There’s no surer reminder of the gap between insider opinion and popular taste than Oscar night. The system of voting for the annual awards gala, Hollywood’s big night of pageantry and self-congratulation, virtually ensures that the big winners will be films that few have actually seen—comparatively speaking, at least. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson noted last year, the Academy’s voters are overwhelming white (94%), predominantly male (74%), and mostly going gray (the average age is 63). Their opinions, in other words, may not exactly be representative of the population’s.

Just look at this year’s slate of Best Picture nominees: We have a collection of self-conscious art films—Birdman, Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Boyhood, a pair of science biopics—The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, and two overtly political selections in Selma and American Sniper (though these two films’ messages could scarcely be less similar). And if you ask, say, the leading Hollywood-focused magazine, the only films that really have a chance are Boyhood and Birdman.

But compare the Best Picture list with the list of the year’s highest-grossing movies—pictures that, whatever their artistic merits, have inarguably been seen by vastly more people and, in that sense, made a bigger cultural impact. The leaders are The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and Guardians of the Galaxy, neck and neck with about $330 million domestic gross each. (For comparison, Birdman’s domestic gross was about $34 million.) We also have to countenance The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The LEGO Movie, and even—gasp!—Michael Bay’s latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction. Indeed, the only movie to make both lists is Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, a film surrounded by political controversy. This year is record-breaking: This group of Best Picture nominees is the lowest grossing since the category was expanded—about $316 million lower than the next lowest year, 2011.

Almost immediately we get into some murky philosophical territory. While it’s easy enough to laugh off the Oscars as Hollywood taking a #Selfie, the fact remains that the awards are culturally important, comparable to the Superbowl in live TV audience. Further, movies that do well at the awards often get second runs at the box office. So we’re faced with the philosophical question: Is there some group of people—for example, a bunch of white, male, aging Hollywood insiders or those self-appointed experts commonly known as movie critics?—who are in a better position to judge what makes “good” cinema than the ordinary men and women who actually go to the movies? If we want to say yes, it seems we have to figure out what makes one person’s aesthetic judgment “better” than someone else’s. We might ask: Is a well-thought-out, voice-y thinkpiece about Birdman in a prominent magazine more deserving of respect than a fan’s essentially private glee at seeing some toys fight each other in The LEGO Movie?

The standard line of response among cinema critics—not surprisingly—is that their opinions are important. They say they’re better informed about film history; they’re less influenced by emotional bias; their tastes more refined; and that their opinions are all-around better reasoned. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, for instance, made this argument earlier this year.

But it’s not clear why we should care about any of these lofty qualifications. When we go the cinema on some particular night, we’ll know whatever we know about film history, feel whatever we feel about the film we watch, and come to our own conclusions through our own experience—no better or worse than the old white men who make up the Academy. If I find Captain America: The Winter Soldier more enjoyable than The Grand Budapest Hotel, who are you—who is anyone?—to say otherwise? What bearing, in other words, do critical qualifications have on subjective enjoyment?

On the other hand, what does subjective enjoyment have to do with artistic merit? We’re in murky philosophical territory here.

Academic work on film theory might guide us in detangling this thorny snarl. Among certain scholars, such as Thomas Schatz and Wheeler Winston Dixon  it’s regarded as a truism that the rise of blockbusters in the 70s (such as Jaws and Star Wars) lead to a decline in the stylistic coherence of Hollywood filmmaking. According to these thinkers, a studio film is an artwork with many authors, all engaged in a collective creativity. By contrast, the blockbuster picture—perhaps best exemplified today by Michael Bay’s Transformers series—is exactly the opposite, a consumer product through and through, having no grander goals than providing easy entertainment for a big audience. Dixon derided these movies as “violent spectacle” contributing to “the collapse of narrative.” In the words of  Australian film professor Richard Maltby, big budget Hollywood is about “the maximum pleasure for the maximum number for the maximum profit.” Big explosions over artistic camerawork, hot girls over character development, etc.

Not all scholars agree, of course. Kristin Thompson’s 1999 book Storytelling in the New Hollywood  suggests that, in fact, these films are deeply coherent; they’re simply marketed differently from the art-house cinema Schatz and Dixon prefer. “One model of a car can be marketed to college kids and young professionals using different ads,” she writes, “but the individual vehicles do not cease to run as a result.” Her argument was taken up by David Bordwell, whose 2006 book The Way Hollywood Tells It contends that, in many ways, the films of today carry on the same narrative conventions that have existed in Hollywood since its inception, even if they are conceived and produced differently.

The Academy, it seems, clings to a vision of artist purity defined by the studio era, preferring the quiet work of auteurs like Wes Anderson to the fireworks show of Guardians of the Galaxy—they side with Schatz and Dixon, seeing themselves as artists. Meanwhile, the film industry of which the Academy is a part has moved on in favor of lowest-common-denominator populism—but they might say, like Thompson and Bordwell, that their films still have a deeper meaning for their many fans. If we live in a democracy in which all people’s aesthetic judgments are equally valid, don’t we have to ask ourselves: Isn’t the rise of populism a good thing?

In the end, it seems likely that those directors who most shamelessly embrace the franchise will prosper, with or without the support of the Academy. Some years ago, at a speaking engagement at the Center for Film Studies at Wesleyan University, Michael Bay (who is a Wesleyan graduate) sat for a Q&A. One student asked him whether he wasn’t concerned that Transformers’ imagery could be construed as pro-war. To which Bay replied: “It’s Transformers, man; it’s a movie about giant robots punching each other.” They may not make arts gratia artis (as was MGM’s motto), but the silly populists can always claim the last laugh.

Further Reading:

Image credit: Tim Olson via Flicker

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Hippo Reads Assistant Editor

Benjamin Winterhalter, Hippo Reads Assistant Editor