From the Oscars to the Nashville Film Festival – why Popularity is not synonymous with “Best”

Of the nine films nominated for “Best Picture” at the 2013 Academy Awards, not one finished in the Top Ten for Domestic Box Office gross. The first Oscar-nominated film to appear among the top domestic grossing films released in 2012 is “Lincoln”, with $180M, in 13th place.* Only two other films, “Django Unchained” and “Les Miserables” appear in the top twenty domestic highest-grossing films released in 2012.

When we consider total gross (including International Box Office receipts) and rank the films, only one film released in 2012, “Life of Pi”, ends up in the top 100 grossing films and is currently ranked behind films such as Mama Mia, Fast Five, all three Transformers films, and all four Twilight films.

This article from Freakonomics (though not written by Dubner or Levitt) suggests that box office receipts identify the best film based solely on gross revenue. Therefore, whichever film was most popular is best under this assumption.

This is not the way the Academy Awards are awarded. However, when it comes to the Golden Globes, the Hollywood Foreign Press votes for the winners. It is much more of a popularity contest, evidenced most recently by the nominations of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for “The Tourist.” This film was nominated at the Globes for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Picture, yet earned no Academy Award nominations in any category.

So, if the top twelve highest domestic grossing films released in 2012 weren’t recognized by the Oscars as the best films, what does that say?

It says that total receipts are not a leading factor in what defines a film as “best” in particular categories, at least as far as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is concerned. Rather, it says that just because a film makes hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars doesn’t mean it is worth giving them an award. It might have been popular, but that doesn’t merit qualification as one of the best. Case in point for 2012: “The Avengers.” It made $1.5B at the worldwide box office, yet was not included among the nominees for “Best Picture” at the Oscars. By the standard suggested in the Freakonomics article, it was the best picture by more than $900B. That’s a lot of money, folks. Additionally, “Skyfall” and “The Dark Knight Rises” would have been nominated for Best Picture. Both earned more than $1B in total revenues, good enough for seventh and eighth on the all-time highest grossing films list.

Let’s consider another example between most popular and best that hits closer to home; the Nashville Film Festival. NaFF started in 1969 (read more about the history here) and is now held annually at the Green Hills 16 Theatre, hosting more than 200 films over 8 days. Although small when compared to festivals like Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, Venice, Tribeca, SXSW, and many others, NaFF has been growing its brand and has premiered some great films over the past ten years. The Brooks Institute named it one of the top five festivals in the country, so it would be fair to say the festival is gaining traction. So, why bring this up?

At the end of 2012 a group of my friends wrote, funded, cast, produced, directed, and edited a short film for submission to short film festivals across the US, and possibly to festivals abroad. It made perfect sense to submit to NaFF because of a special category for short films filmed in Tennessee. After the submission deadline had passed and the decision period on their film had come and gone, they received an email from NaFF announcing a “Final Cut” competition for the films competing for the final spot in the Tennessee First Program at NaFF. The competition would ultimately be decided by an audience poll of the seven remaining films, giving the winner the final spot in the Nashville Film Festival.

This is nothing more than a popularity contest. Here’s what it really does…

  • This encourages filmmakers to bring as many people as possible to the “Final Cut” (after paying $12 per person) and vote for a specific short film, rather than simply attending and voting honestly about which of the remaining short films deserves the spot. 
  • This discourages filmmakers from creating films and submitting to festivals where being chosen is an honor, being decided upon by film industry professionals based on content and quality, rather than a popularity contest.
  • This diminishes the NaFF as an up-and-coming festival of serious consideration, where the selections are made by people with a knowledge of what makes a great film, and potentially mirrors the Golden Globes as the type of “honor” that isn’t really much of an honor.

This may be a one-off situation.**  I don’t know exactly what happened behind the scenes that led to seven films fighting it out on-screen in a winner-take-all contest. It feels like the NaFF ran out of time to make a decision or they couldn’t make a decision. Instead of choosing one of the seven remaining films, they decided to make it a popularity contest, and in so doing emulate the Golden Globes when they should probably aspire to emulate the Oscars.

One solution to this problem would be to allow the seven short film directors to vote for one film, with the stipulation that the vote cannot go to their own short film. Simply put, “if your film wasn’t up for the spot, which do you think deserves the spot?” This type of question would allow for the honor of being nominated to be genuine rather than manufactured. Instead of global revenues, all that is required are warm bodies in the seats to vote for your film. That’s not in the spirit of the NaFF, or any other reputable festivals as I understand it.

Let’s consider a different option. If the Frist Center in Nashville held an art contest, with the winner earning prime placement for a Modern Art exhibition and some form of prize money, it would make more sense that the curator of the Frist choose the winner based on the extensive knowledge of the art world they possess. But what if they invited the general public to choose the winner? Now winning the prime placement and the prize money doesn’t seem like such an honor. I personally do not believe I would perceive it as an honor, other than the fun of being the winner. Maybe it would be an honor. I should probably ask my creative friends which they would prefer.

Imagine if the MVP awards for athletics were handed out based not on skill and performance, but based on how popular an athlete was with the public. Consider the same for Hall of Fame decisions. What about awards for music, books, the Nobel Peace Prize, or the Pulitzer?

Occasionally the general populous AND the Academy agree. This happens when a film like “Life of Pi” is made, earns a great deal of money (nearly $600M as of this post), is critically acclaimed, and is nominated for Best Picture. Still, we need to remember – Popular doesn’t always equal “best.” In fact, I would argue it generally means the opposite.


*NOTE – This statement is subject to change over time. “Lincoln” was in 13th place as of March 5, 2013 via

**Full disclosure: I applied and was selected to be a screener for NaFF to help select films submitted for entry into NaFF. I wasn’t able to attend any screenings, so I didn’t have a say in this. I also worked on a film that is supposed to be part of NaFF that won the Nashville 48 hour film project in 2012. 


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2 responses to “From the Oscars to the Nashville Film Festival – why Popularity is not synonymous with “Best””

  1. Bitter NaFF reject says :

    “It feels like the NaFF ran out of time to make a decision or they couldn’t make a decision.”
    This is what irks me the most about all this (well, aside from the absurd $12 fee to see seven films they feel don’t deserve to be in their festival). It is their job (self-appointed?) to make these decisions. Having a curated festival lineup is what separates a festival from a YouTube / men from beasts. Why would you let the masses decide what plays at your festival?
    Ohmygod I’ve never commented on anything this is so strange I’m gonna stop now.

  2. pacellaml says :

    I know nothing about film and have no input, other than to say that this really informative and interesting. And I provided craft services for a film that didn’t make the cut even though it was awesome. And that food I made was freaking good.

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