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Could 'The Martian' win a Best Picture Oscar?

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Matt Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney in "The Martian."
Aidan Monaghan
Matt Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney in "The Martian," which has cruised to a $200 million domestic gross at the box office. The film's received critical acclaim, but how will its box office success help during awards season?

The Academy's not averse to rewarding movies with low domestic box office, but does a high return at the box office lead to victory come awards time?

The sci-fi tale “The Martian,” in which Matt Damon must be rescued from Mars, continues to soar at the box office.

Even though the new James Bond film “Spectre” took the top spot at the box office this weekend with around $70 million in domestic ticket sales, within the next day or two “The Martian” will pass $200 million in the U.S. alone.

That will make it only the second film this year — the other being Pixar’s “Inside Out” — that has hit that milestone without being a sequel or a spinoff, like “Jurassic World” and the last “Avengers” film. But is commercial success, even for a film with great reviews like “The Martian," actually a liability when it comes to the Oscar race? Or can moviegoer love help when it comes to Oscar voting?

We asked Justin Chang, chief film critic at Variety, about the relationship between box office performance and success at the Oscars. He talked about the paradigm shifts introduced by "The Hurt Locker" and "Lord of the Rings," plus whether genre films inherently have a tougher time during awards season.

Interview Highlights

This weekend, both "Spectre" and "The Peanuts Movie" performed well, but the biggest story might be the continued success of "The Martian." It's close to $200 million at the domestic box office, so when you have a movie that's both critically acclaimed and is doing well at the box office, do those two things start to coalesce with awards voters?

Yeah, I think it does, and I think exactly that kind of phenomenon that you're describing is what we're seeing with "The Martian." Before it premiered at Toronto, it was maybe a question mark as far as the awards season was concerned, although it certainly had the pedigree — it had Ridley Scott, though he hasn't made a film deemed to be award-worthy in a while.

It was very well-received, and I think that box office just gives it something like, "OK, we're on safe ground here." It's funny, because I think in general the Academy has, to its credit, not demanded that a film be some sort of box office juggernaut to win Best Picture.

Some people would say they've done that to a fault.

[laughs] The critic in me tells you that it's to its credit, and it's funny because they've given Best Picture to juggernauts like "Titanic" and "Lord of the Rings," but also to movies like "The Artist" and "The Hurt Locker." I think "Hurt Locker" was kind of a paradigm shift in filmmaking.

Because it only grossed about $15 million.

Yeah, and I think perception is a huge thing as well. "The Hurt Locker" always had that "little movie that could," the David versus Goliath narrative against "Avatar," and that became its own, very compelling narrative. That film never had high box office expectations to begin with, but something like "The Walk" or "Steve Jobs," both of which I think are quite good films but flopped, now have this real taint about them.

It's hard to categorize "The Martian" as a genre film, but I think some people would see it as an action-adventure story or an outer-space thriller. Do you think there's a bias against genre films? Is the bar set artificially high for how they have to be considered?

I think there's something about the degree to which genre is a movie — every movie can be classified according to a genre of some sort. But I think "Lord of the Rings" was a real game-changer because it was so clearly a fantasy, a total geek-fest of a movie that happened to be a great movie that connected with so many people.

In terms of something like "The Martian," you know, "Gravity" didn't win Best Picture, but I wouldn't even call "The Martian" sci-fi. It's more like science-faction? [laughs] It's a very realistic kind of science story, and I don't think it carries that kind of stigma — "Oh no, sci-fi!" [laughs]

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