New York: Not since Faye Dunaway shouted “La La Land!" has an Oscar announcement caused quite as much chaos as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decision to create a new Academy Awards category for “outstanding achievement in popular film". The film academy’s surprise announcement Wednesday proved remarkably unpopular, at least among film critics and some academy members. Actor Rob Lowe, a long-time academy member, pronounced the Oscars dead, “survived by sequels, tent-poles and vertical integration".
The other new changes were met with a mix of praise and grumbling. Many applauded the dramatic move up the calendar to 9 February in 2020. (Awards season has become a nearly four-month slog with many repeat winners.) Perhaps inevitable was the move to shrink the broadcast to three hours and remove some categories from the live telecast.
But the introduction of a popular film category, beginning with the upcoming 24 February ceremony to be televised by ABC, raised a lot of questions. Here’s an attempt to answer a few of them.
Why is the academy doing this?
Low ratings. This year’s nearly four-hour-long Oscars, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, was watched by 26.5 million people, an almost 20% drop from the year before and well below the days of 40 million-plus viewership. Some 43.7 million watched in 2014 when 12 Years a Slave won best picture, but each year since has seen declines. That’s troubling news for the academy, which depends on broadcast revenue for most of its budget, and ABC, which owns broadcast rights for the Oscars through 2028. But whether that broadcast is cause for desperation is debatable. The Academy Awards still rank as easily the biggest non-football broadcast of the year, and ratings for everything, including the Super Bowl, is declining in the increasingly fractured media landscape. The Grammys, for comparison, dropped 24%, with 19.8 million.
Whose decision was this?
The measures were approved by the academy’s 54-member board of governors. Its roughly 7,000 members were not consulted, and many of them said they considered a popular film category a pandering move for a 91-year-old institution. Adam McKay, who won best screenplay in 2016 for The Big Short and whose upcoming Dick Cheney film is expected to be in the mix this year, joked on Twitter that the Oscars will also have new categories for “best knife throw" and “hottest female alien". But the academy’s decision was also influenced by the demands of its broadcasting partner, ABC, which has pressured Oscar producers to make the telecast more broadly appealing. (Kimmel’s show deliberately steered clear of politics, largely.) Representatives for the network and for the academy declined to comment for this article.
Have hit films not been nominated?
This year’s Oscars actually included a number of major box-office success including best-picture nominees Get Out and Dunkirk, animated feature winner Coco, cinematography winner Blade Runner 2049, and other nominees like Beauty and the Beast, Baby Driver and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If anything, the academy has shown increasing willingness to nominate genre movies, from horror (Get Out) to sci-fi (Arrival, Gravity). Logan this year became the first superhero movie nominated for a major award, scoring an adapted screenplay nod. Some, though, had hoped “Wonder Woman" would have landed something.
But haven’t best picture winners been small?
Yes, this is true. No best-picture winner since 2012’s Argo has cleared $100 million in domestic box office. Independent films have won ten of the last 11 best-picture Oscars, including wins for Moonlight, Spotlight, Birdman and The Artist. This year’s winner, The Shape of Water, was no slouch, though, with $63.9 million in domestic ticket sales and almost $200 million worldwide—an undeniably large haul for a movie featuring sex with a fish man. Still, this has been a concern for the Academy Awards since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was snubbed in the category, triggering the 2009 expansion from five nominees to 10 (later changed to up to 10 nominees by preferential ballot). The expansion helped make room, in the years to come, for blockbusters like Up, Inception and The Martian. But it did little to stem the stronghold smaller films have on best picture. For that, Hollywood can only blame itself. The major studios years ago gave up on making much beyond global tentpoles. Perhaps not coincidentally, the market-leader in tentpoles, Disney (with three $1 billion releases just this year) owns ABC and could potentially dominate a popular film category.
What’s a popular film, anyway?
Most perplexing of all may be the academy’s definition of a “popular" film. It said the details were still being worked out, but that the academy “supports broad-based consideration of excellence in all films". So how does one measure popularity? In ticket sales? Solo: A Star Wars Story made $213 million in North America, but few cared much for it. Do overseas sales count? Would a traditional Oscar nominee like La La Land ($446 million worldwide) have been a popular film? And how would a box office threshold work for late December releases just opening at the time of nominations? Should the winner also be chosen purely on a basis of highest box-office gross?
Will anyone want one of these?
Never underestimate how much people want an Oscar, any Oscar. But it seems certain that a “popular film" Oscar will not be looked upon like a “real" Oscar, but rather a kind of MTV Awards-ish half-Oscar. For many, it reeks of patronizing, of ghettoizing “popular" from “art" in a popular art form. Even in today’s blockbuster-driven Hollywood, many believe both can still coexist. And the year has already offered up an especially good example of just that: Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. The acclaimed Disney film was already seen a best picture contender; now, some fear it will be relegated to the popular film category. The movie business tried this once before: The very first Academy Awards gave an award for artistic achievement (to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise) and for “outstanding production" (William Wellman’s Wings). Both, it’s worth noting, remain masterpieces. But the dichotomy was done away with the next year.