A few thoughts on the “Popular Film” award and additional Academy changes

 

I believe it is possible to empathize with the Academy’s woes while still being critical of their attempt at a solution.

It is no secret that the Oscars’ ratings have been steadily declining for a number of years, and this is not the Academy’s first attempt at a solution. The push from five Best Picture nominees to ten was meant to include more popular films and pull more people to the broadcast. But even that drew criticism, as some believed it lessened the prestige of the night’s biggest category. And in the end, the ratings declined anyway. The Academy’s latest changes come amidst pressure from ABC regarding their ratings. Because in today’s world, ratings are everything. And if you can’t get people watching, you don’t matter.

Now, I have to make it clear that I don’t even agree with this way of thinking. The quality of the awards and the Academy itself should not be based on television ratings, and the fact that they have to alter their standards and structure to account for that is sad. Yet, in an effort to combat poor ratings, the Academy has decided to implement three changes to their regular program. In their words:

The details on the new Popular Film category are sparse, but we can safely assume it is meant to draw more viewers by giving attention to blockbusters like Black Panther or whatever other Disney megahit makes a billion dollars. Academy snobs tend to get riled up when these kinds of films are mentioned because they are not “Best Picture material,” and maybe they’re right. Not every blockbuster deserves a Best Picture nomination. I’m not even sure Black Panther does. But does that mean they need to give it a consolation prize? It’s basically “the best movie that people actually saw” award. Is the Academy so afraid of the backlash that will come if they don’t nominate hits like Black Panther, or are they just hoping the millions who saw the film will also tune in if it’s guaranteed a nom.

The earlier airdate is not a big deal for now, though it may mean a shortened “Oscar season” with different deadlines later on.

The ambiguous “three-hour telecast” is perhaps the most worrisome of all the changes. Sure, the Popular Film award sounds like something you’d see Vin Diesel present at the MTV Movie Awards, but the shortening of the broadcast is much more drastic. The Academy has specified that this telecast will result from the removal of certain awards from the live show, with them instead to be presented during the commercial breaks. These “less interesting” awards will likely consist of the technical categories such as Sound Mixing and Editing, Film Editing and maybe even Production Design.

There is a lot to dissect about these changes and what they mean, how long they’ll last and whether they’ll even affect the ratings. But after just one day since the news broke, here are my main three concerns:

1. The removal of certain categories from the live broadcast minimizes the hard work of nominees in categories whose industries are already underrepresented in the public eye. You may not care who wins Best Costume Design, but you know who does? Mark Bridges, who won it this year for Phantom Thread. He and his colleagues and people who love fashion and costumes care. And they about two minutes of a three and a half hour broadcast to celebrate themselves, and why shouldn’t they?

2. The creation of the Popular Film award could create a more homogeneous Best Picture pool, as blockbuster and genre films will be pushed towards the new category as a sort of “consolation prize.” It implies that something popular can’t be the best, and something that’s the best can’t be popular. It’s an award that tells fans of popular movies that they’re taste is less refined. It’s an addition that is attempting to bring people into the Oscar family, while in reality it is alienating them for liking a certain brand of film.

3. The creation of the Popular Film award undermines the artistic merits of really good films that also happen to be popular. Certain blockbuster and genre films that deserve Best Picture nominations may now be pushed aside, as they do not fit the typical (and outdated) Academy mold. Consider if the Popular Film award had been around the last twenty years. Would Get Out, Hidden Figures, Lord of the Rings, Toy Story 3 or Mad Max: Fury Road have gotten Best Picture nominations? Maybe not. Do recent examples such as Hereditary and Black Panther deserve a shot? I think so. The Academy assures us that films can be nominated in both categories, but the Oscar voters are notorious for “spreading the wealth” and often skimp on nominations for a film that they feel has already been represented. That means if a movie like Black Panther gets a Popular Film nomination, many voters will feel like they have given it its due and not consider it for the top prize.

That’s enough rambling for me. Truth be told, the Oscars is my most anticipated day of the year, even more than my birthday or Christmas. It is a day I spend preparing the Besties with my girlfriend and a night I spend watching the awards intently and eating microwaved appetizers with my mom. It’s something I (somewhat irrationally) care a lot about. If you care about it too, let me know what you think of these changes. Could they actually be a good thing for the Oscars? Or is this just a pathetic attempt to keep the masses, who never cared about the Oscars in the first place, interested in the awards? I guess we’ll have to wait until February to see…

 
David Merkle