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The Academy is adding a ‘popular film’ category—and it’s categorically a bad idea

It's already getting backlash.


Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

Posted on Aug 8, 2018   Updated on May 21, 2021, 9:11 am CDT

Update 7:26am CT, Aug. 9: The Academy clarified a couple of things amid backlash on Thursday: The award will begin with the 91st Oscars in 2019 and films can compete for both best picture and outstanding achievement in popular film.

“In creating this award, the Board of Governors supports broad-based consideration of excellence in all films,” the Academy said in a statement.

The Academy just announced several changes to its annual ceremony, including the addition of a new Oscar category—which was immediately met with backlash.

The governing board approved the changes on Aug. 7 after reelecting Academy president John Bailey (who had been cleared by the Academy of sexual harassment back in March). In a letter sent to Academy members, Bailey and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson noted that they received comments from members “about improvements needed to keep the Oscars and our Academy relevant in a changing world.”

The Oscars will now be contained within a three-hour broadcast, which it aims to accomplish by handing out a number of yet-to-be-determined categories during commercial breaks with edited clips of acceptance speeches airing during the ceremony. The Academy plans to make a new category to award “outstanding achievement in popular film.” And the 2020 Oscars air date has been bumped up by several weeks to Feb. 9 from Feb. 23.

It’s unclear when the Academy will implement the three-hour Oscars broadcast change or the popular film category, and the Academy doesn’t specify what it means by “popular film,” noting that “Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” But so far, critics are finding the new changes troubling for a number of reasons.

A popular film category reinforces old ideas that best picture films are inherently ‘better’

Although the Academy hasn’t cited why it’s deciding to highlight popular films in its own category, some have already pointed to one possible reason why it might be doing so now.

Black Panther has received near-universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike, stayed at the top of the box office for more than a month, it’s currently the highest-grossing film of 2018 domestically, and it started getting Oscar buzz soon after its release. Chances of Black Panther garnering several awards is likely. It’s unknown if Black Panther is what drove the addition of a new category, but it’s possible; the snubbing of another superhero movie—The Dark Knight—for best picture at the 2009 Oscars led the Academy to expand the category so more films could be nominated.

Historically, the most successful movie of the year has rarely taken home the best picture Oscar and genre films don’t always do well outside of technical categories. (This year’s best picture winner, The Shape of Water, is an exception.) Superhero films don’t fare much better, with most of the awards won being restricted to technical categories, special achievement awards, or animated feature film with the exception of Heath Ledger’s posthumous supporting actor Oscar; Logan also broke ground for best adapted screenplay this year but lost to Call Me By Your Name.

But putting tentpole movies like Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War or the latest Mission: Impossible movie—or Star Wars: Episode IX if the rule doesn’t go into effect until the 2020 Oscars for 2019 films—can undermine both categories (although, pending eligibility requirements, a film could hypothetically be nominated for both). It reinforces the idea that there’s an inherent difference behind the kinds of films that people like and the kinds of films that get Oscars—and the Academy already has a long history of ignoring comedies, science-fiction and fantasy, horror, and other genre films, although there are some exceptions. Will some Academy members nominate a film for popular film but leave them out of the best picture category as a form of consolidation? Will filmmakers and producers see the popular film category as a snub?

Plus it ignores the reality that sometimes best picture winners are also massive successes. Rain Man, Forrest Gump, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were all the highest-grossing movies of the year and grabbed the biggest award of the night. And one of the most popular genre films of all time, Star Wars (now stylized as A New Hope), even won six Oscars back in its day (although it lost best picture to Annie Hall).

What does popular even mean here, anyway?

Another question about the popular film category is what even qualifies to fit in. “Popular film” is sort of a catch-all phrase and one that leads to plenty of confusion.

For example, does getting a nomination hinge on your box office showing? If so, that move could shut out streaming services like Netflix. Can a film that people loved that didn’t do well financially (like Annihilation) have a shot? Does that mean box office bombs are included if popular means “being talked about,” and does that include more objectively terrible films that made a lot of money? Is it only limited to what we think of as traditional blockbusters, or will smaller-budget films (like comedies) that have an audience be included in the mix?

The popular film category has the potential to give films that normally wouldn’t catch the eyes of the Academy a chance, but it still puts them in a category on its own.

There are several categories that should be created before ‘popular film’

As the Academy noted, people have been asking for change for years. But while it decided to award “popular film,” some pointed out that it wasn’t the only option it could’ve gone with.


People have called for there to be an Oscar awarded for stunt work for years, arguing that their work is just as vital to a film as an actor’s (and sometimes is so seamless that it looks like an actor is doing their own stunt work). They argue that casting is an important part of making a movie—you can’t get the finished film without getting the actors for every part—but it doesn’t have its own category. And while there used to be an Oscar for dance direction, choreographers are also left off the list. Each of those categories would not only give awards to those whose works were vital to their respective films, and it wouldn’t feel like a consolation prize.

The three-hour broadcast robs smaller category winners of their shot

One of the running jokes about the Oscars is just how long they are (but some argue that the length is perfectly fine), and for casual viewers, it might be a welcome change. Some of them might not know the directors, designers, and artists giving speeches in the middle of the show while they wait for the “bigger awards,” so they’re fine with those categories being edited. But it also takes away the big moment for many of the winners who will likely be relegated to commercial breaks: they’ll have it on the stage, but for their loved ones, it’ll be reduced to a soundbite.

Some of the more charged and poignant speeches have occurred from winners many might not have heard of, but a sound bite also cannot convey the kind of real-time reaction of seeing the standing ovation for Roger A. Deakins, who won his first Oscar for best cinematography after 14 nominations for Blade Runner 2049. You don’t need to know who he is to see just how much of a moment that is based on the reaction alone.

And even then, a bigger question remains: the Academy may be making these changes, but will more viewers watch? It’s far from the only issue the Academy has had in recent years, and it has a long way to go.


H/T Hollywood Reporter

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*First Published: Aug 8, 2018, 2:25 pm CDT