This August the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a new award, honoring outstanding achievements in ‘popular’ film. They did not, however, reveal any criteria for how the award would be made. A month later, after a sustained backlash, they backtracked, declaring the new category was no longer being considered.
Among the criticisms of the ‘most popular category” was the uncertainty around what makes a film ‘popular’, and how this would differ from the criteria applied for the Best Picture category. Last year’s Best Picture nominees, including Dunkirk and The Shape of Water, raked in a measly $63 million. Not one of the top five grossing films last year (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) were included
Was the ‘Popular’ category a way to placate moviegoers of arguably more niche, comic-book or fantasy films, who could not care less about the Oscars, because their favorite films are never acknowledged? It seems the Academy was endeavoring to increase viewership, and reverse a dwindling relevance in the popular culture zeitgeist.
They have failed to accommodate films inspired by comic books – with the rebirth of the genre coinciding with Marvel’s 2008 release of Iron Man – which have been dominant over the last decade.
It is evident that genre movies, like the Marvel films or Star Wars series, generate the big bucks, but do not gain recognition beyond the MTV Movie Awards.
One alternative to the category of ‘achievement in popular film’ would have been to award a special Oscar to the year’s box office champ, along the lines of the existing Honorary Awards, while saving the Best Picture category for typical Oscar-bait, which in recent years have tended to be so-called ‘indie’ films, but are really films with a stuffier audience in mind. The Academy had stated films nominated for the Most Popular category could be nominated for other categories, like Best Picture, but would they have been?
Many fantasy films are feats of storytelling and world-building that have found an extremely receptive audience. But they are invariably excluded from nominations for Best Picture. Although The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, did sweep up eleven Oscars, including Best Picture in 2003, in 2010, ‘Avatar’, by far the highest grossing film that year, surprisingly lost out to the somewhat propagandistic The Hurt Locker for Best Picture. There is a precedent for fantasy films being nominated, but it is a rare occurrence.
Other new categories have been created in the past, for instance Best Animated Film. As animated films became more popular, and skillfully made, the category was added to draw attention to the quality of work and craftsmanship in that sphere. Before it was introduced in 2002, just one animated film had been nominated for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast, in 1992. Since then, only two animated films have been nominated — Up in 2010 and Toy Story 3 in 2011 – despite the wealth of good, if not great, animated movies being released over the years.
The leading candidate for Most Popular this year, combining critical acclaim with box office haul, was probably Black Panther (apologies to Avengers: Infinity War). Indeed, the plucking of the ‘Most Popular’ category out of thin air, might have been born out of fear of a backlash if it had not been nominated for Best Picture.
When blockbusters are good, like Black Panther is, they should be nominated for Best Picture. The film built an entire nation, language, traditions, and introduced some new players into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), to be revisited in Infinity War. It is a self-contained story of a power struggle between the heir to a throne and outcast royal (harking back to the Shakespeare-inspired, Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor), offering an alternate reality of a wealthy, technologically-advanced African nation untouched by imperialism or colonisation.
At the same time, the characters and setting are weaved seamlessly into the MCU. Failing to nominate this film for Best Picture would be an injustice, but the Oscars are full of injustices; just look at Get Out losing out to The Shape of Water this year.
The new category would have been a way for the Oscars to draw in more viewers, especially younger ones, by nominating more ‘popular’ movies, which would have their own category. But it was a poorly thought out approach.
The Oscars are a lavish extravagance, an opportunity for aging celebrities to pat one another on the back. It is doubtful if a popular category would have halted that slide into obscurity. Once the highest accolade for anyone in the film industry, and most anticipated award show of the year, the Oscars are an increasing irrelevance, especially to millennials.