High Culture? Pop Culture? Shouldn’t a Great Film Impact DEEP Culture?

Part two in series: The Oscar “Huh?!” Factor: Why Academy Voters Usually Pick the Wrong Film

The root-level memes underlying our worldview are so subtle and pervasive we are often deeply impacted by the stories found in films we have barely even watched.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

2010 Oscar winner ‘Hurt Locker’ won critical acclaim, but with a paltry $17M domestic box office, never attracted a broad enough audience for ‘deep culture’ impact

The criteria used by Academy voters to decide their choice for “Best Picture” remains a complete mystery to the viewing public. Is it Story? Acting? Directing? Artistic merit? Political perspective? Personal taste? Who knows? No two years are the same, and no doubt this year could be a surprise as well.

Since there are no objective standards for art, each year is fraught with controversy and the kind of unwinnable arguments that make for great public interest.

However, as a college professor who selects films for use in teaching philosophy and spirituality, I am looking for something more specific. I want to know if a given film is likely to be one of the “stories my students live by.” (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview). Since people don’t always “choose” the stories that shape them, just asking students to name their favorite movies can be very deceptive. In fact, the root-level stories that form the foundation of our worldview (or our culture’s) can be so subtle and pervasive, students can be deeply impacted by the stories and/or memes in films they have never even watched. (See, Crash Goes the Worldview.)

After a great deal of thought, I’ve decided that what I am really looking for is films that have achieved what I refer to as “deep culture” impact upon a generation. (As opposed to “Pop” culture or “High” culture.) Granted, this too can be a very subjective call. Measuring “impact” is one of the trickiest problems in modern historiography. Yet, sheer necessity has led me to developed my own informal (and often intuitive) system for finding worldview-shaping films.

One helpful (but fallible) way to estimate deep culture impact is to look for films that have achieved success what at what Hollywood sometimes calls the “double bottom-line.” Films that have:1) Celebrated Critical Acclaim, and 2) Broad Popular Appeal. It may be simplistic, but for the most part, I use these categories when considering a film for use with students: (See chart below.)


A: Critical Acclaim = “High” Culture Impact

B: Broad Appeal = “Pop” Culture Impact

C: Critical Acclaim + Broad Appeal = “Deep Culture” Impact


A #27 ranking on the WGA list of all-time best screenplays tipped me off to its possible culture making power

Category A – Critical Acclaim

In determining whether or not a film has achieved critical acclaim I look for:

1) an Academy Award win or nomination for a Best Picture, and/or an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay or Adapted Screenplay,

2) a place on the American Film Institute (AFI) 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time; and/or

3) selection to the Writers’ Guild of America’s (WGA) 101 Greatest Screenplays.

I often find unexpected worldview gems in these lists. For instance, I might have missed the culture-making power of Groundhog Day (1993) if not for its #27 ranking on the WGA list of all-time best screenplays.

The same goes for underachieving box office comedy The Princess Bride (1987), a film that many students have memorized word for word.

Category B – Broad Appeal

Popularity doesn’t guarantee deep cultural impact, but it doesn’t hurt.

In determining if a film has broad appeal I look for at least one of the following:

1) a spot in the Top 100 all-time box office films,

2) a spot in the Top 100 grossing movies of all-time when adjusted for inflation; and/or,

3) a place on the Internet Movie Data Base’s (IMDB) Top 250 All-Time Films as voted by their readers.

Broad popular appeal can be a sign of deep culture impact even without critical acclaim. For instance, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg’s only joint project–The Indiana Jones series–was an Oscar bust. Yet few would doubt the culture-making power of  Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and not surprisingly, each rank in the IMDB top 100.

Category C – Deep Culture Impact

While imperfect, my system seems somewhat vindicated when even Oscar snubs like Lucas’s culture-impacting powerhouse come out on top

Films that do well in all both critical acclaim and broad appeal fit my elusive Category C: films of deep cultural impact. For instance, Casablanca (1942) won the Oscar for both Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, is #1 on the WGA list, #3 on the AFI Top 100, and voted #16 by IMDB readers. Star Wars (1977) failed to bring home a Best Picture or Original Screenplay Oscar, but took in the second highest box office of all time (adjusted for inflation), and is #15 on the AFI all-time great list.

Getting into Category C is no easy task. In the past 25 years only THREE Oscar winners have managed to crack the top 50 all-time box office hits. Care to guess who they are?  (I’ll reveal that answer tomorrow in Why ‘Deep Culture Impact’ Films are so Rare.)

Even more remarkable, only nine films have achieved both an AFI 100 top all-time ranking and a top 65 all-time box office adjusted for inflation (and only three of them won *Oscars):

*Gone With the Wind (1939)

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Jaws (1975)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

*Ben-Hur (1959)

The Graduate (1967)

Fantasia (1940)

*The Godfather (1972)

It would be hard to argue that any of these 9 films don’t belong among the small canon of motion pictures that have achieved “Deep Culture Impact” (DPI).

Of course, the system isn’t perfect.  While my 2011 pick for “Deep Culture Movie of the Year,” Inception seems solid–it didn’t win Best Picture yet it is currently ahead of all 2011 nominees in its IMDB rating (#12 All-Time!), my 2012 pick, The Help, is dropping fast in IMDB ratings without garnering a great deal of longterm critical acclaim. Which only emphasizes how important it is to wait at least twelve years before trying to measure a films DPI.

Still, by focusing on critically acclaimed films that also achieved broad popular appeal I am hoping to discover films that have most deeply impacted culture …and my students.

So why are they so hard to find?

Tomorrow: Why Films with ‘Deep Culture Impact’ are so Rare


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