on around us… pop culture, eRevolution, digital make-over of almost every aspect of our life.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your view and discussion!



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