Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Academy Announces a Best Popular Film Category, and It's Not Good

Scene from Birdman

It wouldn't be an Oscar season without a summer of new changes being added. Whereas it's usually rules regarding voting or changes in regulations. Today however saw The Academy put forward a series of changes that caused quite a stir. On the least controversial side was an earlier broadcast date for the 2020 ceremony. On the side that's causing the most uproar is a new category that is meant to recognize popular films. What does that even mean? While The Academy has remained coy about it, there is already an uproar over the idea of separating what is "popular" from what is "best." To say the least, there is a change coming, and it's maybe not for the best. 

It has been a rocky road for The Academy since John Bailey replaced Cheryl Boone Isaacs as Academy President. While there's been a push to have a more diverse group of members, the early changes during Bailey's leadership haven't been entirely promising. Besides certain allegations that threatened to remove him from Academy President, he has come forward with a push that's clearly meant to recognize films to a more accessible audience. Considering that broadcasts are often notorious for low ratings, it makes sense on one hand. However, it also sounds like the start of a push to make The Academy Awards less... prestigious.

Here is their post, via Twitter, detailing their upcoming decisions:

On the one hand, it's exciting to see that the broadcast date isn't so far away. However, one has to wonder what that will mean for voting in that year, as it seems like things will be rushed. Maybe the changes will fix themselves gradually, but an earlier broadcast date is the least of the problems there. As mentioned after that statement is a more "globally accessible" broadcast. It's a statement that is maybe the start of some controversy, though maybe the thing that makes the most sense if The Academy wants to play the popularity card. Broadcasts of the ceremony generally run long (with the past six years averaging over three and a half hours, and this past year being seven minutes shy of four hours), so it makes sense from a commercial standpoint, especially given that some territories have the ceremony going in past midnight.

But with that comes some changes, of which are going to seem the most problematic for fans of the awards. All things considered, cutting the ceremony down to three hours means that certain categories will either be truncated, or ignored entirely. The night meant to represent achievement in the arts seems destined to only recognize what's popular, which is pretty much every category above acting, writing, and directing. It's difficult to say, though The Academy has also suggested that their live broadcasts will feature selected categories handed out during commercial breaks and repackaged as a clip show later in the ceremony. It's a bit flippant, though ironically is part of what makes The Tony Awards flow at a much smoother pace, even if they have almost triple the amount of interstitial performances that The Academy Awards do. It's a crapshoot, in short. 

The category that's getting most people annoyed however is the announcement of Best Popular Film. As someone who has covered/shown interest in The Academy Awards since 2010, it's a bit offensive. I still remember that 2010 was the year of category expansion from five Best Picture nominees to 10. This was in large part because people worried that certain forms of entertainment weren't recognized. It was an argument possibly started when The Dark Knight failed to get the Best Picture spot in spite of being the most popular movie of its time. Ironically, the most popular movie of 2009 was represented at the 2010 ceremony with the $2 billion-grossing Avatar, but has rarely been represented since. Still, the field has represented a mix of prestige and genre films in ways that warrant the 10 nomination slots, even as they fell down to a sliding scale a few years later. 

It seems ironic that this comes during the 10th anniversary summer of The Dark Knight, which also maybe symbolizes another issue with The Academy. In that time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has created some impeccable hits. Wonder Woman became a cultural phenomenon last year and ended up on Time Magazine's People of the Year list. Logan got a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. Superhero movies are just as prevalent in the community as anything else, so why is it that the only one that got nominated/won in a major category in the past decade was Birdman: a satirical take on the genre more than a reverent ode? It's true that The Academy has had some awesome selection in recent years, such as the unprecedented success of Mad Max: Fury Road, but what the introduction of the Best Popular Film category suggests is that the past decade has been a farce, or a failure.

The desire to expand the Best Picture category was meant to recognize the best in the industry, and one could argue that it did. Last year had a few with crowd favorites Get Out and Dunkirk. Again, it's still jarring that superhero cinema hasn't been there, but it's made the push for films like Black Panther all the more promising.What will be that breakthrough to a category that's almost a century old? There's excitement in that. And besides, what is Best Popular Film going to solve? Is it going to be a thing about aesthetics, box office, how many dollars in merchandise revenue it takes in? And besides, wouldn't the fact that a film won in any other category show some form of popularity that a voting system already connotates? The details are vague at the moment, but it's hard to get on board with this decision.

Maybe it will be an experiment, much like a few years back when The Academy announced their nominations for the year through a video package. It could be a learning curve where things change and become more integrated in meaningful ways. However, it's hard to find enthusiasm for Best Popular Film as the answer to The Academy's problems with ratings. While the broadcast cuts make a tad more sense amid disagreement, the idea of creating a category meant not to honor the aesthetics of art but its accessibility is a bit condescending. Best Picture was supposed to be that: a film representative of the year in film. Considering that categories like Best Stunt Performance, Best Voice Actor, and Best Motion Capture Performance all remain unrecognized, it's a bit disappointing that The Academy wants to reel back, and more importantly not recognize the categories that could use that moment of attention more than what is popular. 

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