On Wednesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its proposal to add a new category honoring the best “popular film.”
What qualifies as popular remains unclear. Crystal-clear, however, is the intention behind the change: to pander, to plead, to try to win back interest in and improve the progressively weak TV ratings of the annual Oscar ceremony.
This is a complete capitulation and a mistake that could prove fatal for the Academy. The change could end up being harmful not only for the Oscars, but movies in general. Here’s why.
1. It lets the Academy off the hook
Years back, after the egregious best picture snub of “The Dark Knight,” the Academy expanded the number of possible best pic noms to 10, allowing room for more populist pics. The first year the number of nominees was expanded, bigger movies like “Avatar” and “District 9” made the cut.
In the years since, the Academy has nominated plenty of massive, crowd-pleasing entertainment like “Toy Story 3,” “Gravity,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian.”
The addition of the “popular film” category is a way to honor even more blockbusters. But the award, by definition, is a backhanded compliment — a way for the Academy to shove blockbusters off to the side and reaffirm its general snobbishness.
The Academy clarified Wednesday that a movie could be nominated for both best popular film and best picture. But would getting a nod for the former hurt its odds at getting one for the latter?
For next year’s ceremony, the hit Marvel movie “Black Panther” stands (or at least stood) a good chance at scoring a best picture nomination. But if the new category takes effect, does that spoil its chances? Would “Get Out” (a small film that became a big hit) have been nominated for best picture if the popular film category were in place at this year’s ceremony? Would “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” have won? Where would “Titanic” fall? Or “The Sting” or “The Godfather” or “The Exorcist”?
Some popular movies that were snubbed for best picture nominations: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Back to the Future,” “Jurassic Park,” “Toy Story” and “The Matrix.”
These snubs were mistakes — mistakes the Academy should be able to learn from, in turn becoming more inclusive and less snooty when it comes to clearly excellent examples of commercial filmmaking.
The addition of this category is a way to change without really changing. To acknowledge the Marvel-ification of modern movie-making (and movie-going) without exactly honoring it. By putting blockbusters in a separate category, the Academy is simultaneously marginalizing popular films and diminishing the sheen of the best picture award altogether.
2. It lets the movies off the hook
Here’s an opinion: The reason that more blockbusters don’t get nominated for best picture is that most don’t deserve to. Many big movies are entertaining, but most aren’t artistically significant or innovative. The best picture, at least in theory, should go to something that strives to be more than passable popcorn fluff.
“The Dark Knight” should have been nominated. But, in my opinion, no superhero movie since has deserved a nomination besides 2017’s “Logan.” Not any of the MCU movies and certainly not the DC movies
Of course, movies like “Lion” and “The Post” didn’t deserve nominations either, but the popular movie category only reinforces the low bar-ism that has already begun to consume Hollywood in the franchise era.
The low-hanging fruit of the popular category embraces this business-as-usual approach, allowing adequately fine tentpole movies to nab a runner-up award, and stripping movie-makers of the motivation to be exceptional or interesting enough to actually deserve an award.
The popular award is further encouragement to Hollywood to just keep making the same old stuff. Now they’ll not only get to gross $1 billion; they’ll get to take home a trophy, too.
3. It hurts the movies
The bulk of nominees remain prestige movies with medium-sized budgets that put up respectable box office numbers: “Spotlight,” “Birdman,” “The Shape of Water.” Some of the nominees end up being hits — like “Hidden Figures” or “The Revenant” — but their aim, first and foremost, is to be an Oscar contender. The reason these movies are made is to win Oscars.
Now this is a problem in itself, as many best-picture nominees feel like they were made by an Oscar algorithm, and better, bolder films like last year’s “The Florida Project” or “Good Time” get overlooked.
But for all its flaws — the snobbery, the conservatism, the shortsightedness — the Academy has at least up to now awarded films based not on box office but on merit. The best picture category in particular serves the purpose of getting more people to see small, wonderful films like “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird,” which is one of the main reasons small, wonderful films still get made, even amidst the noxious onslaught of the movie mega-brands.
Movie awards shows, dumb as they are, help further film culture. With the creation of the popular category, the Academy seems to be throwing its hands up, which could, in some significant way, lead to the further stagnation of an industry that’s already woefully averse to risk.
That’s not the biggest problem the world is facing, but with everything else so awful, it would be nice if at least the movies were still good.