The Problem with Best Popular Film
On August 8, 2018, The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences announced a new category for their annual Oscar awards – Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. By September 6th, the category was withdrawn. There was immediate pushback from within the industry and from entertainment pundits of all kinds but the Academy claimed they needed more time to define the terms in which they were going to introduce and enact this new entry. So, what’s really going on here?
This isn’t the first attempt by the Academy to try and infuse more popular movies into their yearly roster of Best Picture-nominated films. In 2009, the Academy expanded the Best Picture nominee maximum to ten nominees (from five). This was no doubt in response to 2008’s Oscar Best Picture snub, The Dark Knight, being such a popular film with audiences and critics. People weren’t exactly getting worked up to tune in to the Oscar telecast and see if The Reader or Benjamin Button won the evening’s top prize. As a result, the next year, blockbusters like Up and Avatar were nominated alongside more Oscar-like fare such as An Education and eventual winner The Hurt Locker. And ratings went up.
They went up again in 2010 when the year’s biggest movie, Toy Story 3, was nominated alongside Inception to balance out movies most of America hadn’t seen like Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right (sadly, The Academy’s creation of the Best Animated Film category pretty much rules out an animated film’s win for Best Pic). Ratings went up. But eventually ratings went down, and up again, and down again, demonstrating that the nominee expansion was like putting a Band-Aid on a leak in the Hoover Dam because there were clearly larger factors keeping people from getting excited about the Oscar nominees. There never seemed to be more than two films nominated every year that cracked $100M domestic box office, right up to last year (2017) with Dunkirk and Get Out, a year that saw the Oscar ratings hit an all-time low.
Could it be the audience’s fault? YES. Not solely, but yes! Once upon a time, the country’s box office champs were also the award winners, the likes of Rocky, The Godfather, The Sting, Star Wars and Jaws. Now, people will see Suicide Squad rather than Hell or High Water, so the industry could do with an audience that has a more discerning taste. Not counting on that to happen, the Academy clearly wanted to do something to include what Academy CEO Dawn Hudson calls “a wider spectrum of films.”
OK, let’s break that down. About six to seven HUNDRED (or more) movies are released in theaters every year in the United States. That seems like a pretty wide spectrum. The Academy has standards for nominated films, so once you determine which films are eligible, it’s still a pretty wide pool. In 2017, there were 341 eligible movies for Best Picture, so, it would seem that the nomination process doesn’t leave out “popular” films, it’s just that the Academy isn’t nominating them. That’s on you, Academy.
The problem isn’t that the Academy wants to create a side category to corral all the popular films and placate their fan base. The problem is that the Academy needs to open themselves up to new definitions of what makes a movie great and realize that different achievements in filmmaking can make up a Best Picture. Judging popular movies with the same old-fashioned criteria that they used on A Man for All Seasons will cause you to miss the excellence being displayed in some genre films.
I want to make the case specifically for 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The brilliance on display here and just how across-the-board impressive this movie is should certainly qualify for a Best Picture nomination. Critics? – their vegetable-rating system gave it a 91%. People? – they bought tickets to the tune of $408M domestically. And if you’ve ever wanted to award a superhero movie, outside of maybe Logan or Wonder Woman, this was your best shot, as the story infused superheroics with what is essentially a globe-spanning political intrigue tale with top-notch production and performances, “adultified” from start to finish. To go outside the agreed-upon tenets of what makes a movie great and judge the film with new eyes, nothing like the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever been accomplished in the history of movies. To combine THAT MANY characters and deftly control the story and give each character interesting moments was the successful completion of a monumental task. Many people will tell you The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was rewarded with Best Picture more for the trilogy than for that singular film’s achievement. Civil War was the THIRTEENTH movie of the franchise. Is there even a “trilogy”-esque word to describe that? And it was delivered sublimely. That’s Best Picture material.
Of course, there were other gripes about the Best Popular Film category that had legitimacy, from the fact that the new category could wipe out a blockbuster’s chance of winning Best Picture entirely, to the idea that in the wake of bad Oscar ratings, the move was straight-up pandering. I think the title of the category goes right to the heart of the matter. The Academy is admitting that the movies they reward aren’t popular? Isn’t that the disconnect they should be addressing? To create a category to reward The industry’s failure to connect and align with audiences is bizarre at best.
There’s also the idea that, like The Dark Knight before it, this is all happening in the wake of another excellent superhero movie and The Academy just can’t handle it – Black Panther. They just can’t get around the fact that the best of this genre has evolved. No one would accuse the members of AMPAS of being hip. I think they’re still stuck in the idea that a superhero movie is Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher or Steel. Or are they still living in the shadow of #OscarsSoWhite and wanted to come up with a way to reward a black superhero film without it having to invade its more stuffy titles that make them look smart?
I know the Best Popular Film category has already been pulled, so why this article? Well, it’s been pulled to give it further examination, and this article is here to say STOP examining and start opening The Academy up to greatness on a wider scale. There is a blend of talent and audience accessibility happening on a regular basis in Hollywood. To sequester a hit film to the child’s table is the exact opposite of your desired outcome and will further alienate moviegoers from your cause and further marginalize popular films. I mean, Phantom Thread? Over Logan? Or even War for the Planet of the Apes? C’mon!