Tuesday 18 September 2018

In Thrall Of The Blockbuster

Part 1 of 2 on Best Dramatic Presentation 2019. Part 2 is at this link.
Infinity War is emblematic of a trend
 in which mediocre movies with big
budgets get a lot of attention from
Hugo nominators. Please don't include
it on your ballot.
(Image via DigitalSpy.com

We have started to think of the last decade as the “Marvel-movie era” of science fiction filmmaking, partly because the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation - Long Form shortlist has shown a significant bias towards high-budget, effects-driven productions… aka blockbusters.

Over the past ten years or so, the average budget of a movie that makes the Hugo shortlist is in excess of $140 million — and during that time, only three movies with budgets smaller than $20 million have been on the Best Dramatic Presentation - Long Form ballot.1

Coming in with a relatively minuscule budget of $4.5 million, Get Out is the cheapest Hugo-shortlisted film since before the Dramatic Presentation category was split into short-form and long-form. It would be hard, however, to describe Get Out as anything other than a blockbuster, as it was produced by Universal Studios, was released on 2,713 screens, and grossed of more than $175 million.

Year over year, the average budget of Hugo-shortlisted movies has been trending upwards, outpacing inflation by about 10 per cent over the past decade. That may have to do in part with the blockbusterization of movies in general, but it might also indicate that when it comes to the Dramatic Presentation - Long Form category, Hugo voters are trend followers not trend leaders.

The Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form ballot in 2014 is a case in point, with the average production cost amongst the finalists at $107 million. This may be the lowest-average of the decade, but the smallest-budgeted movie to make the shortlist was the winning movie Looper, a $30-million film starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt.

That same year, the $180-million budget The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — which Slate
Would you like an insufferable
number of dwarves? The Hobbit:
An Unexpected Journey
will give
you that.
(Image via DenOfGeek.com)
Magazine praised as an “exercise in deliberately inflicted tedium” — was also on the Dramatic Presentation Long Form shortlist. It would be hard to argue that The Hobbit stands the test of time better or was more worthy of inclusion on the Hugo shortlist than contemporaneous lower-budget movies like Robot and Frank (budget $2.5 million), Chronicle (budget $12 million), or Dredd (budget $30 million). This was a wasted opportunity, in that even shortlisting any one of those excellent movies might have helped it reach the wider audience it deserved, while putting The Hobbit on the shortlist made Hugo members look like followers.

Over the past decade, there have of course been many excellent big-budget blockbuster movies that have been included on the ballot — Fury Road and Interstellar come to mind. But in general, it seems that there is a overly strong correlation between the size of a marketing campaign and a presence on the Hugo ballot.

This bias towards the big-budget wide releases is understandable — these are the movies that are most accessible to the average Hugo Award voter. Robot and Frank was released in 2012, but unless you attended a festival screening or an arthouse cinema, you wouldn’t have been able to see it until the middle of 2013 when it became available for digital download. In short, the movie became easily available to Hugo nominators after the deadline to nominate had passed.

But despite accessibility obstacles, I would argue that we (as Hugo nominators) should attempt to explore genre movies more widely than simply what is being advertised at the multiplex. Last night, a few members of this book club watched the new independent horror-fantasy movie Mandy, and while it is unlikely to make our 2019 ballots, it was worth the effort. Thanks to the Internet, it is actually easier than ever before to watch smaller-budget movies with more diverse voices.

Those who attend the Hugo Awards ceremonies will know that the award for Best Dramatic
The team from Edge of Tomorrow were
at the 2015 Hugo Awards, and they were
totally awesome.
(Image via Olav Rokne)   
Presentation - Long Form is usually presented to an empty podium. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the production team behind Edge Of Tomorrow cared enough about being on the 2015 Hugo shortlist to actually attended the ceremony. If you care about the award you will make an effort to attend the ceremony (note earlier comments about the size of movie budgets).

We would argue that the three most deserving Hugo Award finalists in this category during the Marvel-movie era have been the ones with the smallest budgets — Looper, Moon, Ex Machina and Arrival. These are the ‘real’ science fiction movies, made for people who think about, love, and appreciate the genre.

The tendency of Hugo Award nominators to seemingly shortlist works because they are already financially successful might be an unfortunate reality for a passive society of consumers, but we like to think that Hugo members can do better. Get Out there and find innovative, interesting science fiction cinema.

Next week, we’ll share our thoughts about some of the sci-fi cinema gems we’d love to see on the Hugo ballot in 2019.
  1. This calculation does not include METAtropolis, since it is not a movie. Likewise, the calculation does not include any TV series. 


  1. This is why I've argued in the past that we ought to just drop the "Best Dramatic Presentation" categories. Why give awards to people who don't care? I'm told some of the "Galaxy Quest" cast turned up to pick up their award, but that was 18 years ago.

  2. One of the writers of Thor: Ragnarok was at this year's Hugo Ceremony. He seemed delighted and bewildered by the whole experience.

  3. I'm all for promoting works that have been unjustly overlooked, but that's not the purpose of the award. The description is "the best dramatized production devoted primarily to science fiction or fantasy," not "the grittiest hard sf production to prove its worth by failing to find an audience."

    This is a nitpick, but "Ex Machina" (which I love) lost to "The Martian."

    1. Good catch on Ex Machina. Thank you, I've edited the post accordingly.

      The purpose of the Hugos (originally) was to make great works of science fiction "better known to the world." (Link to 1953 announcement of the awards: http://www.fanac.org/fanzines/Philcon/Philcon2r3-03.html). It's hard to argue that the Hugo nomination made Avengers "better known to the world."

      To boot, Avengers was a dreadful movie. It was visual noise tied together with a plodding mcguffin quest narrative. It wasn't one of the best 25 science fiction movies of 2018, let alone worthy of being included on the Hugo ballot.

    2. I followed a link here and initially misread the post as a post-hoc attack on the judgment of the Worldcon membership, rather than a prospective appeal to widen the scope of works considered for nomination. Had I appreciated this context, my comment would have either been withheld or rephrased with less salt.

      I find your appraisal of Avengers: Infinity War accurate. I would have found it odd, however, if voters had not short-listed Black Panther, precisely for its achievement in pushing its sumptuous vision of Afrofuturism and paradigm-breaking representation of non-white actors/artists through to resounding (and emotionally satisfying) mainstream success.

      Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse likely won the award because it broke similar barriers of representation while being notably better written.

      It seems to me these achievements are worthy of recognition. While I have a lot of appreciation for Sorry to Bother You, it ranked third on my ballot behind these two films.

    3. I didn't read any salt in your comment. And yes, in general, you'll hear no complaints from us about works like Spider-Verse making the ballot (simply one of the most visually stunning movies I've seen in ages).

      But when voting and nominating, I'll definitely prioritize works like Prospect, Endless, Fast Color, and works that I think deserve the signal boost from the Hugos.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. The point about lower budget films receiving their premieres at festivals and then going on to general release in the following year, making them ineligible when most people are seeing them is an important one here I think, as it effectively creates a structural bias in favour of the mass market big budget films that are often false science fiction. I don't know how this could be circumvented... a rule change about making dramatic works eligible in their year of general release rather than premiere opens definitional cans of worms around what we mean by general release (and also general release where?).