Ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in all its estimable wisdom, announced the creation of a new “Popular Film” category at the Oscars, debate has raged about whether this is a smart move or the dumbest decision ever. Where do you fall?
Regardless of which side you take, this is clearly an act of desperation on the Academy’s part. Ratings have fallen in recent years and this past spring’s ceremony was the least-watched ever. That’s largely due to the strong correlation between the show’s ratings with the box office success of the nominated films. Put simply, people don’t bother to watch the awards if they haven’t seen any of the movies that are likely to win. When blockbusters like Titanic and Return of the King steamrolled through awards season, the Oscars got great ratings. However, when the front-running nominees are smaller films like Spotlight or Moonlight, viewers lose interest. Even this year’s winner The Shape of Water was only a modest box office success.
The Oscars have taken a lot of heat for being out of touch with popular opinion since The Dark Knight failed to land a Best Picture nomination in 2009. In response to the backlash against that, the Academy expanded the Best Picture category from five nominations to as many as ten, which allowed the populist hits District 9 and Avatar to be nominated the following year. The thing about that change, however, was that nobody believed those movies really stood a chance of winning. They were obviously token nominations, the “It’s nice just to be recognized” contenders. As if to prove that they never had any intention of voting for movies like that, the Academy voters that year snubbed Avatar (still the biggest box office hit of all time) for The Hurt Locker, which ended its theatrical run at just $17 million and remains the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever. Many viewers read that as a big “F.U.” to James Cameron’s monster hit and to all the people who spent over $2 billion watching it in theaters over and over again.
Creating a new “Popular Film” category seems unlikely to make any difference in that regard. Doing so will only serve to ghettoize populist movies and keep them out of contention for Best Picture, in much the same way the Best Animated Feature and Best Documentary categories have. If anything, it’s an insult to the filmmakers. It’s practically an admission that the voters think their movies have no actual serious artistic merit, because if they did, they’d be nominated for Best Picture.
The criteria for this “Popular Film” category haven’t even been revealed yet. Is it based solely on box office revenue? If so, wouldn’t that automatically make the highest-grossing movie of the year the winner? I can’t wait for the year when a Transformers or Fast and Furious sequel is validated as a bona fide Oscar winner.
No doubt, a lot of people are clamoring for Black Panther to rack up Oscar nominations next spring. I’d say that a case can be made that it actually should be nominated for Best Picture. Creating a new category just to give it a token trophy is not the best way to address fans’ complaints.
The simple fact of the matter, which should be plainly obvious to just about anyone, is that the biggest box office hits of any given year are rarely actually the best movies that year. The alchemy that drives a movie to be a big box office hit has more to do with successful packaging and marketing than the quality of the film itself.
For all their faults (and they have many), the Oscars are supposed to be a recognition of artistic merit, not popularity. That may not be how it works out in reality, but that’s the intention. There’s no reason a big box office hit couldn’t also be one of the strongest artistic works of the year, and it does sometimes work out that way (The Godfather, Platoon, The Silence of the Lambs), but let’s be honest, we all know the two things don’t usually overlap like that.
In my opinion, the purpose of these awards should be to draw attention to worthy movies that viewers may have overlooked during the year. The blockbusters already received the validation they need in the form of all the money they raked in. A “Popular Film” Oscar seems like a terrible idea to me.