If there’s one thing the Oscars love more than a pretty person transforming him or herself for a tear-jerking biopic, it’s a good narrative. 2009’s ceremony offered up one of the more striking narratives in recent memory: James Cameron’s visual effects marvel Avatar was head-to-head with the low-budget, low-grossing gritty war drama The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. That Cameron also happened to be Bigelow’s ex-husband only added to this dramatic narrative, pitting the two films and filmmakers against each other in a battle for Oscar glory. Ultimately The Hurt Locker won out, as did Bigelow, making history as the first (and only) woman ever to win the Best Director prize.
Cameron had been characteristically candid in the lead up to the awards ceremony, stating that he was OK losing Best Director to Bigelow, but that Avatar deserved the Best Picture prize. The film lost, and Cameron had to make-do with Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Art Direction Oscars plus $2.7 billion worldwide.
Since that time Cameron has been busy writing and developing four more Avatar sequels, but he recently took time out to discuss his National Geographic documentary Atlantis Rising with The Daily Beast. The conversation turned to the Oscars, and the candid Cameron offered his thoughts on why the Academy fails to recognize big blockbuster movies:
“There have been a few times throughout the history of the Oscars where a wildly popular film was well-received, but your typical year the Academy takes the position of: ‘It is our patrician duty to tell the great unwashed what they should be watching,’ and they don’t reward the films that people really want to see—that they’re paying money to go see—and they’re telling them, ‘Yeah, you think you like that, but what you should be liking is this.’ And as long as the Academy sees that as their duty, don’t expect high ratings. Expect a good show, and do that duty, but don’t whine about your ratings. Titanic was a very unusual case. I’m not saying it’s a better film than films before or after, or it was necessarily a better year in general, but it was a film that made a boatload of money and got a lot of nominations. The next time we see that, we’ll see ratings go up. It’s that simple.”
Indeed, Oscar producers and ABC have been trying for years to drive more viewers to the show. It began when The Dark Knight famously missed out on a Best Picture nomination thanks to Harvey Weinstein strong-arming The Reader in there at the last minute. In 2009—the year Avatar was nominated—the Academy expanded its Best Picture category to up to 10 nominees, hoping this would result in a mix of arthouse and blockbuster fare. It worked that first year, with Up and District 9 also scoring nominations, but since then the category has only included a couple of commercial hits here and there (Toy Story 3, Django Unchained, Gravity). Even then, the kinds of commercial films that landed Best Picture nominations were still pretty much in the Academy’s wheelhouse.
But Cameron goes one further, saying there’s a bias within the Academy against technologically inclined films:
“There’s definitely a bias. The Academy still has a majority of its members that are actors. Look, I love actors, but that’s how they think—they’re generally skeptical of technology. So when they see a film that’s too dependent on visual effects, they say, oh, that’s not an acting movie. Well Titanic was a visual effects movie in sheep’s clothing, you know? Yes, it had visual effects, but it was about the people and about the story. The visual effects were eclipsed by that. But if you do a movie like Avatar, the effects are right out front, and even though I felt the acting was just as good, and the story we were telling was just as good, they’re not going to reward it the same way. That’s just a fact of life. I had made a decision way before Titanic that I wasn’t going to serve two masters: I was going to put my visual cinema first. Even though I’ve spent an awful lot of time on scripts and on performance, I still love doing big, visual cinema. I doubt I’ll even get nominated again, but if I did, I’m probably going to lose to a Woody Allen movie. That’s the nature of it. So you don’t try to serve two masters.”
Related: 2018 Oscar Winners