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.
The Academy’s creation of this wildly unnecessary new “popular film” category has thus, inevitably, been met mostly with groans. The principal complaint has been that it will create perverse incentives for Academy voters as, arguably, have categories such as Best Animated Film and Best Foreign Language Film. Though voters are allowed to nominate films both for Best Picture and these more narrow categories (also Best Documentary, although that rarely comes up), the idea is that the latter give voters an excuse not to vote for them for Best Picture at all. (See Wall-E.) If we’d had this new “popular” category back in 2016, for instance, would Mad Max: Fury Road have gotten its delightful Best Picture nod, or simply been relegated to the lesser category?
As David put it in his piece:
Last year, two Best Picture nominees—Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk and Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out—grossed more than $100 million at the U.S. box office, exactly the kind of financial yardstick one might use to measure “popularity.” Their Best Picture nominations were highly deserved and, in the case of Get Out, especially exciting, since that movie’s genre often goes unrecognized at awards shows. Dunkirk and Get Out would have been obvious candidates for Outstanding Popular Film and as a result could have lost out on a Best Picture nod—in effect being punished for their financial success.
This year, Marvel’s Black Panther (which has become only the third film in history to gross $700 million domestically) seemed like it had a real chance of becoming the first superhero movie to get a Best Picture nomination. Disney was gearing up for a serious campaign; now, that may well fall by the wayside, with an Outstanding Popular Film achievement waiting as a sort of consolation prize.
(David also said precisely what needs saying about the only slightly less disappointing decision to limit the length of the Oscar ceremony to three hours by handing out “smaller” awards during commercial breaks and then showing edited versions of the acceptance speeches.)
But I’d like to suggest another downside to the new award that, while slightly more nebulous, could prove more pernicious still: its effect not on Academy voters, but on filmmakers themselves. Here’s the thing: The director of an animated movie knows he or she is making an animated movie. Likewise the director of a foreign-language film or a documentary. The categories aren’t fungible in any meaningful sense. But whatever benchmark the Academy sets for a “popular film”—it hasn’t yet announced its criteria—it will be eminently fungible and, by definition, determined by audience response as much as directorial intent.
To put it another way: Christopher Nolan never asked himself, “Should I do Dunkirk as an animated movie in order to increase my odds of winning an Oscar?” Get Out’s Jordan Peele never wondered whether he might be better positioned if he filmed his movie in French. But in the future, directors with movies such as theirs, which straddle the Best Film and Popular Film categories, will face just such decisions. If I’m a long shot for Best Picture, maybe I should just dumb my movie down a little and aim for Best Popular Film? There will be all kinds of new cinematic arithmetic in play. Which is worth more? A bit more highbrow critical praise or an extra $40 million at the box office? Is it more important that a movie be really good or really popular?
These sorts of calculations exist already, of course. But the Academy’s new award will turbocharge them. And that’s to say nothing of the incentives that will emerge once the Academy announces its criteria for what makes a movie “popular.” Say it’s a threshold, as David suggests, of $100 million at the box office. Is the Academy really going to bar a movie that makes $98 million? $96 million? Will studios launch frantic last-minute PR campaigns to get their films over whatever arbitrary threshold the Academy sets? Stranger still, if a studio has what it believes to be a strong Best Picture contender, will it pull the PR plug early—or even remove the movie from theaters—to prevent it from potentially being ghettoized as a “popular” film? We have already seen plenty of occasions in which studios have lobbied to put “lead” acting performances into the “supporting” category, and vice versa, to improve their odds. This new trophy invites exactly the same kind of venue-shopping for “best” and “popular” Oscars.
I’m not saying that all of these sorts of machinations will take place. But none strikes me as particularly improbable. And they seem like precisely the kind of unintended consequences that arise from poorly thought out, short-term responses to problems—in this case, the Academy’s perceived aversion to moneymaking films—that don’t actually exist.
The “popular film” category will almost certainly prove to be a mistake—and one that will probably be self-evident as soon as next year’s voting gets underway. I’d put the over-under on how long the category lasts, at least without significant revision, at three years.