The Academy just added a ‘popular film’ category to the Oscars

The Academy is trying to win back viewers with a reboot, one that brings a new ‘popular film’ category, a shorter broadcast time and an earlier date to the annual ceremony.

The 2018 Oscars had the fewest viewers of any Academy Awards ceremony in history. Now, the Academy is trying to win back its audience by adding a new ‘popular film’ category, a shorter broadcast time and an earlier date to its annual ceremony.

The Academy hasn’t revealed the criteria for how films will get classified as ‘popular’, or which awards it will scrap from the live broadcast to cut down on runtime, but it said “details will be forthcoming.”

The announcement has already prompted criticism.

Some argue that a popular-film category will relegate all blockbusters and genre-y movies—think ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Mission: Impossible’—to this new, seemingly second-rate group. It would likely mean that big-budget crowd-pleasers, even ones as successful and critically acclaimed as ‘Black Panther’, would never be considered for Best Picture.

“How can the Academy define what’s ‘popular’?” Adam Zanzie, a filmmaker and video essayist in Los Angeles, told Big Think. “If a movie is truly great, then it should be eligible for Best Picture. Why make room for anything of lesser quality? That’s what the Teen Choice Awards are for.”

It’s easy to see why the Academy Awards would be interested in carving out space for popular fare like superhero movies. After all, those CGI-heavy blockbusters accounted for half of the top ten highest-grossing films last year and they have massive fanbases who might just tune in to the Oscars if their favorite movie were in the running.

“The rumor I’ve been hearing everywhere is that the Academy is just doing this to boost ratings,” Zanzie said. “They initially tried to do something similar about a decade ago when they extended the amount of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10, because of the uproar when popular movies like ‘WALL-E’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ were being excluded from Best Picture nominations. Apparently, that wasn’t enough for them.”

Although details of the changes remain unclear, one common prediction that’s emerged from the announcement is that ‘Black Panther’ will be the first film to win the new award.

It’s a film that would likely have a hard time scoring Best Picture, if history is any guide.

The Academy has traditionally looked down on certain genres, generally ignoring horror, fantasy, science fiction and comedy films. Meanwhile, historical dramas like ‘12 Years a Slave’, ‘Argo’ and ‘The King’s Speech’ have had little trouble scoring the Academy’s premiere award in recent years.

There are exceptions, of course, like when ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ won Best Picture in 2003, or win ‘Annie Hall’ did the same in 1977.

But there are arguably more instances of blockbusters being shut out of the running, like in 2009 when ‘The Dark Knight’ infamously didn’t receive a nomination for Best Picture despite massive box-office success, critical acclaim and winning awards in eight other categories.

'The Dark Knight' via Warner Bros. Pictures

In any case, the popular-film category could turn out to be a smart way for the Academy to get fans of blockbusters to watch its struggling annual spectacle. It could also free the academy from having to acknowledge superhero movies, and other films its traditionally shunned, as contenders for Best Picture.

But what’s also possble is that the new designation turns into little more than a marketing label distributors can slap on Blu-rays.

Personally, I think the idea of a Popular Film category is laughable,” Zanzie said. “My favorite joke that I've seen on Twitter concerning this issue was by somebody who quipped that had this category only been implemented sooner, Adam Sandler would have had 15 Oscars by now.”

Although the 2018 Oscars hit an all-time low in TV ratings, it’s worth noting that those numbers reflect a broader trend in live TV: the Super Bowl, the Grammys, the Emmys and the Olympics all reported declines in viewership this year. And, as is typical for the ‘Super Bowl of entertainment’, the 2018 Oscars was still the most-watched non-sporting event of the year.

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