The votes are in, and the Oscar for Worst Idea goes to … the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for its plan to add a new trophy for “outstanding achievement in popular film.” Like the Academy’s 2009 decision to expand the roster of Best Picture nominees from five to 10—a rule that was tweaked two years later, permitting between five and 10—the move is universally seen as an effort to keep the Oscars “relevant,” especially with younger audiences.
The 2009 decision was generally viewed as a response to the failure of The Dark Knight and Wall-E to garner Best Picture nominations the previous year. This time, it seems a reaction to the broader phenomenon of falling ratings. As my colleague David Sims noted, ratings were way down this year, after dropping the year before as well. The underlying logic is the same as in 2009: When in doubt, get more blockbusters nominated. But the new category could create far more problems than it solves, and not merely the ones that have already been widely discussed.
The irony, of course, is despite these occasional bouts of “Are we too artsy?” self-flagellation, the Academy has always loved blockbusters. If one goes by the inflation-adjusted data provided by boxofficemojo.com, the nine top-grossing pictures of all time were all nominated for Best Picture, and three (Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, and Titanic) took home the statuette. Doing well at the box office has always given movies a huge boost in the Best Picture category, whether you’re talking about surprise-success indies (Slumdog Millionaire, Get Out) or overachieving schmaltzfests (Forrest Gump, The Blind Side). The truly awful Avatar was considered an Oscar front-runner through most of 2009, based principally on the fact that it probably made more money in its opening hour than most films make during their entire theatrical runs.