Oscars: The “Popular Film Category” Shouldn’t Be Necessary

The Oscars' creation of a Popular Film category for next year's Academy Awards won't fix their problem; it will create a kids table.

In a sign that the times, they are a-changin’, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed that next year’s Oscars telecast is going to look mighty different. For starters a number of unspecified Oscar categories are going to begin having their awards given out during commercial breaks. So while the winners of certain categories—possibly along the lines of foreign films, sound mixing, and animated shorts—will still have their moment on the Dolby Stage in Los Angeles, viewers at home will be theoretically prevented from watching all 24 acceptance speeches that night.

… And yet, in much more controversial news (at least outside of industry guilds), the 91st Academy Awards will also be the first time we get an “Achievement in Popular Film” category. This choice is obviously in reaction to a steady decline in viewership for Oscar telecasts. While the Academy Awards still remains the most popular awards show, this past March’s 90th ceremony was the lowest viewed in television history, with a meager 26.5 million people tuning in. It was also a year dominated by Best Picture nominees that had devoted, but small, audiences. This includes Best Picture winner The Shape of Water, which grossed less than $65 million in the U.S., and other awards favorites like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (grossed $55 million domestic), and Darkest Hour ($57 million).

There were gains made by some relatively popular films at this year’s Oscars, including Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk winning in the technical “below-the-line” type of categories that might now be cut from telecast, but it was never in danger of winning in the categories like Best Picture and Best Director. Jordan Peele’s Get Out meanwhile took home a major Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, but was also never a major contender for Best Picture, despite nomination.

The Academy’s solution to turn up viewership, however, appears crass and patronizing. Rather than recognizing that some popular films warrant more merit than others, the Academy’s creation of a “Best Popular Film” looks akin to stuffing some chairs around a counter and calling it “the kids’ table.” It also suggests the Academy is not aware of its own increasingly cloistered sensibilities.

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Achievement in popular film should be a redundancy, because achievement in popular film is still, already, an achievement. And it should be valued accordingly, as it once was. Only a few decades ago, while arguably not the best films of their years, audience favorites and box office darlings like Titanic, Braveheart, and Forrest Gump took home the Best Picture prize. In retrospect, one could easily make the case for L.A. Confidential and Pulp Fiction in two of those years, nevertheless not only were smaller quality films forced to compete with blockbusters, they could easily lose to the crowd pleaser too.

Yet something changed in our culture 20 years ago. For while there were a few exceptions in the years that followed, such as Gladiator taking home Best Picture in 2001, it was the Academy Awards ceremony that honored the year of 1998 which changed Oscar’s perspective by seeing the smaller, prestige picture beat the studio blockbuster… and in an instance when it was shockingly ill-deserved. During an interview we did with Ben Mankiewicz last February, the Turner Classic Movies host perfectly contextualized what happened when Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan.

“That was at least among the first times, if not the first time, Hollywood recognized an extremely aggressive Oscar campaign, and that was Harvey Weinstein,” Mankiewicz told me. “I know [Steven] Spielberg, from reading about it, was urged to counter, like, ‘Hey, they’re making a big push here on Shakespeare in Love. We got to counter with a marketing strategy for this.’ And Spielberg, being a normal, well-adjusted good person who believed in the process [said], ‘No, I’m not going to campaign for my movie.’ Right? I mean, ‘I’ll do promotions for my movie, but I’m not going to try and charm people and send them things, so they vote for my movie.’”

Of course, Saving Private Ryan lost to Weinstein’s film and a new era in the Academy Awards began. There can be a case made that popular films have become more simplistic, juvenile, and formulaic in their rush to embrace the global box office built on superhero-loving audiences. However, this pretension overlooks that as the industry continues to separate “art” from “commerce,” and what is prestigious and what is lucrative, we have created two lanes that separate the general moviegoing audience from the more rarified airs of high achievement.

In the 20 years since Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture, studios have chased the heavy, six-month-long awards campaign season (it now begins in September with the film festivals in Toronto and Telluride), while treating mainstream audiences to pictures primarily meant to pay the bills, or in the case of many executives, bonuses. The results are the movies targeted at general consumption being more manufactured and streamlined as product, and an ever-shrinking number of ambitious projects that the industry will champion almost exclusively for the desire of Little Gold Men.

The irony is that in most years, there are still popular films worthy of major Oscar consideration for the top prizes. Last month, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight celebrated its 10th anniversary. Countless outlets and publications around the world celebrated one of the defining and enduring classics of our times, including us. Most note it remains the most artful and masterful superhero film ever made, and others even within the industry, including screenwriter David Koepp, liken it to this generation’s The Godfather.

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Yet it was not nominated for Best Picture. Nor did Nolan receive a nomination for Best Director. Even its screenplay was snubbed. Heath Ledger received a posthumous Oscar award for his searing work as the Joker in that film, but if you’re being honest, can you name the five films nominated for Best Picture that year without looking it up? Do you even recall who won? The answer is Slumdog Millionaire, a beautiful movie worthy of praise, although we’d argue one of far less cultural significance than The Dark Knight. In fact, most of the five nominees that year were good films, but 10 years on it seems a little amusing that one of the most important American films of the Bush era was not considered for Best Picture, but Frost/Nixon was. Or that the fifth film nominated was incredibly undeserving, the coolly reviewed The Reader, another Harvey Weinstein production.

The problem isn’t whether or not The Dark Knight should have won Best Picture; it’s that the mere thought of having that conversation was deemed fanciful and absurd enough to cause it to not be in the running. The Academy’s telecast-friendly solution the following year was to change it so that 10 nominees could be included for the Best Picture nomination, as opposed to five, yet other than notable exceptions here and there like District 9 that first year or Mad Max: Fury Road more recently, quality popular films have continued to go ignored in the major categories.

Creating an Achievement in Popular Film category will not reverse this trend, it will entrench it. Prior to the creation of a Best Animated Film category, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was recognized with a Best Picture nomination in 1992—back when the Oscars didn’t sneer at populist entertainment—and after the creation of the Best Animated Picture category in 2001, there has only been one other animated film nominated for Best Picture: Toy Story 3. That was also in a year with 10 nominees, as opposed to five. This is an exception to the rule, which is that animated films’ achievements have been tabled to a separate category. It allows the Academy to ignore major achievements when animated films were clearly among the best of their years, and certainly worthy of consideration for Best Picture, including Wall-E, Up, Frozen, and Inside Out.

But the general mindset in the Academy appears to be that there is no need to recognize the “kids’ stuff” at the detriment of art’s perceived purity. “Achievement in Popular Film” will be the same where popular movies continue to be marginalized, even if they are deserving. Last year, the Academy took a step in the right direction by nominating Get Out and Dunkirk for Best Picture. However, it needed to be more than a one-off to change the perception of the Oscars. Last year also produced several films that are arguably stronger than a number of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture, including James Mangold’s mournful superhero Western, Logan, and Andy Muschietti’s surprisingly lovely horror movie, It. While Logan received a screenplay nomination (a first for a superhero movie), Patrick Stewart’s work arguably could have been in major consideration for Supporting Actor.

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Nonetheless, just as it seemed the Academy was going to step into the right direction after 20 years of playing by the Weinstein parameters of what is “Best Picture” material, their solution is to create even more ill-defined lanes. Major achievements like Mad Max: Fury Road, which received a Best Picture nomination in 2016, could be relegated to the kids’ table, along with another handful of movies that perhaps aren’t worthy of Oscar consideration.

This year has had popular films that are among the best of the first seven months, including Marvel Studios and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout. It is easy to imagine them in a “Popular Film” category, along with a few that probably shouldn’t be considered “Oscar material.” Does a participation trophy for Ant-Man and the Wasp really sound alluring to any television viewer?

Rather than fixing a problem with their perceptions, the Academy with their new category will double down and exacerbate it. It also feeds into the culture McQuarrie himself remarked upon during an interview with us last month.

“You can feel the industry narrowing its focus almost daily, and I fear we’re conditioning an audience to some very specific appetites,” McQuarrie said. “We’re also spawning a very toxic fan subculture… When it gets there, we won’t have anyone to blame but ourselves. We made the audience.”

Rather than encouraging the best in popular entertainment in an attempt to enrichen audience appetites, the Popular Film category suggests the industry is ready to throw in the towel and leave fast food out for those they view as children—while keeping them in the other room.