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Is the ‘Popular Film Oscar’ a winner?

This week, the Academy announced that it was creating a new Oscars category – Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. To say that it went down poorly with Hollywood stars and the public alike would be a massive understatement, so what is the Academy’s game here? Why are they planning on introducing this Oscar?

Well, it seems that this announcement has come about for two main reasons. The 2018 Oscars were incredibly long, clocking in at just under four hours, and frequently really dull – these awards shows are never particularly interesting outside of the award announcements themselves, and there’s a lot of dead time. The broadcast found a US viewership of 26.5 million, the least-watched in the Academy’s history, against a backdrop of Hollywood scandal and declining public interest in the movies. Thus, it’s hoped that this change (as well as a few others, like setting a fixed runtime and holding some ‘less important’ awards during the ad breaks) will entice people to watch and engage with Hollywood. Personally, I’d imagine the sections where actors spout their politics and go to a cinema with hot dog cannons to patronise everyday folks is probably more off-putting than the awards, but there you go.

The Academy is notorious for nominating certain types of films for Best Picture

Then, you’ve got to consider Black Panther. The film broke numerous records when it came out, and was culturally very important – from this, it has been decided that the film should definitely receive a ‘Best Picture’ nomination (and a lot of the fans will not happy unless it wins). The Academy is notorious for nominating certain types of films for Best Picture, and superhero movies aren’t one of them – this really hit the headlines in 2009, when The Dark Knight failed to pick up a nod. There is a huge suspicion that this new category, if ready for the 2019 Oscars, will serve as a consolation prize for Black Panther, so it can get an Oscar and not clutter up the serious categories.

Reactions to this award have been almost universally negative, for a number of reasons. One is the total lack of information the Academy has provided – how will such an award be judged? Box office totals, in which case it would simply be an award for bums on seats? Critical reviews, or audience satisfaction scores? Although the Academy has always made some fairly egregious snubs, all the awards they offer do relate to some form of artistry, but how can measuring popularity?

It’s also quite a patronising idea, suggesting that the way to win round the audiences is to throw the films they watch a bone, giving them some recognition in the hope that it will encourage them to engage with Hollywood. At this year’s Oscars, host Jimmy Kimmel noted that the industry “doesn’t make films like Call Me By Your Name for money – they make them to upset Mike Pence.” Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, there’s a key point – the films the Academy honours are not the films that people watch, and who cares about a film you’ve never heard of winning an Oscar? Factor in the implicit suggestion that there is a need for a Best Popular Picture for the kind of films that aren’t worthy of being Best Picture, and it seems particularly snobbish.

There’s also the risk that it could actively prevent deserving films from claiming the top prize. It was widely suggested that the 2002 introduction of the Best Animated Feature Oscar was a way to prevent animated films filling up the Best Picture shortlist (since then, only two animated films were up for the top award, and only after the shortlist was increased in size – Up and Toy Story 3, with neither winning). If it had been around this year, box office and critical reception could have eliminated films like Dunkirk and Get Out from the Best Picture shortlist.

What is the Academy to do to get people to engage, if not creating awards for the kind of films people actually watch? Well, film fans and experts have been calling out for other new categories for years – things like Best Stunt or Best Voice Acting, or awards that recognise things like motion capture acting. An expansion of the Academy, including people who recognise the value in genres other than drama could also help, and pruning down on the political sermons and many, many performances on Oscar night would also be a good start.

There’s no easy solution to get people to the movies, but this Oscar doesn’t feel right in any way

Films can be popular and get a Best Picture nod – if you look at the 10 highest-grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation), you’ll find 9 Best Picture nominations and 3 wins. Perhaps this shift is a sign of the lower quality of blockbusters today (they’re all identikit franchise films), indicating that they don’t deserve the nod? There’s no easy solution to get people to the movies, but this Oscar doesn’t feel right in any way – it’s poorly thought through and, on the face of it, it’s just a condescending way to pay homage to the part of the film world that keeps Hollywood’s lights on.

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