In light of the recent announcement by the Academy to create a new award category for 'popular' films, I thought I would try and unpack this and give my thoughts on why it's not the remedy they think it will be. There's been a lot of comments and opinions put out there about this already and I'm sure as Oscar season heats up at the end of the year, we'll see and read a lot more about this. But for now, let's get down to the nuts and bolts of this new award category.
The reality is that this new addition isn't going to have the impact that the Academy wants. All of this is about increasing the ratings and getting more viewers. First of all, the Oscars has never been about listening to what people want - so the introduction of this category just seems desperate on their part. It weakens the unique identity that the Oscars has when compared to other award shows. If you start making it more like the other shows, you are just watering down the recipe.
You can introduce all the new categories you want, but it isn't going to get people excited about the Oscars, because, and I hate to say this - award shows are boring! By their very nature, they are boring. They are boring if you are a nominee and they're boring if you are a viewer at home. The Oscars have it even worse though because it is strictly a cinema focused show. While the Globes, SAG and so on all consider film and television, the Oscars has a very small scope. And that scope is even smaller because of the kinds of films they tend to nominate. Hence the introduction of 'popular' I guess...
I know a lot of industry critics are against it, but unsurprisingly, a lot of the movie-going public support it. And their opinion matters just as much as Clint Eastwood or George Clooney or any other Academy member. The Oscars wants to increase its audience. The problem is the execution of this and their rationale for why it will work.
Cinema is an entertainment medium and so-called 'popular' movies say something just by the very fact that they are popular. They speak to what audiences want and that understanding of how audiences think and engage with a film is more important than all the technical skills of a filmmaker combined. So I'm glad they've decided to start acknowledging movies that may not have an important message or a higher cause, but that instead keep cinemas and Blu-ray shops open, create employment in the industry and generally unite people because of their love of cinema. The kind of movies that get everyone talking around the water cooler.
But let's talk about their phrasing of all this. To introduce a 'popular' movie category, not only suggests that the films they are already celebrating are not popular, but it also suggests that the types of films they nominate go against the tastes of the movie-going public. The Academy prefers to give credit to the films that advocate social causes or raise awareness for issues rather than films that actually achieve that goal of entertaining the masses through comic book movies or other blockbusters. It's great that the Oscars uses its platform to highlight films that raise awareness for causes and issues but creating this distinction is harmful and fosters further alienation.
People are up in arms because they don't know what 'popular' even means right now. The term 'popular' might be a bit vague at the moment, but its no more clear than 'best picture' or 'best director'. I would argue the logistical obstacles that Christopher Nolan overcomes in nearly all of his films has earned him a directing Oscar by now. But the Academy would clearly disagree. Who knows, maybe they have a different definition for 'popular' than we do. We're expecting them to give the award to Black Panther or Mama Mia, but they might decide to give it to something entirely different and alienate people even further.
I get why ratings are important but are we to believe that if the ratings plummetted the Oscars might get cancelled? That's never going to happen. They'll still hand these things out and they'll still broadcast it or stream it. So forget about ratings...
Whatever your thoughts on this new category, it is incredible that they introduced it all and for the reasons that they stated. Do they really think that the introduction of one new award category is going to make audiences around the world stay up until the late hours just so they can see their favourite film win an award? I know they shortened the running time, but still - three hours? I can barely sit through a two-hour film these days!
(Image copyright: AMPAS / Universal Pictures)