For 90 years, Hollywood has been celebrating itself by handing out Academy Awards — and for almost as long, people have been debating what, if anything, constitutes a “Best” Picture. The Oscars are a hopelessly biased and flawed system — the voters skew older, most aren’t nearly adventurous enough in seeking out riskier fare, the kerfuffles around eligibility, that whole #OscarsSoWhite fiasco. But what has remained consistent over almost a century is the notion that, no matter how idiotic or shortsighted the choices were from year to year, there remained a belief that Academy members were picking what they considered to be the highest achievements in the cinematic arts. If the Best Picture winner wasn’t some commercial blockbuster, well, that was perfectly fine: Great films don’t always set the box office on fire. If anything, that was not a bug but a feature — the ability to shine a gold-tinted spotlight on movies that the marketplace otherwise might have overlooked.
That used to be the idea, anyway. Last night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors — the folks who oversee the Oscars — decided to significantly tamper with the integrity of its awards show. In a letter to its members, the governors announced several major changes to the program, including revealing winners in some smaller categories during commercial breaks so that the victors’ speeches can be edited down and run later in the broadcast. But the change that’s most galling is the one that seeks to add a new category, which they’re calling “outstanding achievement in popular film.” The governors were mum on the specifics — “Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming,” they wrote — but what they need to decide first is how they can possibly justify this change. While they’re at it, they also might want to think long and hard about how they’re diminishing the very glamour and prestige of an award that has been the most coveted in all of entertainment for decades.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s awards columnist Scott Feinberg tried to make the case for the governors’ decision, writing, “Some will complain that adding such a category cheapens the prestige of the Oscars, making it more like the People’s Choice Awards or MTV Movie & TV Awards, but that is old-world thinking. More than the length of the telecast or the name of the host, Oscar ratings have been shown to correlate with the popularity of the nominated films among the general public. And the gulf between what the public buys tickets to see and what the Academy nominates and awards has never been greater.”
On its face, that argument makes sense: An Oscars in which blockbusters like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings reigns supreme will draw more viewers than, say, this year’s ceremony, where indie favorites such as The Shape of Water and Three Billboards were the big winners. (Although, to be fair, smash successes like Dunkirk and Get Out did well at the ceremony, too.) The Academy is smarting from the fact that the 2018 broadcast was the lowest-rated in history. It’s natural that it would want to add a little energy to a show that’s often criticized for being slow, long, staid and boring.
But the idea of creating a Best Popular Film category smacks of desperation — not to mention suggests that the people running the show have no conception of what the value of the Oscars even is.
Every art form faces a tension between the popular and the good. Occasionally, you get lucky and the two merge (all hail Kendrick Lamar!) but part of the exquisite agony of caring about popular culture is realizing that, more often than not, there’s very little intersection between the two. People love Michael Bay movies, superhero flicks, reboots and sequels ; critics and Academy voters (two groups with plenty of gaps in their Venn diagram, too) tend toward smaller, more personal and thoughtful fare. You can argue which group is “right” in that debate, but the beauty of awards shows is that, in theory, they try to set aside simple popularity when picking their winners. Popular movies already win untold riches, fame for their makers, instant immortality. The Oscars don’t ignore commercially successful films — Pixar is a frequent winner — but they inherently acknowledge that, often, movies made from a precise artistic sensibility won’t electrify the masses, which doesn’t mean they’re any less worthy of celebrating.
In addition, this new category misunderstands precisely how the Academy Awards operate. For better or worse, members alone vote for the Oscars: They are the ones telling us what the “best” movies and performances are. We can complain about that all we want, but at least there’s a purity to the system in that it’s a completely insular, self-contained process. This introduces a dynamic that would be new to the proceedings — which is that, in some small way, we the audience would have an influence on the show. By voting with our dollars, we’re essentially dictating to the Academy what films should comprise one category. But how would that work? Just the top-five grossing movies make the cut? And if it’s not that, then wouldn’t the Academy be ignoring the very idea of what’s “popular”?
Regardless, this notion that including a new category recognizing high-grossing films just to boost ratings seems illogical. Are there that many people who will stay glued to their set the entire night just to find out if Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom beats out Avengers: Infinity War? It’s one award over a three-hour show — that’s a Band-Aid for a gunshot wound. One which, by the way, was self-inflicted by Hollywood long ago, and part of mess directly related to a much more systemic problem within the industry.
For a moment, let’s put the Oscars’ cratering ratings in perspective. Yes, the 90th Academy Awards were the lowest-rated in their history, falling about 20 percent from the previous year. But the truth is, live-TV events are slipping across the board, whether it’s the Oscars, the Grammys or the Super Bowl. As Vulture’s West Coast Editor Josef Adalian pointed out in March, “With TV ratings down across the board … it’s harder than ever to reach really big audiences all at once. The number of viewers who watched [the Academy Awards] might be disappointing by past Oscars standards, but it’s still double to triple the same-day audience of even the top-rated shows on broadcast TV.” If we’ve gotten used to the idea that the monoculture is dead and gone, then perhaps it’s time that we also let go of the idea that any program, even the Oscars, is going to be appointment television for the entire planet.
So let’s say that the governors did introduce this new category to bring back those viewers. They’re deluding themselves. But they also ought to wake up to the realities of Hollywood itself. Not that long ago, studios didn’t just produce the year’s biggest hits but also acclaimed, award-winning pictures. In recent times, however, those companies have mostly moved away from anything that doesn’t have at least a $150-million budget, swinging for commercial home runs that have to cater to the widest audience possible.
Not surprisingly then, outside of Fox Searchlight (Fox’s specialty division) the majors haven’t produced a Best Picture winner since Argo. There are still happy anomalies — Universal put out the low-budget Get Out — but nowadays the most interesting, most daring, most accomplished films are flourishing in the margins. Whether it’s A24 with Moonlight or Open Road with Spotlight, Sony Pictures Classics’ Call Me By Your Name or Focus Features’ Phantom Thread, the adventurousness is occurring where big studios fear to tread because they don’t see enough money in it.
To be sure, Disney could make a little Oscar noise this year with Incredibles 2 or Black Panther, both of them critically-acclaimed commercial juggernauts. Paramount can proudly point to A Quiet Place and Mission: Impossible – Fallout as films that clicked with critics and audiences. (And then those same executives would have to hide in shame for how they utterly buried their magnificent sci-fi drama Annihilation. But we digress) Let’s be honest: The studios aren’t that concerned with Best Picture. They just want to make a lot of money, and they’ve made their peace with big, sometimes impersonal blockbusters nearly every single week on the release calendar.
That’s the business Hollywood is in. For the Academy’s board of governors to introduce an award that honors “outstanding achievement in popular film” is disingenuous, hypocritical and enraging. Hollywood wants us to watch the Oscars, but nobody in that town seems that interested in making movies worthy of the show.