Oscars 'popular film' category might be a good idea, the math suggests

Commentary: Let’s crunch some Academy Awards numbers.

Rebecca Fleenor Former Project Manager
Rebecca Fleenor was an editorial project manager. She enjoys all things wacky, techie and entertaining, and she's usually off binge-watching films and television shows (and writing them in her spare time).
Rebecca Fleenor
4 min read
Greg Harbaugh/Dolby Laboratories

And the Oscar for the best popcorn blockbuster goes to...

The Academy Awards are adding a new category for popular film. What that means, nobody knows, because the academy hasn't filled in any details. All we know is that the flicks considered for outstanding achievement in popular film will also be eligible for best picture.

Even though the details are still unconfirmed, the announcement has led to outrage among film fans who feel a separate category for blockbusters is condescending to filmmakers and audiences. One of my fellow CNET staffers argues this distinction between "popular" and "serious" art just shows the academy is out of touch.

Hang on a second. Let's take a quick step back and look at how the academy is attempting to fill a genuine gap in its awards. To do that, we're going to crunch some numbers. 

History of the best picture

But first, a brief history lesson on the best picture award, which has gone through a number of changes in the Academy Awards' 90-year history.

The first Academy Awards were held in 1927, and initially there were two best picture categories: outstanding picture, and unique and artistic picture. The unique and artistic picture award was dropped after just one year -- and since then, the top Oscar has been renamed a number of times. 

Janet Gaynor and Frank Borzage with Academy Award

Winning director Frank Borzage and actress Janet Gaynor at the first ever Academy Awards.


First it was the Academy Award for outstanding picture. Then it was changed to outstanding production. Next it was renamed outstanding motion picture, then best motion picture, and, since 1962, the Academy Award for best picture.

What about nominations? The first Academy Awards saw just three films nominated. By 1933 the field expanded to eight nominees, then 10 films in 1934, 12 in 1935 and back to 10 in 1937. Finally, the category was limited to just five nominees in 1945, and that's the way it stayed for more than 60 years.

But in 2009, the academy widened the playing field to a possible 10 nominees. The idea was to open the category to more popular blockbusters and genre films. 

Sid Ganis, president of the academy at the time, said that "having 10 best picture nominees is going to allow academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize."


Avatar was the first big blockbuster to be nominated for best picture when the field was widened again.


He's talking about blockbusters, which get recognized for technical achievements like effects and sound. These are often well-deserved for the teams of innovators and creators who conjure these eye-popping effects. These awards single out specific aspects of filmmaking prowess without rewarding the film as a whole. 

Except that in the last nine Academy Award ceremonies since the nomination cap was raised, big blockbusters have been entirely shut out of the best picture prize.

Lower-budget films now dominate best picture

Let's take a quick look at the budgets of the best picture winners, starting with those scooping up the award since the nominee cap was raised and followed by the previous victors.

Best Picture Winner



The Shape of Water









Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)



12 Years a Slave






The Artist



The King's Speech



The Hurt Locker


Average Budget from 2017 - 2009 : $19M

Best Picture Winner



Slumdog Millionaire



No Country for Old Men



The Departed






Million Dollar Baby



The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King






A Beautiful Mind





Average Budget from 2008 - 2000: $52M

Best Picture Winner



American Beauty



Shakespeare in Love






The English Patient






Forrest Gump



Schindler's List






The Silence of the Lambs


Average Budget 1999 - 1991: $50M

So from 1991 to 2008, when the field was narrowed and it was harder for blockbusters to get a nod, the best picture winners cost, on average, about $50 million to make. Then from 2009 to 2017, when the field was supposed to have been opened to blockbusters, the budgets of best picture-winning films actually dropped to an average of $19 million. And this doesn't even account for inflation, which would raise the average budgets of older films even higher.

The numbers don't lie. Lower-budget films are winning more frequently since the nominee cap was raised.


Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated for best picture but didn't win in 2016. Spotlight got the Oscar. 

Warner Bros.

What do the numbers mean?

If the Academy Awards' goal by increasing the nominee cap was to be more inclusive of popular big-budget blockbusters like the $150 million budget Mad Max: Fury Road, it completely backfired. All it's done is put a spotlight on lower-budget films like Spotlight.

And if this trend continues, it seems "popular" films like Fury Road, The Last Jedi and Black Panther will only ever get a "pat on the back" nomination, with little hope of ever actually winning. Which is where the popular film category comes in.

Whether a popular film accolade is the right solution to this sidelining of big-budget filmmaking remains to be seen. But given the data I'm looking at, the academy needed to do something. Because if it doesn't adapt to the changing moviemaking landscape, do we really need to take the Academy Awards that seriously anyway?

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