Popular, not excellent: The academy’s new scheme is condescending
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has officially declared that all popular films are awful.
It didn’t quite intend to say that out loud. The academy is desperately trying to bolster ratings for its annual awards telecast. So, on Wednesday, it announced that the show would be cut from four hours to around three. (The assumption there is that shorter things are more exciting, I suppose.) It also said that it will be adding a category for “outstanding achievement in popular film.”
This category is meant to celebrate big money-making films that are often shut out at Oscar time. The hope is that by embracing these tentpole behemoths, the Oscars will become more popular by association. If you are one of the fans who lined up to see “Black Panther” or “The Last Jedi,” the academy is betting you’ll also turn on your TV to see those films get an award on Oscar night.
And maybe that will work. Or maybe all those fans will find the naked pandering off-putting — especially when it’s couched in such thorough condescension.
The academy thinks it’s doing “Black Panther” and “Mission: Impossible Part 35” a boon by giving them a shot at a special award all their own. But, really, what the academy is doing is telling the fans of all those films that popular art is a secondary, lesser art. Popular films can never be the best films, full stop; they can only hope for excellence in their niche.
This backhanded compliment is especially stinging because it’s ahistorical. In truth, the academy has always taken popularity into account when it hands out its awards. The best picture winner from 2017, “Moonlight,” was an unusually small film, but “La La Land,” which was nominated for that award and won a number of others, was a big musical Hollywood glamfest, and one of the top 20 box office successes of the year.
Nor is “La La Land” an outlier. The Oscars have often doled out prizes for excellence to films that have been massive monetary successes. The hugely successful “Titanic” (1997), the first film to gross more than $1 billion worldwide, tied for the most nominations ever with 14, and for the most awards ever with 11. “Gone With the Wind” (1939), still the most successful film ever if you adjust for inflation, won eight Oscars, including best director, best picture and best actress.
Extremely popular films are popular with everyone, which means that they often are popular with the people who fill out Oscar ballots. (That’s logic for you.) This reality makes the new award even more of an insult to whomever receives it. “The award for outstanding achievement in a popular film that isn’t high-quality enough to receive a real award like all the other popular films goes to ... ”
If the academy wants to acknowledge box office success directly, there are better ways to do it. The easiest would be to just acknowledge box office success directly. Rather than trying to create a cyborg category that lumps together quality and popularity, it could just give an award to whatever film grosses the most money. The academy wouldn’t get any suspense out of the process, it’s true. But it would still achieve its apparent goal, which is to highlight a very popular film during the Oscars broadcast. And a “best box office” prize wouldn’t imply that popular films can’t be quality films; the winner could remain eligible for a best picture nomination.
Alternately, if what the academy really wants to do is give prizes to action film franchises, it could create an award for action film franchises. The Grammys cheerfully embraces genre divisions and subdivisions to make sure Latin performers don’t get shut out by the hip-hop and rock acts. The academy could do the same thing for tentpole movies. Call it the “best tentpole blockbuster.” And while it’s revamping the show, it could throw in an award for the best horror film, since horror movies rarely win Oscars either.
It’s reasonable to fiddle with the Oscars to recognize different kinds of films. Picking a best or favorite movie is, by its nature, an exercise in bias, and there can be lots of legitimate reasons to try to tilt those biases one way or the other. But the academy should try to be honest with itself and with its audience. Popular films and good films aren’t separate categories, and the academy, for all its many faults, has never treated them as such. It shouldn’t start.