So the Internet is talking about the Oscars. Specifically, they’re talking about a controversial decision to present an award for “Achievement in Popular Film” in addition to the regular Best Picture Oscar.
It’s still up in the air as to what constitutes a “popular” movie and The Hollywood Reporter has a great piece articulating all the potential logistic issues with that. It seems to me though that the general intention of the Academy is to shrink the disconnect between its members and the general movie-going public. The logic seems to be “if our telecast features all these Star Wars and superhero movies that everyone likes, people will be more likely to care about our awards and tune into the ceremony.”
I will say I think the Academy’s heart is in the right place. It’s always been a little irksome to me how many awesome movies are never recognized by the Academy simply because they’re not the Academy’s type. Personally, I think a better solution would be to introduce genre categories. For example, there are Grammys for Best Country Album, Best Rock Album, Best Rap Album, etc. in addition to an overall Album of the Year award. Likewise there could be Oscars for Best Comedy, Best Horror, Best Action, Best Sci-Fi, etc. in addition to a Best Picture Award.
I have some issues with this whole “popular” thing though. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg issue because most years, there are a fair number of films that become more popular precisely because they are nominated for an Oscar. One of the more positive things about the awards is that they encourage audiences to go out and see smaller indie films that never would have had such a large audience without their nominations. Now, those small indie films may have to compete for screens with the popular movie nominees.
I also want to point out that if the Academy truly believes that a huge blockbuster is worthy of recognition, they’ve always been free to nominate such a film for the previously existing categories. One of the more recent examples of this is 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which was nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Directing. It went on to win 6 of those 10 categories.
According to the aforementioned Hollywood Reporter article, movies nominated in the popular category will still be eligible for the regular Best Picture Oscar, but I can’t help but wonder if something like the Mad Max: Fury Road phenomenon will still happen under the new system. There are separate Oscars for animated movies, documentaries, and foreign language films. Coincidentally, the Academy very rarely nominates animated or foreign language films for Best Picture, and they’ve NEVER nominated a documentary. They’re technically allowed to, but they consistently choose not to.
Is this new category just an attempt to exile popular movies to their own category similar to what happens with animated, foreign, and documentary films? At first glance the decision might look like an attempt at crowd pleasing, but upon further inspection it arguably increases the Academy’s pretentiousness. It’s as if they’re trying to say “movies that normal people like don’t belong in the ACTUAL Best Picture category.”
Another thought I had is that depending on how nebulous the eligibility requirements are, the popular category could just turn into a consolation prize for movies that are only mildly popular but aren’t good enough for a Best Picture nod either. We see this happening with the Supporting Actor/Actress Oscars. Because the Academy leaves it up to individual voters to decide which roles are lead and which roles are supporting, this sometimes results in lead actors campaigning in the supporting categories to improve their chances.
Alicia Vikander successfully implemented this strategy in 2016 when she took home the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in The Danish Girl even though she was a co-lead. In doing so she defeated Rooney Mara, who was up for her co-lead performance in Carol. Will Best Popular Picture just become a beacon of hope for lukewarm forgettable Oscar bait that did sorta kinda alright at the box office?
Ultimately, only time will tell. It’s hard to know how I feel until I know more specific eligibility requirements and see what films the Academy ends up nominating. Again, I think that a desire to recognize a wider array of films is admirable. I think that bridging the gap between film nerds and normal people would be great, and I’d love to see both groups learn from each other and broaden their horizons. I just worry that the Achievement in Popular Film category won’t actually accomplish that and might have negative unintended consequences.