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Are Awards Unfair to Popcorn And Comic Book Movies?

Where are your nominations, Chris Evans? Where??


Recently, Deadline published an interesting interview with Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as part of their never-ending “Awards Watch.” The question: should their film be a contender for best picture? Seems simple enough perhaps; if it came out that year and is submitted for consideration, it is a contender. But that isn’t really true.

Awards consideration is as big a business as any other part of Hollywood. It can mean a future of major releases and bigger projects when someone from a little movie is nominated for a major award. To run an awards campaign, studios and PR departments need to divide and conquer; they decide which films are the most likely nominees, and then promote them heavily. So with Disney, there are a few films which are “eligible” for Awards consideration; this year, they had Bears (a documentary), Planes: Fire and Rescue (a cartoon), and the live-action films Muppets: Most Wanted, Million Dollar Arm, Maleficent, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible No Good Very Bad Day – none of which will be campaigned for best picture or “major awards.” With the exception of their Christmas release, Into the Woods, it is Disney’s Marvel films which should find themselves in the Awards mix; films like Big Hero Six, and box-office hit/critically-praised Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.

But, as always, the superhero genre label ultimately hurts these films chances for serious awards consideration. Big Hero Six has the best chance of earning Marvel some gold statues, having already given The Incredibles the best animated picture honor in 2003; however, no Marvel movie has ever been nominated for any of the other top awards, and since creating The Marvel Cinematic Universe, they’ve received only five Oscar nominations (all technical). DC has done better, most notably with the nominations for The Dark Knight, although the other films under their banner have also been left out in the cold.

So are they being excluded from awards consideration because these movies are bad? Or are they considered unworthy of the honor because of their genre or commercial success? We don’t really know, but the genre argument is an old one. Since 2009, when ten films have been allowed in the best picture consideration, we’ve only seen four sci-fi films nominated (Gravity, Inception, District 9, and Avatar), two westerns (True Grit and Django Unchained), and one musical (Les Miserables). There’s also been a noticeable increase in comedies being considered worthy of the Best Picture award. Pure genre films, though – including fantasy, thrillers, horror, action, and superhero films – are systematically written off. Those which truly embrace genre are especially marked with the scarlet letter of being “unworthy” of any big awards consideration.

And this is true of nearly every “prestigious” award which is voted on by professional peers or critics. The Golden Globes, which often comment on showing more consideration for the merit of comedy and musicals by having two best picture categories skew extremely “seriously” in their drama categories, and frequently favor dramedies and musicals over broad comedies. But once again, a horror, science-fiction, fantasy or action film is even more likely to be left out of the awards race, because most of these films fall somewhere between serious drama and comedy.

It was my hope that Guardians of the Galaxy would be considered a comedy by the Golden Globes this year and to receive a comedy nomination – but to no avail. Films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier tragically fall within neither comedy or drama, and are therefore essentially unable to even be considered – unless the Globes decide to add Action/Horror as its own category next year. Likewise, the acting required in these “genre” films to make them effective is sometimes completely different from what is needed to be considered “award worthy.”

So why are genre films given an automatic mark against them when it comes to awards? Honestly – it’s been like this ever since Hollywood split between auteur and studio films. After the complicated years of Hollywood in transition between studio system and New Hollywood, the Oscars began recognizing films of American auteurs more than studio pictures. At one time, these films included sci-fi and horror, like The Exorcist, Star Wars, and Jaws. However, in the ’80s and ’90s, when the impact of New Hollywood had been felt and dissipated, these filmmakers began working in the renovated Hollywood system, and the Oscars reverted to a larger variety of film genres (there were a shocking number of comedies nominated for best picture). This, however, caused yet another backlash of claims that the best films were not nominated – at the same time that we experienced a new wave of indie directors in the mid-’90s. Since then, there has been an even greater divide between crowd-pleasing genre films which make money, and “prestige” films. As the gap grows between these types of films, it seems less and less likely (rather than more) that genre films will break through to the awards circuit.

So are these prestige films actually better? That depends on what you are looking for. But one thing is certain: a lot of these genre movies have a lot of skill and craftsmanship equal to or better than the prestige films. So why, if best picture is meant to consider “every element of filmmaking,” do these films get left behind? I believe that, so long as there is a division between popcorn and prestige, the awards will continue to be the place where filmmakers attempt to legitimize their profession – and this requires the exclusion of the less serious, more commercial films.

But I would argue that this is actually doing a disservice to the film industry itself. As more and more small films find their way on the marketplace, prestige is less and less their “selling” point, and even these small films must be able to make some profit (not blockbuster numbers, but at least fall in the black). But this system also holds “popcorn films” to a lower standard, and ignores the achievements of the best. Would films like Transformers or The Amazing Spiderman been given as much of a pass if they were expected to be a critical, as well as commercial, success? And what about some of the socio-political commentary in the best “popcorn movies” of the year, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, How to Train Your Dragon 2, or the upcoming film The Babadook – all films which entertain the audience while approaching very big ideas in interesting and accessible ways.

We’ve all heard that when more is expected of you, and the goal seems achievable, employees work better and accomplish more. One would think the same would be true of this very big industry known as Hollywood. If Hollywood’s elders want their business to stay alive and healthy, expecting more and seeing and acknowledging merit where and everywhere it exists (even in superhero movies) is necessary.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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