Diversity is the big hot button issue surrounding this Academy Award production. Between calls for boycotts and Chris Rock hosting the show, the media is having a field day discussing what will most likely be a fairly tame affair in which people will either awkwardly talk around the criticism. On the other hand someone may use the opportunity to create soundbite history. I’m looking at you Kanye.
While that diversity issue certainly merits a lengthy conversation, I’m going to focus on another diversity issue revolving around this week’s Academy Awards. This week when the envelope is opened to reveal The Revenant as the winner for Best Picture (that’s my guess, be sure to check out Tomlin’s handicaps later this week), there should be a cry of injustice when once again a movie from the Science-Fiction/Fantasy genre is overlooked. That’s right, today I want to address the blatant genre bias which exists at the Academy. You hear that Academy voters?! I’m coming for you. Attica! Attica!
This weekend the Academy will award its 88th Best Picture Award. Since its inception in 1928 only one movie has won the Best Picture Award that fall into the genre of Sci-Fi or Fantasy. That film is Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003). This year, for only the second time in Oscar history there will be two Sci-Fi/Fantasy movies up for Best Picture, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian. Both movies are good, really good. They aren’t just blockbuster good but they check off all the Academy criteria: artistic achievement, critical acclaim, commercially successful, and mostly white people. Unfortunately for these two movies they are up against one of the most highly-anticipated Oscar movies (The Revenant) and a couple of sneaky good dark horses (Spotlight and The Big Short). Let’s face it though, if Avatar couldn’t top The Hurt Locker in 2009, then what real chance do these movies have?
I’ll start by saying I get it, dramas are the heart and soul of the Academy. The deck is stacked from the outset against Sci-Fi/Fantasy films. First off there’s the perception that accompanies these genres. The Dungeons and Dragons basement dweller wearing a wizard hat eating Doritos with acne is a still commonly attributed description for fans of these genres. In the past 20 years though, the films in this realm have vastly improved, not just in quality but public reception as well. The comic book movie genre exploded with Spider-Man in 2002 and has become an empire now. The Lord of the Rings franchise opened up the door for fantasy epics as artistic and commercial achievement. Seven of the last ten Academy Awards have featured a Sci-Fi/Fantasy film as a Best Picture nominee. It’s clear that these genres are on the rise, but even with an instant classic like Fury Road (second highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes among Best Picture nominees) and a solid showing from The Martian, these are probably two of the longest shots to win the award.
So if the quality of Sci-Fi/Fantasy movies has gotten significantly better in the last decade or so, then why do they still exist primarily on the fringe of the Best Picture scene? The first answer that comes to mind is the makeup of the Academy. Membership to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is nomination-only and “limited to film artists working in the production of theatrically-released motion pictures”. The Academy Awards exist for people within the same club to talk about how good they are. As a result, there is often a lot of politicking involved so the films with the best campaigners have an edge in promoting their product. The second answer which comes to mind is the alluded to harmful perception of Sci-Fi/Fantasy films. When you consider that Return of the King beat out Lost in Translation (a critically acclaimed artsy film featuring a Coppola as director and Bill Murray), it goes to show how strong a movie it was overall, plus it won ten other Oscars. Beyond that there have been several other Sci-Fi/ Fantasy movies which could have easily won: Avatar (lost to Hurt Locker), Inception (The King’s Speech), and Life of Pi (Argo). The movies which won each of those years were really good movies, but they were the safe choice for the Academy. The lesson here is, if there is any doubt as to whether a Sci-Fi/Fantasy movie can win, then it won’t win.
Now the state of Sci-Fi/Fantasy in the Academy Awards is not completely bleak. These genres often win in other categories, notably in the effects realm of awards. Also, if Sci-Fi/Fantasy are the red-headed step children to Drama, at least they’re not the forgotten little brother which Comedy is. Despite the still-apparent genre bias which exists, the growth of acceptance for these genres is also very noticeable. In 1979, Alien didn’t even receive a Best Picture nomination despite being an extremely good movie and one of the most innovative of its time. Could it or should it have beaten Kramer vs. Kramer or even Apocalypse Now? Probably not, but it definitely should’ve been in the running before Breaking Away or All That Jazz.
This weekend when the crew for The Revenant take the stage to accept the award for Best Picture I want you, dear reader, to remember that despite the noticeable absence of Sci-Fi/Fantasy representation, there exists genres of film which are just as good as any Drama. If we want our voices to be heard we must face the prejudices which stand before us and charge at them head on. You know, I’m not very good at getting people riled up with speeches so I’ll let ThÃ©oden do it for me.