As abruptly as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences giveth a controversial category, so it taketh away. Less than a month after announcing that next year’s Oscars ceremony would include a new “Popular Film” category, the Academy announced on Thursday that it will no longer do so, as the designation “merits further study.” “We have made changes to the Oscars over the years — including this year — and we will continue to evolve while also respecting the incredible legacy of the last 90 years,” Academy CEO Dawn Hudson said in a statement.
The Academy’s backtracking comes after its initial announcement was met with almost universal condemnation from those working in and around Hollywood. “The film business passed away today,” Rob Lowe dramatically tweeted in August. Others rightfully pointed out that the new category would intentionally, unnecessarily siphon “popular” films from those typically nominated for Best Picture — creating a bizarre divide between films in trying to widen the Oscar pool. “A good movie is a good movie,” said Chadwick Boseman of Black Panther, a massively popular, critically acclaimed movie that likely influenced the Academy to create a Popular Film designation, out of misplaced fear that it’d be excluded in traditional categories. “What we did was very difficult. We created a world, we created a culture. … I dare any movie to try to compare to the [level of] difficulty of this one. And the fact that so many people liked it — if you just say it’s [merely] popular, that’s elitist.”
A prevailing issue with the Popular Film category wasn’t merely its illogical optics — some of the most commercially successful blockbusters in history have been nominated for and won Best Picture, including Titanic, Gone With the Wind, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and The Godfather — but that the initial announcement arrived without any details explaining the new category. What would qualify a movie for Popular Film: Its budget, its box office success, or a combination of both? Would a Popular Film movie also be eligible for the traditional Best Picture, the same way the Best Animated Feature nominees are treated? The lack of information left the Academy extremely vulnerable to criticism — and today’s announcement indicates that the Academy never considered any of the above questions before unveiling the category. It was announced before it was ever fully formed.
At least we understood why it was created: as part of a panicked response to the awards ceremony’s dwindling ratings. “No one watches the movies that win Oscars,” is an oft-repeated criticism — in fact, heading into the 2018 Oscars, the total domestic gross of the nine Best Picture nominees was $637 million. A Popular Film category would fix that problem, and then, the thinking presumably went, more people would watch the ceremony. The Academy simply didn’t consider anything else — not the off-putting optics, the confusion, or how in many ways, the category denigrated the idea of a movie being popular.
The other moves the Oscars announced last month in an effort to bring in more viewers will still be in effect: The telecast will be shortened to three hours; fewer technical categories will be presented on air; and in 2020, the ceremony will be moved up a couple of weeks in February. It remains to be seen whether any of these tweaks will improve ratings for a telecast that airs on a medium that’s seen a widespread ratings drop for everything that isn’t the Super Bowl. It should also be noted that the Academy’s vague statement on Thursday intimates that the Popular Film category will likely be integrated into future ceremonies. Hopefully, though, the results of the Academy’s “further study” will be simply to never speak of this Popular Film category again.
For one more year at least, reason prevails. And while we may never find out whether a film as objectively stupid as The Meg or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom would’ve had its name read in front of Meryl Streep, the truth is that this Oscar season is already shaping up to be an organic balance of indies (BlacKkKlansman, First Man, Widows) and “popular” blockbusters (Black Panther and, given the early buzz, perhaps Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born). Black Panther’s whopping gross of $700 million alone outpaces the total gross of last year’s Best Picture nominees. Next year, the Academy will get exactly what it wants, without creating a bogus new category and spitting on the industry it upholds in the process.