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An Oscar for Black Panther? Academy makes big change with new Popular Film category

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Aug 8, 2018, 12:33 PM EDT

Nearly a decade after expanding its Best Picture category to include up to 10 nominees in an effort to feature a wider variety of films, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is making another big change that could mean more spotlight time for genre films and blockbusters.

In a message to its members obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, the Academy announced that — in addition to committing to a three-hour telecast that will include some presentation changes and a slightly earlier airdate for the 2020 ceremony — its board of governors voted Tuesday to add a new category to the annual Oscars telecast: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. There are no other details available about the award yet, including eligibility information, but the change is part of a continued effort by the Academy to keep the Oscars "relevant in a changing world."

It's hard to read this as anything but an acknowledgement of the continued complaint that the ceremony's major categories, specifically Best Picture, often highlight indie films and small-scale dramas, many of which haven't even been screened in certain parts of the United States and the world at the time of the Oscars telecast. This creates ratings woes for the Academy, to be sure, but it's also generated an outcry from genre fans and critics, who argue that legitimately great artistic achievements in blockbuster and genre-heavy films are often overlooked, with a few exceptions like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and this year's big winner, The Shape of Water.

This complaint has already spawned some changes to the Academy's annual ceremony, most notably a decision in 2009 to expand Best Picture nominees from five to 10 in part because one of 2008's most acclaimed films, The Dark Knight, was left out of the Best Picture category that year. That same year, the Academy also reinstated a "preferential ballot" for Best Picture voting that allows members to rank films according to preference in that category, rather than simply picking one winner. The idea behind this, according to the The Los Angeles Times, is "to ensure that each ballot will have maximum influence, putting a premium on the choices that voters rank near the top." It also means that the film with the most first place votes doesn't always win Best Picture.

Now the Popular Film category arrives to give even more weight during each ceremony to the biggest films of the year, at a time when movies like Black Panther in 2018 and Wonder Woman in 2017 are getting increasingly big pushes from their studios in an effort to earn some Academy gold. In some respects, this feels like a cynical attempt by the Academy to create an Also-Ran category that will appease moviegoers who, for example, saw Black Panther but couldn't find (or weren't interested in) a theater that was screening a festival darling like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, as well as appease genre fans who just want to see a Marvel movie take an award outside of the technical categories.

Would it be great to see Kevin Feige step up and collect an Oscar for his producing duties in the MCU? Sure. Will it mean as much if it's in a special category that some fans view as a consolation prize that lessens the impact of the blockbusters while also potentially dulling the shine on the Best Picture category? Time will tell.

Again, it's important to note that we know very little right now about exactly how this category will work, who will be eligible (popular films can be low-budget indies that caught fire at the box office, too), and how the award will be framed in the overall telecast. What we do know, though, is that the Academy has just taken a major step in the direction of focusing more on blockbusters, which are often viewed as a kind of art form unto themselves.

The 91st Annual Academy Awards, honoring the film achievements of 2018, will take place Feb. 24, 2019.