What should determine “Best Picture”?

Dave Berri is willing to give much greater consideration to the revenue generated by a movie as an indicator of its “best”-ness. After all, if it’s the movie everyone wants to see, then surely it can’t be bad, right?

Movies are not a product made just for the members the academy.  These ventures are primarily made for the general public.  And yet, when it comes time to decide which picture is “best,” the opinion of the general public seems to be ignored.  Essentially the Oscars are an industry statement to their customers that says: “We don’t think our customers are smart enough to tell us which of our products are good. So we created a ceremony to correct our customers.”

Even if Berri is only half-serious (and I’m not so sure he is), his angle is troublesome to say the least. See, many economists have the audacity to believe economic analysis and economic approaches are an ideal to which other areas of analysis should be held. But, honestly, why on earth should economic indicators have any influence on (never mind determine) the selection of an award for best film?

(Most) Movies are art. As such, it seems reasonable to ask for the feedback of knowledgeable individuals when giving an award like Best Picture. From an economic perspective, this justification explains why it may be logical to judge the value of a piece of art (such as a painting) by the price at which it is purchased. After all, most buyers of high-priced, high-value paintings have (at least) a fundamental knowledge of what makes good art – and at high prices, often view purchases as investments. They are putting their money where their art is.

This contrasts the average movie goer, who at $10/ticket is hardly particularly financially invested in the endeavor of going to the movies. So to use a measure of total worldwide revenues, as Berri suggests, leaves the judgment of art not to experts nor investors, but to the masses. Plus, as one commenter on the thread suggests, moviegoers purchase tickets before seeing the movie (provided it’s their first viewing). Therefore, their impetus for the purchase is not an indicator of the quality of the film itself, but often an indicator of the quality and intensity of the marketing for the film. Hardly an appropriate benchmark for Best Picture.

All in all, despite my profession, I remain very skeptical of the potential over-reaching of economic thinking. Economic analysis can provide fruitful ways of thinking about the world in lots of applications – but still has its limitations. Even his closing seems to miss the mark:

That being said, one would hope the Academy would at least pay a bit more attention to the people paying the bills.   Not only does it seem wrong (at least to this economist) to argue that movies many people like are simply not that good, focusing on the box office would seem to make good financial sense for the Oscars as well.  A recent Slate article argued that the Oscars’ telecast tends to have higher ratings when more commercially successful films are nominated for best picture.

So in the future, maybe voters for the Oscars will pay a bit more attention to their customers.  These customers may not be thought of as “movie experts.”  But these are the people who pay the bills, and therefore, ultimately it is their opinion that should matter to this industry.

This is the one point where an economist’s voice should be heard. Berri suggests the opinions of the public don’t sufficiently matter to the film industry, that the industry doesn’t pay enough attention to those who “pay the bills.” To that, I’d merely ask him to ask a studio how much they care about the revenue a movie brings in. Something tells me it’s more than a little.

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