Why Achieving ‘Deep Culture’ Impact is so Elusive

Part of 12 series: Hollywood & Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru Academy Award-winning Film

Of these 400+ films released in theaters each year, only 5 to 10 garner sufficient critical acclaim for Oscar consideration as “Best Picture,” and few of  which reach a broad enough audience to deeply impact culture.

by Gary David Stratton, Senior Editor

ET is one of only 9 films on the AFI Top 100 list to crack the top 65 all-time box office hits

A century of motion picture production has generated a remarkably small cannon of films that have achieved true “deep culture” impact. (See, Films with ‘Deep Culture’ Impact.) Even if you know that your goal is the “double bottom-line” of Critical Acclaim and, Popular Appeal–it is a fete that is nearly impossible to achieve.

The truth is, the odds against making a true “double-bottom-line” film are astronomical.

At any given moment there are over 100,000 screenplays being shopped around Hollywood. These are the ones agents deem worthy of shopping. The total number of scripts is much higher. (See, Fresh Story Ideas a Tough Sell in Hollywood.)

Of these 100,000 screenplays, less than 5,000 per year are actually produced as independent films vying for notice (and purchase) at Sundance, Cannes, or other lesser film festivals.

Of these 5,000 films, less than 250 are purchased and/or developed by studios for national theatrical release year, and another 250 or so distributed for limited release.  That means that only 500 films per year make it to the local cinemaplex and/or art house theater.

2010 Best Picture, The King’s Speech, looks like the type of film that could stand the test of time, but will it?

Of these 500 films, only 10 to 15 garner sufficient critical acclaim for Oscar consideration in Best Picture [1] and/or “Best Writing” categories (Original or Adapted screenplay.)

Of these 10 to 15 Academy Award-nominated films, many never reach a threshold of box office respectability necessary to considered to have achieved “popular appeal.”

In other words, very few motion pictures are BOTH critically acclaimed and widely experienced.

In fact, in the past 25 years only THREE Academy Award-winning films have managed to break into the coveted top 50 all-time box office earners (adjusted for inflation).

Forrest Gump (1994)

Titanic (1997)

The Return of the King (2003)

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Return of the King is one of only three post-1980 Academy Award winners to break into the 50 all time top grossing films

These films are the kind of rare gems that I seek to utilize in teaching my students. They not only constitute what makes a truly great film, they also to help my students discover the stories that have most deeply shaped their lives.

When combined with films like the nine in yesterday’s post, they form the foundation of a very rare canon of films to achieve deep cultural impact.

Could any of 2010’s nominees join this august pantheon. Perhaps. This year’s nominees may have the highest “deep culture” potential of any slate of Best Pictures in recent memory. Five of the ten nominees have broken the $100M box office mark–Inception, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, True Grit, and King’s Speech, with two others likely to break that mark as well–The Fighter and The Social Network. This fete is even more remarkable when you consider that last year’s winner, The Hurt Locker, grossed only $17M.

In fact, I believe that one of this year’s films has a very high potential for eventually achieving “deep culture impact.” (Hint: It isn’t even my pick for Best Picture.)

Next Post in the Series: My All-Time Favorite ‘Deep Culture’ Films 

Comment: What are your favorite “Deep Culture” films?



[1] In 2010 Best Picture Nominees were expanded from 5 to 10.