The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors announced some sweeping changes to the Oscars recently, and pretty much all of them were bad. In an effort to cut the telecast down to three hours, the Academy has decided that not all 24 awards are worthy of being handed out during the actual show, and thus will announce select Oscar winners off-air during commercial breaks. There are many problems with this (which I outlined here), but I wanted to zero in on the other big change: the addition of a category for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. And why it’s possibly the worst decision the Academy has made since giving Best Picture to Crash.
The Academy has yet to outline exactly what qualifies a movie for consideration in the “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” category, but we can reasonably assume they’re targeting blockbusters. The Dark Knight’s Best Picture snub in 2008 famously spurred the Academy to expand the Best Picture field to 10 nominees the following year, in an effort to include more commercial films. And while it worked the first time out with films like District 9 and The Blind Side landing Best Picture nods, subsequent years have mostly just seen even smaller indies score Best Picture nominations.
You may be asking, why does it matter? That’s a good question. Ostensibly the entire reason why the Academy (or maybe more accurately, the board of governors) wants bigger movies nominated for Oscars is to increase viewership for the actual Oscars telecast. Viewership has declined the past four years in a row, and this year’s ceremony—during which The Shape of Water won Best Picture—had the lowest total viewership since No Country for Old Men won in 2007. The Academy (and, maybe more significantly ABC) sees a trend here that as more indies or smaller scale films like Moonlight, Spotlight, Brooklyn, and Call Me by Your Name get nominated (none of which were box office bonanzas), then the viewership declines.
But the Academy misunderstands two key things. 1. The decline in viewership has more to do with how TV-watching habits as a whole have evolved significantly over the last decade and 2. The Oscars are not a TV show, they’re an awards ceremony. Look around at the TV landscape as a whole and you’ll see sharp declines in live viewership across the board. It’s not just the Oscars, it’s everything, as more people are relying on delayed viewing or, most significantly, cutting the cable cord altogether and subsisting on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. It’s not that people are choosing not to watch the Oscars. It’s that they’re choosing not to watch traditional television period. Moreover, in the “awards show” genre, the Oscars telecast regularly outperforms the Emmys, the Grammys, and the Tonys. So relatively speaking they’re doing fine.
Additionally, the Oscars are not and never should have been a TV show. It’s a ceremony honoring the highest achievement in the world of film, and should be crafted as such. The Academy’s attempt to draw in new and younger viewers to its telecast is nothing new. They tried by having James Franco and Anne Hathaway host. They tried by letting Seth McFarlane sing about boobs. They tried by staging a musical tribute to Dreamgirls (this one still perplexes me). None of these efforts worked. There are people who love to watch the Oscars, and those who don’t care. Why focus on bringing in people who don’t care about the Oscars at all instead of catering to diehard fans who simply love movies?
Not only will adding a Best Popular Film category not draw in the viewers the Academy is hoping, it’ll denigrate the ceremony as a whole. This is essentially setting up a “kids table” for films that can’t be taken seriously as a Best Picture candidate, but are deemed worthy of a consolation prize that will appeal to a more casual moviegoer. This will almost certainly backfire.
The fall film festival season is about to begin, but almost every respected Oscar prognosticator has Black Panther on their Best Picture shortlist. The Marvel Studios film was critically acclaimed and one of the biggest box office successes of all time, and has a very serious shot at a Best Picture nomination with Disney putting real money behind a campaign. But the addition of a separate category for “Best Popular Film” could lead to voters simply moving Black Panther out of the “serious films” contention and, again, sitting it at the kids’ table. Even if Black Panther were to score a Best Picture nomination in addition to a Best Popular Film nod, its likelihood of winning the top prize is essentially tanked. As with the Best Animated Feature category, voters can feel like they’ve given the movie its own separate prize and focus on voting for a drama or more traditional “Best Picture” movie instead.
If this “Best Popular Film” category had been in existence for the past decade, would Avatar had had as serious a shot at beating The Hurt Locker for Best Picture? Would films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception, or The Martian even have been nominated? Probably not, and that’s a shame.
This decision also undermines the other efforts to diversify the kinds of films that are deemed “Oscar movies.” Over the past few years, the Academy’s membership has grown exponentially, adding a significant amount of younger and more diverse voters in terms of gender and race. This is what will reflect a change in the kinds of movies that get nominated—altering the makeup of those who actually vote for Oscars—but it’s in direct conflict with the old-fashioned Board of Governors.
Ultimately, adding a “Best Popular Film” category to the Oscars is a slap in the face to nearly a century of history, and frankly embarrassing on behalf of those who made this decision. People have been clamoring for the Academy to add a “Best Stunts” or “Best Casting” category for years, to recognize the unsung heroes that make movies a reality. Instead, the Academy goes the complete opposite direction and decides to “honor” blockbuster films with their own separate category, which not only undermines the chances of genuinely great blockbuster films, but cheapens the Oscar experience as a whole. It turns Hollywood’s biggest night into a better-dressed MTV Movie Awards.
So yeah, good luck with all that.