Film & TV

Oscars to America: Please Notice Us Again

An Oscar statue at the nominations announcement for the 87th Academy Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., January 15, 2015. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)
Adding a category for ‘popular film’ will only highlight Hollywood’s estrangement from average viewers.

The Oscars have just announced the most jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing, flop-sweaty move in their entire 90-year history. Remember when Sally Field proclaimed, “You like me! Right now, you like me!”? This is worse. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has been dumped by America, and now it’s drunk-dialing us at 3 a.m., saying, “Please take me back. Baby, I’ve changed.”

Like many a previous failing state, the Oscars are trying to inflate their way out of misery. Next year, for the first time ever, there will be three kinds of best movie: Best Animated Feature, Best Picture, and now Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. The word “popular” is regrettable. We already have a way of measuring popularity: It’s called money. It would be severely redundant for an industry that is already focused on money 364 days of the year to yield on the 365th day as well. AMPAS has spent 90 years trying to build its reputation for artistic discernment; this week it took a big step toward becoming the People’s Choice Awards.

What’s the point of a separate category for “popular” film? It’s bound to be seen, correctly, as a sop. It may also be seen as racist or sexist. Black Panther is at the moment the most popular picture of the year. If it wins the Oscar for “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” but not Best Picture, will AMPAS be accused of “marginalizing” black people? And does a film have to make a certain amount of money to qualify? Alternatively, does “popular” signal not big-ticket sales but rather genre filmmaking in such categories as horror, broad comedy, fantasy, sci-fi, or superhero?

In that case, could the “popular” category be used to honor a film that was supposed to make a ton of money but didn’t — a film such as Blade Runner 2049? If so, then wouldn’t the two top awards be given to arty features, thus nullifying the purpose of recognizing audience taste? The Revenant is an art film that managed to earn $530 million — should it be relegated to the “popular” category? Which category would Dunkirk belong in? Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel earned back many times its budget and is also a comedy. Does that put it in the “popular” category? Or does a box-office take of $175 million not count as popular in an age when many films pass the billion-dollar mark? Would some voters not choose it for Best Picture because they think it’s a popular film and others not choose it for Best Popular Picture because they think it’s an art film? Anticipating this, would its publicists take out ads imploring voters to nominate it in one category but not the other? Could Anderson’s Isle of Dogs be eligible for Best Animated Feature, Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, and Best Picture?

The addition of the popular-film category is the single most radical change in the 90-year history of the Oscars, even more panicky than the 2009 decision, after The Dark Knight failed to earn a Best Picture nomination (but The Reader and Frost/Nixon did), to expand the category to encompass as many as ten nominees. It’s a desperation move that was prompted by a let’s-get-things-straight meeting convened last spring by ABC, which has paid the Academy handsomely for broadcast rights to the Oscars for many years and owns future telecasting privileges through 2028. ABC steered the Academy to relegate the least important awards (such as the three Oscars for short films) to commercial breaks and to wrap things up in three hours. Those are both wise moves; the ceremony regularly approaches four hours. Other decisions are baffling: The ceremony will be bumped all the way up to February 9 in 2020, which means less time for voters as well as viewers to take in the deluge of films that arrive in movie theaters the very last week of the year. ABC apparently believes there are too many awards shows that dilute the impact of the Oscars, but those awards shows will simply move up even earlier in the year, meaning the quantity of such telecasts will stay the same but the density will increase.

The mass audience isn’t interested in Jimmy Kimmel, whose two tiresome stints at the podium brought the lowest-rated and third-lowest-rated evenings in modern Oscar history.

ABC is, to an extent, the author of its own misery: It and the Academy should never have let the ceremony get so long in the first place, and it’s presumably at ABC’s urging that the Academy has twice hired the network’s niche late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel to host the ceremony, predictably bringing his lame anti-Trump jibes with him. The mass audience isn’t interested in Kimmel, whose two tiresome stints at the podium brought the lowest-rated and third-lowest-rated evenings in modern Oscar history. Kimmel is particularly unappealing to younger viewers: Ratings in the 18–34 age range this year were down 29 percent from 2017 and 56 percent from 2014. Overall, ratings this year plunged 19 percent to an abysmal 26.5 million viewers, less than half the audience that tuned in to see Titanic win 20 years earlier, when there were 40 million fewer Americans.

And that’s the real problem: Pictures like Titanic don’t win anymore. The Oscars used to strike an intriguing balance between art and commerce, regularly giving top honors to big hits such as Casablanca, Going My Way, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Rain Man, Chicago, and Slumdog Millionaire. Today, stern didacticism rules instead: 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight, and The Shape of Water are the last five Best Picture winners. The last of these was such a Golden Corral–style buffet of virtue signaling that its selection amounted to trolling the audience. Not since 2011’s Argo has a crowd-pleasing film won Best Picture.

Each year’s teach-the-normals-a-lesson result reminds the audience not to tune in the following year. The masses turn up when they anticipate that movies they liked will win. (There was a bump for the 2009 ceremony, when the flop The Hurt Locker won, that is explicable only if you recall that lots of people thought Avatar was going to win.) Giving a consolation prize to a popular film is going to reek with condescension. It’s a pompous way of informing the audience that its taste, while incorrect, is acknowledged. It practically guarantees that a film like The Dark Knight won’t win Best Picture and that the top trophy will be reserved for earnest message movies only. The rift between Hollywood and America won’t be bridged so easily.

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