When the Academy Awards announced a new Best Popular Film award for the upcoming Oscar ceremony, the backlash was pretty immediate.
Most people saw it for what it was: a transparent attempt to boost award show ratings by more prominently featuring blockbuster hits, which in recent years haven’t been honored with Best Picture nominations. That’s despite an expanded Best Picture field following the 2008 snub of The Dark Knight, which pretty clearly should have been honored with at least a nomination that year, given both its own quality and for being at the forefront of legitimizing comic book adaptations. (That Iron Man, with all of Marvel’s success after and with Robert Downey Jr. still playing the title role in 2018’s biggest movie, may have ended up being the most influential comic book movie of 2008 is fairly astounding, in retrospect.)
Some, amusingly, saw it as a sign the Oscars were selling out; here’s Rob Lowe acting like tossing a token nomination at Infinity War would be the end of days in Los Angeles:
The film business passed away today with the announcement of the “popular” film Oscar. It had been in poor health for a number of years. It is survived by sequels, tent-poles, and vertical integration.
— Rob Lowe (@RobLowe) August 8, 2018
That’s missing the point about as widely as it can be missed. The real problem with introducing a “Best Popular” award is the idea that a lot of people liking a piece of art inherently devalues it relative to things without a wide audience. And as the Oscars are themselves nothing if not a ranking of movies, this rang very false to many. Now, thankfully, the Academy has shelved the idea for at least this year, and hopefully for years to come. Via The Hollywood Reporter:
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is postponing the introduction of the new “popular” Oscar category it had intended to introduce at its upcoming 91st Academy Awards on Feb. 24.
The Academy announced today, following a meeting of the board of governors on Tuesday, that it is shelving the idea for the moment and will not launch the proposed new award at the next Oscar show, but it said it will continue to discuss the idea for the new award and “will examine and seek additional input regarding the new category.” The announcement explained that implementing the new award nine months into the year “created challenges for films that have already been released.” The Academy did not provide any timeline for when further details about the new award might be decided.
If there was one likely catalyst this year, it was the impending Black Panther test case.
Black Panther is not only the second-highest grossing film worldwide in 2018, it is the top-earning movie domestically, all while sporting a 97% Rotten Tomatoes score and being regarded as an incredibly important display of representation. It’s a complex film, focusing on themes of race, identity, and politics, wrapped within a cinematic vision of Afrofuturism we haven’t seen before. Regardless of its place in a larger franchise, it’s a movie deserving of awards attention; there was a very real concern that having a Best Popular category into which Black Panther could be shunted by some voters would deny it a legitimate shot at the actual Best Picture category.
That, at least, won’t be a concern this year. (Marvel and Disney are building a Best Picture campaign for Black Panther, which they’ve never before done for an MCU film.)
But while Black Panther would seem to have been a major possible reason the Academy isn’t going through with it, looking back at past award winners should have been enough. Titanic and Return of the King both won Best Picture, along with dozens of other Oscars. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and plenty other classic, popular movies received Best Picture nominations, and we don’t look back at those movies as mistakes by the Academy. (Instead, we’re much more likely to look at things like The Reader or Milk or Benjamin Button getting nominated over The Dark Knight.)
Caring about the Oscars, or any awards race, is admittedly a pursuit with limited upside. But while the whole thing is arbitrary and in some cases extremely flawed, if you’re going to do it, you should do it right. Movies, by their nature, require an audience. Treating films that find bigger ones as less than legitimate examples of the form never makes sense.