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Making Sense of the Oscars’ New “Popular Film” Award

In an effort to gain more mainstream attention, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a trio of rule changes on Wednesday. One in particular, though perhaps misguided, could have massive implications.

An Oscar trophy wearing a red superhero cape Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Seemingly every year the Oscars air, worry erupts over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ bleeding audience. While the falling viewership numbers for the awards ceremony have as much to do with changing viewer consumption habits—the Super Bowl is basically the last remaining pillar of event television—and are representative of the steady, overall decline in TV ratings, year in and year out, pundits and the Academy alike conclude that the real problem is that the telecast isn’t exciting enough to a large number of people. Who cares about costume design! And why would anyone watch when the most popular movies of the year aren’t even nominated! Well, this year the Academy’s determined to make its show not-boring—and remedy these issues that may or may not exist.

As the Academy’s board of governors wrote to its members (and shared on Twitter) Wednesday, three big changes to the Oscars are impending: The telecast will be reduced to three hours and feature fewer technical categories, the airdate will move up to the beginning of February starting in 2020, and, most importantly, a new category will be added called Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.

These rule changes represent the biggest shift in the Oscars makeup since the Best Picture category was widened to a possible 10 films in 2009. That change was instigated after The Dark Knight—Christopher Nolan’s über-popular and critically acclaimed Batman sequel—failed to register a Best Picture nomination. The public outcry over the snub was a bad look for the Oscars, so the Academy built a bigger pool so that films like it could be included. The truth is, however, that the 2009 rule change has done the opposite: Save for the inclusion of the occasional box-office smash like Avatar or Mad Max: Fury Road, the widened pool has led to more indie films earning nominations. In trying to make the Oscars a more mainstream event, the Academy made choices that were more esoteric. To the majority of Americans, the Oscars are still too far removed from what people see in theaters. Case in point: a movie about Fish Sex that made just north of $60 million domestically won four Oscars this past year, including Best Picture.

The Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film is the Academy’s attempt to counteract this recurring issue: No matter what, the thinking goes, popular films will now have a prime-time slot during the Oscars telecast. Presumably, if this rule had been implemented a decade ago, the likes of The Dark Knight, Avatar, and Fury Road would’ve all been Popular Film winners. And this coming year, Black Panther should be guaranteed a nomination.

The effect the looming backlash over any Black Panther snubs had on these rule changes can’t be overstated. The movie was a titanic blockbuster that warranted very early Oscars buzz when it debuted in February. Recent Oscars history, however, suggests the best-case scenario for Black Panther is a Best Picture nomination, with an outside shot at winning the whole thing—or worse, a replay of the Straight Outta Compton debacle in 2016, when that movie’s snub gave way to the #OscarsSoWhite movement. Quite clearly, the Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film category appears to be a preemptive move to avoid controversy—while also addressing the more sweeping problem of dwindling interest in the ceremony.

Immediately, though, a couple of obvious issues with the new category jump out. For starters, the Academy has yet to explain what the eligibility requirements will be for a potential nominee. What defines “popular”? Does this mean all of the top-grossing movies will be nominated? Will social media buzz be factored in? It’s also unclear if overlap is allowed—like how Toy Story 3 was nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Animated Feature Film in 2011. Can a very popular movie also be considered simply the best movie? It might make the most sense to separate films by their budgets—essentially pitting blockbusters against blockbusters and indies against indies. That, however, would undercut the achievement of very popular mainstream films that do deserve a shot at Best Picture—imagine The Godfather, or Gone with the Wind, or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King winning only Best Popular Movie. Eligibility rules are yet to be clearly defined, but they will be crucial to the future of the Oscars.

Additionally, what this new category will achieve is an absolvement for the Academy’s members, who’ve routinely failed to include any films that were viewed by a wide audience. This failure lies in an inability to recognize the best from both worlds. For instance: While Moonlight was a deserving Best Picture winner in 2017—one of the only times in recent years I can recall the actual best movie of the year winning the most coveted prize from the Academy—the nominees that year didn’t include the surprisingly gritty Rogue One or a movie like Deadpool, which got an Oscars push from 20th Century Fox. There’s also the irony of feeling the need to celebrate popular films by granting them a trophy—Disney will likely prioritize Black Panther’s $1.3 billion worldwide gross over a golden man—and how this could have an adverse effect on the indies that get an Oscars spotlight. The Best Picture–adjacent indies usually get a nice box-office boost from the added attention—attention that could now be turned to films that have already made a huge profit.

All in all, the latest Academy changes amount to short-sighted posturing: an attempt to put a Band-Aid on and make mainstream a telecast that has always been niche by definition. The new category sounds like fun, but in truth it may denigrate the films it seeks to honor by putting them in their own box. It amounts to handing out a tiny trophy for being popular and having a good Rotten Tomatoes score. Instead of changing its rules, the Academy’s voting members should do what their positions mandate: Go seek movies, both big and small, and don’t discriminate.