My level of regard and professional appreciation for the Academy Awards took a hit some years back, not because of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy about the lack of diversity in the ranks of the Academy that certainly has needed addressing, and not because of how long the shows are or who has been hosting them either.
No, it was when the Oscars expanded the Best Picture category to ten nominees. I thought it was silly and I still think it's silly. It wasn't a move made to even the playing field and give more films a shot at the big prize at all, it was to put in more films that the general audience had actually seen so that they would tune into the show and pay attention because their film might win, even though it really never had a shot.
With that in mind, I'm really not surprised that years later the Academy has now decided among other changes, to start a new category for Best Achievement in Popular Film, because it's really an extension of the same move when they expanded the Best Picture category.
Anyone who follows the Oscars at all knows when Oscar season hits every year, and it's from the middle of fall to early Winter. That's when the art house, independent, dramatic films that have invaded Cannes, SXSW and other festivals ascend into wider release for awards consideration at the beginning of the new year. Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Academy Awards. Those are your big shows and the movies that command their attention are not the ones that made billions in the summertime with licensed characters and big tentpole budgets, because they aren't regarded as "high art" and great achievement of the craft, even though in many ways they do, subjectively speaking. Historically speaking, the best those kinds of movies have done is collect a lot of technical awards, like Mad Max Fury Road deservedly did a few years ago.
The thing is, the general audience isn't going out of its way to watch The Shape of Water, Phantom Thread, Darkest Hour or even Dunkirk, so when those kinds of films get nominated for Oscars as they commonly do, there's really no reason for the general audience to tune in. They've never seen the movies, nor do they likely plan to. The flipside to that coin is you can't put movies like Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War or Mission: Impossible Fallout into the Best Picture category because of how the Academy perceives them. Plenty of people say why not and call it pretentious, but the Academy has never claimed to not be that way. They act like they want the general audience to perceive them as "regular," but they still largely believe that most people wouldn't know a great movie if it bit them in the ass, and subjectively speaking they might be right a lot of the time.
So they expand to ten Best Picture nominees to give more of those "general audience films" a perceived chance, but it doesn't move that ratings needle as much as they want it to, which is now why they are creating Best Popular Film......because that's the answer, a whole new category completely separate from Best Picture itself.
Alright, to be fair it's PART of the answer, but still misses the mark pretty badly. You know who has it figured out pretty well? The Golden Globes. In that awards show, the major above the line categories like Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress and others are divided between "Drama" and "Musical or Comedy," so you avoid a situation where a farcical film like The Disaster Artist goes head to head with a historical drama like The Post, but both still have an equal opportunity to take home the Best Picture prize. Ironically, neither of those films won Best Picture this past year but you see the point. You will still have debates over whether or not a movie like Get Out belongs in the Musical or Comedy category, but at least you know it has a better shot of winning, unlike at the Oscars where Get Out was one of nine films that lost to The Shape of Water and arguably had no chance to win against the others in the first place, for whatever reason.
So what makes the Oscars' decision here any different than that one? Isn't Popular Film now a category? Yes but it's separated from the Best Picture category entirely and that's not good. At the Golden Globes, Lady Bird still won Best Picture the same as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri did. One was just in Musical or Comedy while the other was in Drama. If you are going to categorize your films in an award show, you should do it based on the subjective appraisal of the content, not the subjective appraisal of its quality. The way the Oscars are preparing to do things now, there will be a film that wins Best Picture and then another film that wins "Most Popular." Ignoring the redundancy of calling a film most popular when the box office already does that all the time, you are now stating that in the Academy there is a difference between "best" and "popular," which isn't a wrong thing to believe, but what happens when a film like Black Panther wins Popular Film and people argue that it should have been nominated for Best Picture? How level have you really made the playing field and how much are you really enticing the "regular" viewer to now watch you tell them to their face that their favorite movie was only "popular" and not one of the "best?" That's at least two new cans of controversial worms this now opens up.
Now I'm sure there is a school of though within the Academy that debate is a good thing because it means more people are talking about their show, but when you consider the social media climate for film debate these days, you start to seriously worry about how this could translate to the Oscar perception in a bad light. I mean, those are the people you are trying to get to watch the Oscars in the first place, right? Is it really a good idea to pander to them in the first place, and then do it with a move that still kind of slaps them in the face at the end of the night? How much integrity is there with a plan like that?
The bottom line is that this, in the grand scheme of things, is just another grab at attention from the masses that the Academy is desperately trying to score. It's not really a case of acknowledging movies that they feel deserve to be acknowledged, it's just about getting more people to tune in, and maybe between that and trying to keep the shows at three hours in length it will all succeed, but you'll also lose a considerable amount of people that have taken the Oscars more seriously for a long time until now. A lot of those people are still wondering why there are no categories for stunt performers and other major technical vocations that make these movies even more possible today than they ever have been, and now you've just told them that the new category you are adding has nothing to with the craft and everything to do with how popular it was by the audience and the critics. Good luck with that one, seriously.
It'd be nice if someone from the Hollywood Foreign Press gave the Academy some pointers on what to do here, but then again who knows if they would even pay attention to it. One can always hope, right? Right.