Yeah, the Academy Is Messing Up the Oscars

Yesterday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the introduction of a new category to its Oscars awards ceremony: “Achievement in Popular Film.” It also announced a 2020 airdate that will be closer to the release of nominations and the shortening of broadcasts to a three-hour event; “select” categories will be presented live and during commercial breaks, and will be edited into the broadcast in a shorter form. This is on the heels of a nearly four hour show in 2018, and the lowest ratings the Academy Awards have yet received. There are reports that the owners of the Oscars’ home this year, ABC, “suggested” these changes to AMPAS leadership. And of course they did. It behooves Disney.

Yes, this is all a drive to make the Oscars relevant “again.” News flash: kids and most people who see movies in America do not and never will care about the Oscars. The popular film category is a means for the Academy to bring franchises like Marvel and Star Wars to their event. Ya know, massive blockbusters that Disney typically deals in. Many people have raised the point that the “award” for popular movies is the money. That’s true. This award is a disservice to nominees in other categories, indicating they are lesser in some way, and embodies the very elitist approach I think the Academy is trying to dispel. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) was famously touted as a Best Picture-worthy film. If it came out today, it might be eligible for the popular film award, probably removing it from the main, more prestigious conversations and awards of the night. Hell, the winner from 2003, THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING, would probably end up taking home that award instead of its Best Picture, and maybe even its ten other awards for which it was nominated.

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) — Christopher Nolan

Of course, as far as I’m aware, there’s no reason that a film can’t win the popular film award and others. But it allows the Academy’s more “traditional” members to relegate quality blockbusters to their own little corner and not treat them equally. But then, I’m not too concerned about said blockbusters. They certainly get enough recognition. The award itself is a clearly desperate attempt to kowtow to the film industry’s most powerful properties and the name recognition which they bring. On principle, that’s pretty disappointing. I wouldn’t say that today’s popular films are a sign of a dying art form, but giving them more attention will certainly take time away from smaller films and personages that are even struggling to find niche markets. Whether you think the “Achievement in Popular Film” award signifies an elitism against blockbusters or a betrayal of cinematic integrity, the award creates a strange segregation for movies that should speak for themselves regardless of viewership or box office numbers.

In some ways, though, the most disappointing thing about these changes is the shortening of the event, and the implications of such an action. Look, I get it. The Oscars don’t matter. Cinephiles think they’re stupid and a mainstream jack off session for “artistic” movies that aren’t even that good. The average moviegoer also think they’re stupid, but because they’re a focus on films that real people don’t even see, or have heard of. But I think the Academy Awards is a tremendous relic and cultural barometer, at the very least when it comes to the large voting population of industry insiders. It’s intriguing to see what the film industry thinks are the best films, performances, and displays of technical craft every year, even when you think it’s misguided. I took a college class on the Oscars, so I mean, I dig it. I look forward to the event every year. I don’t follow sports. I don’t have any kind of competition like I do with Oscars predictions. It’s a fun experience.

BLACK PANTHER (2018) — Ryan Coogler

The shortening of that experience takes away the nitty-gritty “inside baseball” fun for me, and I assume, others who really follow the film industry. The variety show elements of recent ceremonies are fun, but not at the expense of shining a spotlight on those that deserve it. And the segregation of “select” categories, which will certainly be made up of the technical categories, will deny the hard-working, underappreciated architects of everything on which a film is based the opportunity to speak for their work and have a career-defining moment. It’s just sad.

The popular film award isn’t a great look for the Oscars, but it’s additional, not destructive. Much of what has been enjoyable about the Oscars can still be enjoyed. But the shortening of the broadcast, in trimming actual awards instead of variety show moments, truly undermines the spirit of the event, a flawed but exciting celebration of the best that film had to offer in the year. But the rules and categories of the Oscars have changed a lot over its 90-year history, so maybe these developments can be an unfortunate blip in the Academy Awards’ legacy. If BLACK PANTHER (2018) is nominated for/wins the “Achievement in Popular Film” award, though, you’ll know what it was all about. And I don’t mean it doesn’t deserve award recognition.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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