Rousseau’s Pick

How the Academy Awards are searching the general will on Twitter. 

M23EN2 Golden Oscars seen during an award ceremony.

After The Dark Knight didn’t get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, in spite of huge financial success, critical acclaim – arguably creating, for better or worse, the kind of template for a “serious” comic book film adaptation – and a posthumous nomination for Heath Ledger in Best Supporting Actress in his role as The Joker (which he’d later go on to win), the number of nominees for Best Picture was expanded. The reasoning behind this was, in the words of Sid Ganis, the president of the Academy at the time, was to “allow Academy voters to recognise and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in other Oscar categories but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.” This is something that often feels read as a way for the Academy to find the room for popular films like The Dark Knight that might not necessarily be “taken seriously” in the same way as other films that the Academy is drawn to.

When Hugh Jackman hosted the Oscars, he mentioned this in the lyrics to one of his musical numbers: “How come comic book movies never get nominated? How can a billion dollars be unsophisticated?” Over a decade since The Dark Knight failed to get a nomination – and a few years after Tod Phillips’ The Joker was nominated for major awards like Best Picture and Director, as well as Joaquin Phoenix winning Best Actor for his performance in the title role – The Academy continues to grapple with how it wants to relate to popular cinema, as it tries to expand the reach of its broadcast to the kind of viewers that might not necessarily be invested in the Oscars themselves. And so, in the tradition of digital outreach to people’s innermost desires, the Oscars developed a hashtag.

The hashtag, #OscarFanFavourite, has direct engagement with fans in mind; the kind of people that care enough about a film to take to Twitter and announce their support for it, for all of cyberspace to see. A similar, but aborted plan was devised in the past a Best Popular Film category. The hashtag feels like a repurposing of this idea; a way for the fans of movies that get shut out from major awards to let their voices be heard, and give what they love a – kind of – Oscar. 

This direct attempt at communication with all film fans is far from unprecedented. Whether they know it or not, what the Academy have tried to capture is Rousseau’s general will, in a way that perfectly captures the problems with a vision of law that tries to capture universality, when those enacting it are far from universal. Finding a “common good” through social media landscapes that still have the feeling of an unregulated wild west that defined the early years of the internet manages to expose the problems of a quote-unquote consensus that still aims for a kind of ideological purity – the will of each and every citizen will always be filtered through the biases and ideologies of those that make these rules, as it was centuries ago by Robespierre and the Jacobin’s. And while nobody’s calling for the Oscars to get guillotined, this tension between the general will and consensus, and the relationship that fans have with celebrity, sees the voice of the people mutating into a chimaera of toxicity.  

It’s this idea of specificity and the connection of fandom, running counter to not only the attempts at consensus from #OscarsFanFavourite, but to how people relate to the biggest movies in the world, that point towards data that doesn’t quite look how one might expect, and the shape that this race has taken reveals more about the nature of fandom than it does the Oscars. The development of this hashtag/category seemed like shorthand for “get an entry from the MCU into the Oscar telecast.” And given the impact that Spider-Man: No Way Home had on an industry still recovering from COVID, and its comical box office receipts imply the presence of a strong fanbase that is more than willing to take to Twitter and fight on behalf of their chosen film. But the data reveals something different and surprising, about the fair-weather nature of the comic book film audience, and what fandom looks like now. 

The data puts No Way Home third in the Academy’s new race for the popular vote. Given the sheer amount of money the film made, this comes as a surprise; with almost $2 billion in box office, No Way Home would have been a sure thing to top any kind of popular vote. In theory. But the nature of fandom – its intersection with not only franchises but also the kind of films that the Academy themselves are normally drawn to – tells a different story. Some films in contention for major Oscars including Best Picture nominee The Power of the Dog, are also in the running for the Fan Favourite award, but the film’s seen as being at the top of the heap reveal what it is about modern franchises and fanbases that seems to drive engagement. 

For a while, it seemed that Cinderella, a more contemporary take on the fairytale musical, would have taken the prize. While it received negative notices across the board, it has one major thing going for it: its star, Camila Cabello. It’s Cabello herself that draws such massive engagement with this film; people will watch it and vote for it because she plays the title character. As celebrity and social media have merged, they’re often used as a way to try and engage in a dialogue with the famous figures that audiences and consumers find themselves drawn to; her most streamed song on Spotify has been listened to over 2 billion times; more so than the box office returns for a film, what this shows is an audience that keeps returning to a singer and her songs. The dynamic that this creates between a musician and their fans can often feel fraught – the way that fans of singer-songwriter Mitski relate to her through Twitter capture what’s both fascinating and unsettling about this – in a way that’s different to the ways in which one might perceive an actor or their character. For some, Tom Holland will simply be Spider-Man, but a singer like Cabello is something that an audience are more able to project onto, and create a connection with even if it might not exist in reality. In many ways, a vote for Cinderella doesn’t feel like one for the film itself, but rather one for its star. 

By contrast, as much as Tom Holland himself has proven to be a major box office draw both inside and outside of the MCU – by the end of February, his latest stab at franchise glory, Uncharted, had made over $200 million. But it seems as if Holland himself isn’t seen as the same draw and presence within fandom that someone like Cabello is. And this says more about the ways in which people see comic book films, and the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. The sheer scale of their box office returns, the extent to which they consume the screening slots of other films around them like a kind of cinematic black hole, all of this seems to come not because of fervent fandoms that are desperate to find out what happens next to their favourite heroes (although this contingent clearly exists; these franchises wouldn’t have had the kind of success that they have), but that for a vast group of viewers, going to see a Marvel film is a matter of simply seeing whatever the next big movie is, and their engagement with it begins and ends at that point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this at all; audiences will want different things when they go to the movies – some want pure escapism, others the continuation of stories that they’re invested in; some want to engage with film on the level of something like Power of the Dog – and the relationship between the current biggest film in the world, and the way that the Academy are trying to reach out to these audiences, reveals that the nature of the audience itself is too disparate and difficult to reach out to in a way that lets them bring the most profitable films of the year onto the medium’s most prestigious stage. 

And then there’s the favourite of all the #FanFavourites, one that seems to be most in tune with the ways in which fandom both grows in size and intensity in digital spaces. The current top spot is seen as being held by Army of the Dead, a zombie film directed by Zack Snyder, a man who has a vehement fanbase to an extent that seems rare for a director rather than an actor. The mobilisation of that fanbase is what led to the release of “The Snyder Cut” of Justice League; something that existed in an uneasy tension with the more excessive and toxic sides of fandom (the kind of thing that cinematic franchises themselves are trying to find ways to grapple with). And the #OscarsFanFavourite captures how the dynamic between culture and those that consume it; it isn’t just speaking about these films that people find compelling; it’s more than just scouring the internet for theories and behind-the-scenes drama about the making of the next superhero blockbuster. Instead, the thing that animates online fandom now is the idea of speaking for someone or something; the fact that the two seemingly most popular films in the running for the #FanFavourite award are driven by attachment to stars and filmmakers makes it clear that fandom and popularity aren’t as closely aligned as one might think at first glance. Something being popular isn’t the same as it having a fervent fanbase, just like popularity isn’t required for that fanbase to be vocal (Minamata, a Johnny Depp vehicle with under $2 million in box office returns that’s making a very good showing in this Oscar race is the best example of that). 

Like the attempt at Best Popular Film, and even the expansion of the Best Picture field before it, the unexpected direction that #OscarsFanFavourite has gone in seems to raise more questions for The Academy than it answers. The dilemma at the heart of this decision – how to make people who don’t normally care about The Oscars tune in to watch them – remains unanswered, and as the broadcast itself continues to court controversy, this grasp towards populist resonance may find the Academy closing their hands around something that disappears the moment that they make contact with it. The general will remains elusive. 

Sam is a writer, and one of the founding editors of Third Way Press. Their writing on culture and identity has been published by Frieze, the LA Review of Books, Neotext, and other places. They have written two books, All my teachers died of AIDS (Pilot Press, 2020), and Long live the new flesh (Polari Press, 2022).

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