There seems to be a disconnect between what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thinks viewers want in the Oscars and what audiences are actually looking for.
On Wednesday, the academy’s board announced two major changes to the annual ceremony’s format: The 2019 show will be cut from the typical 3.5-4 hours down to a relatively brisk three hours, and it will add a new award dubbed “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.”
That new category is as strange as it sounds, and it elicited a slew of snarky responses from entertainment reporters, enthusiasts and at least two actors willing to weigh in on the decision:
“The Black Panther Memorial Award for Movie That We’re Afraid Won’t Get a Best Picture Nomination”— David Sims (@davidlsims) August 8, 2018
"I would have voted for Black Panther for Best Popular Film twice if I could have." pic.twitter.com/sYc6l9rXXV— Ross Miller (@rosstmiller) August 8, 2018
I can't believe it happened again. pic.twitter.com/jQDqsjMdjC— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) August 8, 2018
Best Popular Film? oof— Elijah Wood (@elijahwood) August 8, 2018
Seriously, this “best pop movie” category is the worst idea the Academy has had since they asked me to sing with Snow White.— Rob Lowe (@RobLowe) August 9, 2018
To the academy’s credit, it did eventually specify that films will be eligible to be nominated for both “Popular Film” and Best Picture. That still doesn’t answer the pressing question this move has sparked: What does “popular” mean to both the academy and the average moviegoer?
It will be impossible to know how the academy defines “popular” until it releases more information on how the new category will be handled. But let’s give it a shot anyway and see if this educated guess for how the academy delineates “popularity” gels with what mainstream audiences probably believe it to mean.
“Popular” — that word will remain in quotes because it’s essentially meaningless — probably means a combination of three things to the academy:
- How much money the movie made at the (most likely domestic) box office
- Its critical reception, because that will always be at least vaguely a factor
- Its cultural footprint, or how much conversation the film garnered on social media and beyond
That’s a completely arbitrary definition for an amorphous blob of a concept, but it’s probably a safe bet this will be something resembling the criteria the academy will use to assess the nominees in this category.
The contrarian will see those pillars of “popular” and balk. “Well if a movie does all that, why can’t the academy just nominate it for Best Picture?” one might ask indignantly. That's a fair point, which is proven even further by the film most folks seem to believe this category was cooked up to honor at the 2019 Academy Awards.
The immediate reaction to the "popular film" news seemed to generally be along the lines of, “Well, the academy didn’t want to nominate ‘Black Panther’ for Best Picture, so it created an entirely new category to make fans happy.” That’s a shortsighted way to look at the academy’s decision-making process, but it might be at least a little accurate.
“Black Panther” checks all the boxes of the above definition of “popular.” It’s the highest-grossing film of 2018 so far, was a critical darling upon its release, and inspired a countless number of think pieces about its depiction of Africa, what it means for black America, and whether there was any merit to villain Erik Killmonger’s ambitious plan.
So why shouldn’t a film that captured the movie-going public’s imagination to such an overwhelming degree not just be nominated for Best Picture? An even bigger cynic would argue there’s a racial component to the academy’s decision to consign “Black Panther” to Oscars purgatory, but since there’s no actual evidence of that we’ll assume that was not the case.
Let’s play this game with another film that probably would have been in this category if it were an option at the time: "Avatar," James Cameron’s at-the-time technologically mind-blowing film that is currently the highest-grossing movie of all time, was a solid critical success, and ignited a 3D craze that has been going strong since its release in 2009.
Serious question: When was the last time you thought about "Avatar"? What do you remember about that film besides giant blue aliens, cool special effects, and a story that blatantly ripped off both “Fern Gully” and “Pocahontas”?
It was nominated for Best Picture at the time (it lost to "The Hurt Locker") but imagine if it had won a “Popular Film” Oscar. Would that have improved the way it’s regarded now? It’s more likely that skeptics would hold "Avatar" up as a shining example of how useless that category truly is.
Point being, “Popular Film” is practically designed for its champions to age badly. The same is true of Best Picture winners, but at least that’s a category specifically rewarding cinematic excellence, a relatively static concept. “Popularity” is such a broad, ever-changing notion that all the academy has done is invent yet another way for people to complain about why its awards are worthless.
Here’s another question: What happens when the most stereotypically “popular” movies in a given year don’t meet all the criteria listed above? Basically, what will the academy do in a situation like 2007, when most of the year’s highest-grossing movies — like “Shrek the Third,” “Transformers,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” — are critically reviled?
That potential scenario is a film buff’s worst nightmare. A situation like 2007’s dearth of good movies would essentially turn the Oscars into the MTV Movie Awards, which don’t seem to care about critical reception at all in its “popularity” recipe. Some will argue that the elevation of objectively bad movies to such a prominent category will cheapen the entire enterprise.
The academy may have inadvertently put itself in a position where it will be extremely difficult for it to please both purists who think this new category demeans the Oscars’ prestige and those who believe this is just an excuse to relegate mainstream movies to a lesser category.
Hopefully it figures out a satisfactory definition of “popular,” or else it may further divide the always-volatile film community.
Joshua Axelrod (@jaxel222) is a graduate student in Media and Strategic Communications at George Washington University. Previously he was a web producer and pop politics writer for the Washington Examiner.