The Academy Digs a Hole

The popular film category wasn’t the best idea, but it opened up important conversations that now must be addressed.
By  · Published on September 7th, 2018

After recently announcing a new “popular film” category for the Oscars, the academy has now said it will postpone the addition of the category to the awards list, stating it will not appear in 2019. With the initial announcement of the category back in August came lots of immediate criticism, some enthusiastic and most skeptical, and it’s evident that upon reflection, the academy is going to take some time to rethink their strategy on this. But, a new category or not, they’ve backed themselves into a corner for now.

While it is clear for the most part what they were attempting to accomplish with the new category, as many have already discussed, it wasn’t exactly a great idea. What defines a “popular film” is pretty broad. Would it go by box office sales, Rotten Tomatoes scores, or some combination of both? A film can also be popular and meet the sort of prestige the academy awards at the same time too. Just look at Lady Bird and Get Out for example.

In addition to this, it would also essentially other the films that would be nominated in the popular film category as worthy of recognition but not a certain type of recognition. Ultimately this would exclude certain works out of the most lauded award of the night even if the overall purpose was inclusivity of all types of films.

With that said, it wasn’t all for naught. Their initial addition to the category shows that they are noticing the accomplishments of mainstream blockbuster films like Black Panther. From their creation of the category though, they just appear to be unsure as to whether or not a Marvel film can and should be nominated amongst others in the best picture race. And while the popular film category itself may not have been a good way to address this, the sorts of questions and discussions the announcement of it has raised, regarding what defines award-worthiness for example, are important and necessary for the academy to consider moving forward in our current era.

After all, the academy awards and celebrates excellence in filmmaking but who is to say those big movies or “popular” films cannot reach that level of excellence? This year alone we had Black Panther which completely set a new standard for the genre, achieved great critical and financial success, and is simply just an amazing film that deserves a Best Picture nomination. There were also even films like Mission: Impossible- Fallout which isn’t exactly prestigious in the traditional sense of the Oscars, but clearly showed a sort of excellence in filmmaking that many people admired this summer. And last year, Wonder Woman was widely tossed around by fans and critics as a possible contender for a while. All of these prove that mainstream, big budget, sometimes high concept filmmaking is getting better and better, adding more diverse voices and creative storytelling, and that needs to be addressed.

Of course one of the main reasons the Oscars are so important is because they help to shine a light on many excellent and worthy films that don’t achieve the same box office success as say, a Mission Impossible; or are unknown in parts of the country where such films are not distributed, and therefore not even on the radar of average movie goers. A nomination or a win can help to put them on the map as well as award their accomplishments and hopefully provide more opportunities for those filmmakers down the road. And this is meaningful to people such as me, who grow up in places like rural Texas and love movies and want to be able to see as many great films as possible, indies, blockbusters, and all. That said, the Best Picture category has more than a few slots for nominations open every year, and nominating a particularly excellent Marvel film from time to time shouldn’t and won’t take away from the others, nor does it discount the type of prestige and excellence the Oscars award. If it’s a great film, it’s a great film.

This however then leads to the other primary concern for the academy and ABC which is ratings and viewership for the Oscars, as this New York Times article highlights. It’s clear that part of the reason the popular film category was created is so that films a majority of the population has seen can be nominated, which then might encourage those fans to tune into the show.

What this audience problem also points to though is a matter of accessibility to films at large that the industry needs to address. Through better funding and distribution for the smaller, more artful films that are typically awarded, the Oscars’ audience can grow more organically and more authentically. Now, of course, aspects such as distribution are pretty much out of the academy’s hands, but just as successful blockbusters are now causing the Oscars to reconsider what is “award-worthy,” hopefully, the industry at large is waking up to what smaller films have to offer.

One of the benefits of the popular film category’s ambiguity is the fact that it got film fans everywhere talking about issues and changes that needed to be brought to attention. And perhaps that was the academy’s strategy all along; to feel out the types of conversations that are most important to audiences and go forward from the there. But now that they’ve tried to address these various concerns through the popular film category, they can’t exactly un-address them just because they’ve decided to postpone it. Film fans will be waiting to see their next move, and a film like Black Panther in the 2019 race cannot be ignored.

So while it may have been meant to solve concerns, the announcement and then retraction of the new category may have gotten them deeper in a hole. But it also seems to have brought out honest reflection, which is what the academy appears to plan on doing.

The filmmaking landscape is changing and the Oscars, as well as the film industry, need to reflect that in an appropriate way. And now it looks like they have the perfect opportunity to do so.

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Film lover and pop culture enthusiast.