The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has had a PR problem for a while now. The awarding body of the Oscars, which remains the most prestigious cinematic award in the film business, has faced major pushback from every facet of the movie world due to their lack of diversity in both who they award and who gets to choose those winners. A mere three years after #OscarsSoWhite dominated the conversation and made the problem impossible to ignore, much has changed. The Academy is greatly diversifying its membership and those changes in demographics led to delightful surprises like Moonlight winning Best Picture in 2017. As with most things in Hollywood, change has been maddeningly incremental with the Oscars, but for the first time in quite a while, audiences, critics, and the industry felt like major progress had been made. Things could only go up from here, right?
Alas, there’s nothing the Academy likes more than snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and this week, they announced changes to the upcoming ceremony that will drastically alter how business is done.
The Academy revealed plans to cut down the length of the ceremony to three hours, which would mean some winners won't be televised. Instead, "select categories", which more than likely means technical awards without any major stars, will be shown during commercial breaks, edited to reveal only "the winning moments". The BAFTAs do something similar with their ceremony, dumping everything from Best Cinematography to Best Foreign Language Film in a montage at the end of the ceremony. BAFTA audiences notoriously hate this move, which has been repeatedly criticized for its lack of respect for the winners and rudeness towards anyone who isn't a "star".
Yet the new addition that sticks out as the most staggeringly condescending part of the Academy’s changes is the planned addition of a “Best Popular Film” category.
They have yet to reveal eligibility requirements for such a category but already people are disappointed by the news. It seems all but confirmed that, in this context, “popular film” will mean blockbusters, genre features, and summer entertainment. In other words, films that seldom make the cut for “Best Picture”. It seems that these moves are calculated to appeal to Oscar audiences who find the show too long and boring and don’t care about anyone who isn’t a celebrity. This year's show proved to be the lowest-rated telecast ever, which clearly bothers the Academy. However, none of these moves are helpful. Indeed, they cheapen the Oscars, insult audiences, and further sideline the kinds of films they've always had trouble acknowledging.
It also doesn't seem like a coincidence that this move has come in the year of Black Panther, which remains one of the highest grossing films of the year as well as one of the most critically acclaimed. Oscar talk has been following Ryan Coogler's movie since it premiered, and that hype has only garnered further legitimacy as the months have passed. So, there's a real chance the first superhero film — and a landmark for black cinema in Hollywood — could get a Best Picture nomination and the Academy just so happen to introduce a new category like this?
The Academy is terrified of irrelevance, and they damn well should be. Their importance in the industry is major and they do great work in the realm of film preservation, but their bread and butter are still the Oscars. That’s the thing people know them best for and it’s that marker of prestige that gives them such clout. It still means something to win or be nominated for an Oscar, and it means more to many than, say, the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, even though the latter is far more elite and difficult to win. People spend millions of dollars campaigning to win an Oscar. For some smaller movies, it can make or break their success to be nominated.
Yet it’s tough to say if the Oscars necessarily matter in 2018. Audiences aren’t all that motivated to see a film just because its director got a nomination and the sort of mid-budget adult-oriented offerings that typically make up the slate of nominees aren’t being heavily invested in by producers or studios. The big money is in franchises and blockbuster fare, as are most of the cinema-going demographics. The majority of audiences don’t even get access to the nominated films until they’re on DVD or streaming, further limiting people’s interest in the ceremony itself. Plus it’s tough to talk about relevance and the Academy when so many of the Best Picture winners are middle-of-the-road prestige fare that people like but don’t love or even remember once they’ve turned off Netflix.
The Academy has tried to fix this problem before when they reintroduced the ten nominees format to Best Picture. A driving force for this decision was to confront the backlash they faced when The Dark Knight was not nominated for Best Picture despite its rapturous acclaim. When it was first used in 2009, the results were striking: Alongside expected dramas like An Education and The Hurt Locker, you had the biggest blockbuster of the year in Avatar, the Pixar movie Up, and the grungy sci-fi District 9. Later years saw nominees like Toy Story 3, Inception, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet it always felt obvious to fans that those films would never actually win Best Picture and that the victors would be the same old choices. There have been exceptions but as the years have rolled on, the Academy has fallen back into its old ways.
Black Panther is one of the best movies of 2018. It has made $1.347 billion worldwide. It has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s higher than this year’s Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Both Marvel and Disney have expressed serious sentiments about pushing the movie for Oscar contention, and critics are right behind them. As we roll into what is unofficially designated as Oscar season, Black Panther remains a top contender for Best Picture in a very busy year. The Academy’s membership has never been younger or more diverse either. It’s not simply that Black Panther deserves a Best Picture nomination: It’s also a highly likely outcome. Perhaps that’s one reason why this Best Popular Film decision feels so cynical and calculated. It would obviously benefit the Academy to give a showcase to Black Panther and films like it in the ceremony, but to sideline it in such a way is blatantly elitist. Yeah, it’s a good film but it’s “popular” so that’s different from being the Best.
Whether one likes it or not, blockbusters reign supreme right now in Hollywood. They have defined the fabric of cinema and entertainment in major ways and critical opinion has shifted with them. Critics like these movies, often as much as audiences. Yet we simply accept that they’ll never be viewed in truly prestigious terms, even though the Academy used to nominate stuff like Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones all the time. Each of those three films received a Best Picture nomination. Once upon a time, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast broke ground by garnering one too, and that was before the Oscars even had a Best Animated Feature category. Now that they do, they award animated films there and haven’t given one Best Picture recognition since 2010. What’s to stop “popular films," however they are defined, from facing the same fate?
We still have no idea what will be considered a “popular film” in this context. Does that mean a movie that cost a certain amount of money or made over, say, $100m at the box office? Get Out made back over 56 times its budget, so is that popular? Are certain genres more popular than others, meaning science-fiction or horror would be shunted into this side-category? What about animated films or indie favorites? It’s not as if the Academy is allergic to populism either. They love it when films make money and have big stars in them. They’re not out there giving a clean sweep of nominations to esoteric art films or foreign language stories or anything truly dangerous. The Academy likes the middlebrow, no lower and no higher, and that’s what’s smothered them for so long.
The side effect of this elitism is that it also ends up being pretty bigoted. Would Black Panther, with its majority black cast and creative team, be popular but not the best in the Academy’s eyes? What about Crazy Rich Asians or Wonder Woman or Sorry to Bother You or The Big Sick or the myriad incredible films whose stories didn’t center on cishet white men? What does this mean for the genres and stories that already have trouble being taken seriously by the archaic Academy? Rather than make real change, they seem more eager to add a decorative sheen to a crumbling building.
It remains to be seen what shape these new rules will take with the Oscars, which remains the zenith of awards season in a way that other awards ceremonies never could. If the Academy wants to keep up with the times, then they need to understand the times. To reduce an artform as beautiful and complex as cinema to a binary of “good versus popular” only exacerbates the endless problems at the heart of the industry.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY or NBC Universal.