Why the Academy’s new popular film category tarnishes 90 years of the Oscars

As you’re likely aware by now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced plans for a brand new category at next year’s Oscars. This vague new award (criteria and eligibility are still TBA) celebrates “outstanding achievement in popular film.” If you have no idea what the hell this will mean, you’re not alone. Even as an ardent Oscar-watcher of 30 years, I haven’t the slightest idea how this award will be determined.

Film Twitter has naturally been in meltdown ever since the announcement broke. A few have celebrated the move, yet some have suggested it’s the end of the Oscars as we know it. While it’s admirable the Academy is attempting to adapt and evolve, it wreaks of pathetic desperation to somehow remain relevant with younger audiences. Lagging ratings over the last few years have seemingly pushed the Academy to make drastic changes. In my opinion, this panicked and hasty decision seemingly defies what the Oscars have stood for over the last 90 years.

While it’s true the Academy Awards have always been somewhat of a popularity contest, it’s inherent existence has focussed on celebrating and acknowledging artistic achievement in the world of cinema. Sure, in the past we’ve had several Best Picture winners that were nothing more than crowd-pleasing fluff. And many acting winners have won for reasons other than being the best performance of the year. Regardless, they still come from a place of achievement. There’s no artistic merit in achieving popularity.

Popularity happens by complete chance. You can’t necessarily achieve it. Remember the most popular kids in high school? Did they do anything specific to achieve this status? They probably won the gene pool lottery or were born into money. This pure luck provided unbridled popularity amongst their peers. Take a look at The Plastics from Mean Girls. They ruled the school by order of them being rich and beautiful. That’s the pure definition of popularity. Those under them have no idea how or why these creatures are popular. They just are, and you better fall in line. Popular movies are like this too.

We industry watchers see mindless drivel dominate the box office and can’t help but wonder why. Why does something as banal as the eighth Fast & Furious film earn $1.2 billion, yet something as artistically ingenious as Moonlight barely cracks $65 million? Popular movies generally follow a basic formula and audiences naturally lap them up. Even I, a huge Marvel fan, can admit almost every MCU film has stuck to their tried and true structure and format. If it ain’t broke, don’t meddle with it, right?

Ultimately, this is really because nobody wants to be challenged by popular films. And there’s nothing wrong with that. These films serve their purpose well. Popcorn cinema has its important place in the movie world. Sometimes you just want a “switch-off-your-brain” kinda film. Those experiences are entirely entertaining and enjoyable. But awarding one of them with an Academy Award, based solely on popularity and nothing more, is utter nonsense.

Intentional or not, what this move does is send a confusing and misguided message to audiences that, in the eyes of the Academy, a film essentially can’t be both artistically brilliant and wildly popular. It falls in one or the other. When you label one category as popular, you inherently deem those in the other as being unpopular. While the Academy have since clarified eligible films can still be nominated in both categories, we all know that’s not going to happen. The big money-earners are going to be relegated to this new consolation prize category and the existing Best Picture category will be further overloaded with films general audiences already shy away from.

This will only deepen this divide even further. A lot of people outside the awards show bubble already view “Oscar movies” as pompous and pretentious fare. And yes, this is part of the reason for the ratings drop. People didn’t see The Shape of Water in cinemas. They sure as hell don’t care to see it win an Academy Award for Best Picture. But you’re not helping matters by essentially decreeing the Best Picture nominees as unpopular. You’re basically telling people they don’t need to bother watching these films because they’re not in the cool crowd like the nominees in this trendy new popular category.

Once upon a time, the Academy had no issue nominating popular films for Best Picture. Even when there were only five nomination spots, huge box office earners like JawsStar WarsE.T. – The Extra-TerrestrialRaiders of the Lost Ark, Titanic, and all three The Lord of the Rings films earned Best Picture nominations. The latter two even won the damn thing. But by this new logic, even something like The Godfather, the highest-grossing film of all time when released, could be deemed a “popular” film. Are we saying it shouldn’t have won Best Picture, but rather simply be awarded for its impressive popularity and the trophy should have gone to Cabaret?

That being said, in recent times, several popular “genre” films have managed to break through to receive Best Picture nominations. Had this new system been in place, it’s highly likely that never would have happened. In 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian probably would have been dumped into the popular category. Likewise with last year’s Get Out. And what about something like La La Land or Gravity? They earned $446 million and $723 million respectively worldwide. And each took home more Oscars than any film that year. Would they have been pushed aside and given this meaningless consolation prize to make up for their Best Picture losses?

We still don’t know how the Academy will be defining what constitutes a “popular” film. It’s a seemingly impossible task (good luck with that) and one can only hope they have some idea of where this is heading. If it’s based purely on box office results, that’s hardly an indication of genuine popularity. Every Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers film has made a bucket load of cash, but most people ultimately didn’t like them all that much. They robotically went to each film mostly because they’d seen the last one. That’s not necessarily indicative of popularity, but rather programmed behaviour. And what of something like the Twilight and The Hunger Games franchises? Those were hugely popular with young girls but barely registered a blip anywhere else. Are we talking popularity with everyone? Is being popular with one segment of the market enough for the Academy?

This entire change feels like a desperate move by the Academy to avoid negative press when well-known “popular” films fail to find themselves up for Best Picture. When The Dark Knight missed out in 2009, they tried to rectify this by expanding the number of Best Picture nominees the following year. It didn’t work. And now this is their nonsensical solution. It’s purely a chance to manipulate the press when something like Black Panther isn’t nominated for Best Picture next year. Ah, but it’s nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, so you can’t be mad at us, right? If they think that’s going to work, they clearly don’t understand fandoms very well.

The thing that troubles me the most is how much publicity the winner of this new category will receive over the winner of Best Picture. Smaller films thrive on the exposure winning at the Oscars can bring. Most people would have no idea what Moonlight was, had it not been for that infamous announcement snafu. Likewise with The Hurt Locker, which saw a boom in DVD sales after its unlikely Best Picture victory over Avatar. Click-bait media outlets will be looking to post Oscar-related articles that get the most attention. That will now fall to whatever wins this popular category, especially in its first few years of existence. The Best Picture winner will almost be an afterthought.

At the end of the day, I personally would genuinely rather see a popular film nominated for Best Picture and lose than not be nominated at all, yet win this ridiculous new category. And I’m fairly confident most filmmakers would rather their work boast the “nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture” tagline on their film’s poster as opposed to “Winner of Most Popular Film at the Oscars, you guys!” The esteem of being a Best Picture nominee far outweighs winning a popularity contest category. Ask Jordan Peele where he would prefer Get Out to sit. Do you really think he’d like his film to be remembered as popular or artistically important?

The honour of winning Best Picture is immeasurable. After 90 years, it’s still the preeminent signal of artistic excellence in filmmaking. You can roll your eyes and say it’s meaningless, but it’s still something most filmmakers strive for. This new category genuinely cheapens the entire ceremony. They actually tried this once before. At the very first Academy Awards, a second Best Picture prize was given for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture.” It was dropped the following year. And rightly so. The category of Best Picture deserves to stand on its own and the victor deserves to own the spotlight entirely by itself.

Instead of creating an unnecessary popular category, the Academy should be doing more to encourage its voters to nominate these films for the main prize. Expand Best Picture to ten guaranteed nominees again. Give members ten spots on their nomination ballot, not five. You only just added a whole new group of diverse voters a few months ago, yet you haven’t even given them the chance to show you how they vote. How do you know these new members wouldn’t pick a whole swag of popular films next year for Best Picture? You’re jumping the gun and you look utterly foolish.

By diluting the Best Picture prize down with a second film also winning for popularity, you are truly running the risk of tarnishing the entire history of the Academy Awards. This awards ceremony was created to honour and celebrate excellence in filmmaking. Yes, there’s a lot of PR fluff involved too, but its inherent existence is awarding the best in cinema, not the most popular. The Oscars weren’t created to garner big TV ratings by pandering to the general public with a pathetic stunt category that still probably won’t get people to watch anyway. When your focus is solely on viewership, you’re missing the entire point of the event.

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