At the first Academy Awards in 1929, two movies walked away with the top prizes: William Wellman’s Wings won for Outstanding Picture while F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise scooped up the Oscar for Unique and Artistic Picture. Both movies were ostensibly about love triangles, but the former was a romantic action picture while the latter was an Expressionist film rich in symbolism and allegory.
That was the first and only time that two separate awards were given for what eventually became known as the Oscar for Best Picture. The Unique and Artistic Picture prize went away while Outstanding Picture remained–only it was now open to both populist hits like Wings and, for lack of a better word, artsier fare like Sunrise. And so it stayed for nearly 90 years, as the Oscars grew from a 15-minute ceremony at a private dinner to a massive TV spectacle viewed worldwide by as many as a billion people at its peak.
Those days of the Academy Awards being nearly as large as the Super Bowl have long passed, and in 2018, with the annual ceremony sliding down a slippery slope greased by the slow drip of declining ratings, a new award was floated by Academy president John Bailey: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, or Best Popular Film for short.
The concept didn’t last long but it’s seemingly haunted the Academy ever since, with this year’s Oscars marking the first time in about four years that the Academy is neither scrambling to react to a pandemic or what they perceive to be audiences’ “popular” favorites…
The Not-So-Popular Best Popular Film
In 2018, Academy president Bailey admitted to Vanity Fair that the idea was a direct response to the increasingly feeble ratings of the telecast, a way to draw in viewers who might want to see, say, Black Panther honored in addition to The Favourite (although the Best Picture winner that year, Green Book, was a straight-down-the-middle mainstream studio pic that had done well enough at the box office).
The idea was quickly ridiculed in the press and by members of the Academy. First, it smacked of condescension toward the films themselves: What made Black Panther worthy of Best Popular Film but not Best Picture? Just its box office alone? Was a superhero movie (or any other genre picture, most of which would probably make up the Popular category) not good enough for the big prize? Let’s also not forget with Black Panther the likely winner, the racist undertone of a “separate” award for the “Black movie.”
Second, it was insulting to the film industry and the people who craft the films. The Academy Awards are voted on by thousands of people intimately involved with the making of movies; the nominees in each category are selected by people who work in those categories (Best Picture is the exception). Was the Academy really going to diminish their hard work on “popular films,” relegating them to a proverbial kids table?
Facing scorn from all sides, the Best Popular Film idea faded away as quickly as it had emerged, and did not make its debut at the 91st Academy Awards as initially planned. But its ghost still roamed the hallowed halls of the Academy and suddenly reappeared in 2022.
The Fan Favorite Award That Wasn’t Voted On By Fans
Last year’s 94th Academy Awards were a disaster for many reasons, including of course the Slap Heard Around the World and the absence of eight categories from the telecast, but another aspect of that year’s debacle was the debut of the Fan Favorite “award,” which was supposed to allow fans to vote via Twitter for their favorite movie and their favorite movie moment—“Oscar Cheer Moment”—of the year.
Although for many it summoned up nightmares about the Best Popular Film award resurfacing in a new disguise, the Fan Favorite award was not in fact a real Oscar. It was designed to lure in younger viewers more engaged with social media and it was also seen as a way to recognize a film that, while a pop culture phenomenon, had no realistic chance of winning the real Best Picture Oscar—or in this case, even being nominated. Once again, like Black Panther four years earlier, it was a Marvel film, in this case Spider-Man: No Way Home, the Academy coveted to get in the program. The $1.9 billion-grossing blockbuster had given the theater business a much-needed shot in the arm after nearly two years of a pandemic-induced coma, and it had been critically acclaimed to boot. But Academy voters were not going to nominate or vote for a threequel in a superhero franchise.
Neither, it seems, did the Fan Favorite voters: the winners announced on Oscar night were Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead for favorite movie, and the sequence in Zack Snyder’s Justice League in which the Flash enters the speed force for the Oscars Cheer Moment. What a coincidence! (Online fans also wanted to vote for ZSJL for “favorite movie” but discovered the film was disqualified since it is technically a recut of a film released in 2017.)
Then again, maybe it wasn’t so coincidental. According to The Wrap, a sizable portion of the votes cast for the Fan Favorite poll were “autonomous web programs”–bots to you and me. The same kind of bots that allegedly powered a massive online campaign to get Snyder’s cut of Justice League completed and released in the first place.
In the end, these gimmicks probably didn’t do much besides once again embarrass the Academy. While the ratings for the show were up 60 percent from the all-time low of 2021 (the one that took place in a train station), it was still the second least-watched Oscars event since the 1970s, which is when Nielsen began tracking ratings for the ceremony. Even with the Slap.
Back to Basics
As far as we can tell from what’s been disclosed to the public (although you never know for sure what the Oscars’ producers have in store), this year’s 95th annual Academy Awards is going back to basics. All the nominated categories and wins will be televised, the host is safe, dependable Jimmy Kimmel, and measures are being taken to make sure that no one gets beaten up on live television this time. Plus, as far as we can tell, the Fan Favorite award and Oscars Cheer Moment prize have been consigned to the toilet of awards history and obscure barroom trivia.
To which we say: good riddance. The Oscars should remain what they ostensibly are: a celebration of the highest efforts in quality filmmaking and all the crafts necessary to make that happen, not a showcase for a popularity contest or an online Twitter poll.
Yes, there has clearly been a divide between the films honored over the last several decades and the movies that the public responds to, which may very well contribute to the show’s steadily sinking ratings. But that divide has been in place for a long time, and the studios are simply not making the kind of adult, dramatic, yet still populist fare that once made Oscar nominations (for the most part; nothing’s perfect) both populist and artistically legitimate.
This year, in fact, represents a chance to right that ship: Alongside the artier fare like Tár, Triangle of Sadness, and Women Talking are blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water, as well as sizable indie hits like Everything Everywhere All at Once–the latter being the current favorite to win Best Picture. If this near-perfect mix of film fare, both highbrow and high-earning, can’t draw eyeballs back to the Oscars on March 12, then all the Fan Favorites and armies of the dead in the world won’t do it either.
The 95th annual Academy Awards air live March 12 on ABC-TV.