Flowing Data recently highlighted an interesting infographic which contrasted the yearly difference between the top ten grossing movies and Academy Award nominations over the past century…
What I love about infographics is how easily they can sum up a lot of data in a meaningful, visual way. One thing that really jumps out at me on this one is how over time the overlap between the two has shrunk – even to the point that over the past few years there was a long stretch where there were no similarities between the two lists.
So, why the disconnect between awards and popularity? To answer that question, I think we need to understand what we’re measuring.
Box Office success has a lot on inputs. There is marketing, actor popularity, subject matter, story quality, competition, target audience, among others. There are many examples of great movies which were box office flops but through television and home video became classics. It’s a Wonderful Life, Office Space, Tron, and the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are just a few of the movies most people say are among their favorites but started out as disappointments. The Wizard of Oz barely made back its production costs and would be considered a flop today. There are also plenty of movies that weren’t all that great but made plenty of money simply due to having the right combination of inputs. The Star Wars prequel trilogy comes to mind as a great example.
The Academy Awards are a bit different. They are nominated for, voted upon, and awarded by and to those who create movies. These folks are looking at a whole different set of criteria and aren’t quite as interested in what goes into making them popular. They have been to film and acting school and have studied the finest examples of the medium. (Which hardly explains all the bad movies out today, but that’s another topic…). It’s possible an actor who created a brilliant performance in an otherwise mediocre film can be recognized for his or her work, and a quick web search will land you plenty of top-ten lists of such a feat. Also, I suspect there may be an element of politics and favoritism in the award voting. It may even reflect how easy it is to work with someone. You never know what all goes into someone’s vote. It’s very a very subjective thing.
I think with an infographic like this, it’s easy to look at this as a contrast between quality and popularity and ask “Why aren’t quality films popular?” I don’t think that is necessarily true. Popular movies might have the highest quality in all their components. They may hit the bull’s-eye in what they are aiming for and be thoroughly enjoyable to even the most jaded film critic. No, these are two different measurements completely. The Academy Awards simply measure peer opinion on specific criteria, while the box office measures customer opinion on a far wider range of standards. And those are two way different things.
The lesson to me as an author is to do my best to earn both the respect of my peers and my readers by being true to myself and my passions, to build on my strengths and address/minimize my weaknesses, and to always strive to learn from everyone and be better at what I do everyday. And that might be a good lesson for everyone.
Do you think awards make a difference?