As summer turns to autumn, so to do the movies offered at your local cinema change from blockbusters to Oscarbait. With less than a month until the Toronto International Film Festival, when the unofficial Oscar campaign season begins, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this week that it is making significant changes. With last year’s broadcast the least watched in history, the show will be trimmed down to three hours, and in 2020 begin airing much closer to when the nominations are released in an attempt to keep interest high. But it was the announcement of a new category which raised the most eyebrows: The Oscars will now recognize "Achievement in Popular Film."
The timing of this new category is revealing. Over the last few months, Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe CEO Kevin Feige has been aggressively shopping the idea of "Black Panther" throwing its hat in the best picture ring. Marvel films have been dominant at the box office since 2008, but they’ve never been the subject of a “For Your Consideration” campaign during Oscar season. Conventional wisdom has long held that the academy has little interest in CGI-heavy superhero films with broad appeal. These may be popular movies, they may even be good movies, but they are not the kind of films that vie for the top awards.
But while cloaked in the guise of inclusivity, the academy's move to create this category is ham-fisted at best and discriminatory at worst. Moreover, it goes against the spirit of what the Oscars supposedly stand for. Even the name is insulting: “Achievement In Popular Movies.” Being popular isn’t an artistic achievement, and everyone knows it. Insinuating that a high-quality product can't be popular, or that a popular product can't be high art is insulting. And yet, that’s what the Oscars do every year.
This illogical theory also informs the way movies are released. There’s a reason that “Oscar season” doesn’t occur until the last quarter of the year. The films which are most serious about their Oscar prospects show themselves to voters and critics at film festivals and then time their release to the last few days of the year — and only open in a couple of major cities. People complain they haven’t seen the films nominated for the Oscars because most aren’t made widely available until their nominations are assured. Perversely, producers worry that accidentally becoming a blockbuster could ruin their artistic credibility. (One of the only recent films to force the academy's hand on this was “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.)
Conventional wisdom has long held that the Academy has little interest in CGI-heavy superhero films. These may be popular movies, they may even be good movies, but they are not the kind of high-art films that vie for the top awards.
Whether acknowledged as a problem or not, the gap — between the films people want to see and the films the academy wants to reward — is still widening. Filmmakers simply aren't making the lush, middlebrow dramas that were once the Best Picture category's bread and butter. Films like “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The English Patient,” or “Shakespeare In Love” don't get made anymore, at least not for the big screen. As a result, this past year's best picture category included traditional-style films like “The Post” and “Dunkirk,” but also controversially featured “Get Out.” ("Get Out" was released by Blumhouse Productions, a company better known for B-rated horror films.) Most importantly, the win went to "The Shape of Water," which is a science-fiction fantasy romance, a genre film if there ever was one.
In other words, the best picture category has become an unholy mix of mostly arch dramas and niche genre pieces. That “The Shape of Water” won is not so much a sign that the Oscars are becoming less elitist but rather a reminder that if you market your film as an Oscar-worthy piece from the beginning, and obediently follow the film-festival-and-late-release schedule, you can still succeed in the current system.
Whether acknowledged as a problem or not, the gap — between the films people want to see and the films the academy wants to reward — is still widening.
Is it any surprise that Marvel now sees an opening to begin pushing for Oscar recognition? Getting “Black Panther” a Best Picture nod would be akin to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” being nominated for the 1992 Academy Awards, a vote of artistic confidence that led to a surge in Disney animated films in the later 1990s.
But the Oscars do not want to open that door — some members were reportedly very unhappy with the inclusion of “Get Out” in the 2018 best picture race. So rather than reconsider the elitist criteria for best picture, the academy has created a separate and (it hopes) non-threatening category. Like the award for best animated feature film, which has kept most of Pixar’s best works out of contention (while both “Up” and “Toy Story 3” received best picture nods, neither won), this is a naked attempt to keep both lowbrow blockbusters and sleeper, subversive hits like “Get Out” from invading the hallowed best picture space.
What the academy should do instead is reconsider what “high art” looks like and stop assuming that a $100 million opening weekend is somehow a negative. It should also reconsider how it might look, in the wake of controversies like #OscarsSoWhite, if the best picture category in 2020 is filled with predominately white stories, casts and directors, while most popular becomes the home of movies made by Ryan Coogler and Jordan Peele.
But most importantly, an "Achievement In Popular Movies" category isn't going to make more people tune in to the mammoth awards show. The Oscars’ ratings are going down for the same reason TV ratings are going down across the board: The monoculture supporting it simply doesn’t exist anymore. Ultimately, this change doesn’t make Oscar voters seem more in touch, all it does is make their elitism that much more clear.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.