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Opinion: ‘Outstanding Achievement for Popular Film’ or the Oscars participation award equivalent?

By and | Published September 2, 2018

‘And who’s your date tonight?’ Asked the red-carpet interviewer.

‘This is controversy. We’re inseparable.’ Replied the Oscars.

This could describe almost any of the annual Oscars ceremonies from recent years. #OscarsSoWhite. #TimesUp. Admittedly not as culturally significant as the movements stated prior, but lo and behold, it’s happened again.

It’s been just over three weeks since the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the organisation behind the Oscars, announced the addition of a new award category to be introduced at the 2019 Oscars – ‘Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film’. I decided to wait until now before sharing my thoughts, in the hopes that more information would be disclosed that could sway my opinion, but little more has been said.

The main question I had hoped to see answered is how does the Academy define ‘popular’? Standard definition would point towards it being based around box office revenue, but bums on seats doesn’t necessarily equate to a quality movie. So then surely other factors such as critical reception must be factored in, right? The lack of transparency means we simply don’t know.

The changes being enacted appear to represent attempts to alleviate falling ratings for the Oscars’ annual TV broadcast. Elsewhere in the Academy’s announcement, they described plans for a ‘more globally accessible three-hour telecast’, down from this year’s four-hour runtime, by presenting select awards during commercial breaks rather than on air, and then editing in moments from them later in the show. I want to say that this seems smart and an ideal decision, but that would be doing a disservice to those who work on the technical side of films behind-the-scenes. Arguably the most likely to see their screen time cut, they deserve their moment in the spotlight, and are often the recipients whose speeches and emotional celebrations keep the magic of the Oscars alive. Instead, this change will probably see them pushed further to the periphery. Surely moving the ceremony forward a few hours so it airs earlier is a simpler solution to increase viewership? Especially as it would mean here in the UK it wouldn’t air at the untimely hour it currently does.

For me though the main issue is not that the changes won’t increase viewership. I believe they will, just not necessarily by the numbers the Academy are likely expecting; awards shows and broadcast TV in general are on the decline. Instead, my main concern lies with the superficiality of the ‘popular film’ category, and how it undermines the artistry of certain films that might fall within its parameters.

Back in 2009, despite critical and commercial success, The Dark Knight failed to get a nomination for Best Picture, which many (including myself) saw as an undeserved omission. Clearly a popular film with audiences, but also a spectacular piece of art. Respectively, the following year, the number of nominees for best picture increased from five to ten, ensuring less high-quality films missed out, and it has since been revised even further where now between five and ten films may be nominated, meaning films aren’t being nominated just to fill the quota. The Academy’s seeming disregard for comic-book movies, and ‘genre’ films in general, has nonetheless continued over the last ten years, but the genius of Ryan Coogler and his cast and crew means 2019 could be a turning point.

(Photo by Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images)

Black Panther. The prime movie case-study to look at while discussing the Outstanding Popular Film category is similarly another comic-book movie which succeeded both critically and commercially. Like with The Dark Knight, if Black Panther gets snubbed of a Best Picture nomination, there will undoubtedly be backlash. Thus, attempting to not have history repeat itself, it almost appears as if the Academy devised the best popular film category to stay one step ahead. In theory, Black Panther could receive at least a nomination for Outstanding Popular Film, but the Academy’s bias against nominating a comic-book movie for Best Picture would continue, with the category essentially acting as a way of pleasing the masses while the Academy’s outdated attitudes towards such films goes unchanged. A win-win situation for the Academy.

The Academy have stated that a movie could garner nominations for both Best Picture and Outstanding Popular Film, but this simply creates more problems. Voters could easily decide to vote for a film in the latter category instead of the other, not in addition to; the movie would ultimately end up competing against itself. Evidence for this may perhaps already exist as nominees for both Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Film are able to also be nominated for Best Picture, but rarely receive both nominations. These categories exist to commemorate niche and often overlooked forms of filmmaking, but the same cannot be argued for nominees of Outstanding Popular Film, as ‘popular’ surely signifies the scale of both said movies and their audience.

If there’s something that the latest instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Fallout, has reminded me, it’s that there are perhaps more pressing categories that the Academy should be looking to create. I fully believe awards for ‘Best Stunt Coordination’, or something to that effect, should exist to commemorate the incredible feats stunt teams frequently perform, as well as ‘Best Voice Acting’ and ‘Best Motion Capture Performance’, which would ideally see the likes of Andy Serkis given the plaudits they deserve.

I mentioned previously how Black Panther may be the movie that finally makes the Academy take comic-book movies more seriously come awards season. Looking at genre films more broadly though, it would be criminal to overlook the significance of Jordan Peele’s incredible directorial debut Get Out from last year, which received a best picture nomination and won him best director. If the Outstanding Popular Film category had been implemented in 2018, it’s possible Get Out, which grossed over $175 million in America alone, may have been nominated in this category instead of Best Picture; the film’s artistry being punished and limited in appreciation as a result of its financial success.

Adding an Outstanding Popular Film category, whose introduction I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Academy postpone past 2019, also somewhat implies the belief that traditional Oscar winners could rarely be defined as popular, which is often inherently wrong. Nine of the top ten highest-grossing films of all time (adjusted for ticket inflation) were nominated for best picture, with three winning the coveted award. The act of creating a category which separates ‘art’ from mainstream entertainment further marginalises movies by putting them in boxes when we should be doing exactly the opposite, and is Hollywood’s condescending way of thanking the blockbusters that pay the bills.

Update (6th September): Well, there you have it. After existing for just short of a month, the ‘Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film’ category has been delayed and will NOT be introduced at the 2019 Oscars. A statement released today reads ‘The Academy recognized that implementing any new award nine months into the year creates challenges for films that have already been released’. CEO Dawn Hudson continues: ‘There has been a wide range of reactions to the introduction of a new award, and we recognize the need for further discussion with our members’. Other previously announced changes to the 2019 Academy Awards will remain.