Less than a month after announcing the new category, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has backed down from its plan to give an Oscar “for outstanding achievement in popular film.” The “popular” Oscar proved unpopular from the start.
The idea managed to simultaneously stigmatize popular films, as good for Oscar’s TV ratings but not truly worthy, and traditional nominees, as box office losers. Creating a “popular” category meant officially abandoning the Oscar ideal that films can be both good art and good business.
It didn’t help that the academy never fully defined the new category, saying only that “eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” The vagueness made it impossible for studios to plan awards-season strategies. It also encouraged skeptics to imagine their worst nightmare: a “Popcorn Oscar” for formulaic franchise films.
“The gulf between what the public buys tickets to see and what the Academy nominates and awards has never been greater,” observed the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg when the new category was announced. As critic Neal Gabler wrote back in 2012, the year “The Artist” won best picture, Hollywood has been using the Oscars “to stage a small protest against the sorts of movies they feel we the audience sadistically forces them to make.”
In its defense, academy President John Bailey, a cinematographer, said the new award wasn’t “some knee-jerk reaction to falling ratings” but rather an attempt to make sure good movies that were also popular got their due. His example was telling: “Groundhog Day.” “It’s a film that’s become iconic, but if it had been made today, it probably never would have been considered for best picture,” he told the Hollywood Reporter’s Gregg Kilday.
In fact, “Groundhog Day” wasn’t considered for best picture — or any other category — when it came out 25 years ago, either. Back then, nominees were generally the sort of thing you’d see on PBS, and they certainly weren’t comedies.
As someone who likes both “The Artist” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe — not to mention “Groundhog Day” — I appreciate the academy’s intentions, if not its ability to foresee obvious public reactions. So allow me to recycle a couple of suggestions I made back in 2012.
Emulate journalism awards that divide publications by circulation: Divide the best picture awards into two categories, best picture (under 10 million tickets sold) and best picture (10 million tickets or more). Just as publications with wildly different circulations operate under different constraints, so do movies aimed at different-sized audiences. Rather than stigmatizing one or both categories, this division would treat them as equally valid, just as the Oscars do with short versus standard-length films. Adding a Dec. 31 cutoff date for counting tickets would encourage less crowding of Oscar-worthy pictures in the waning weeks of the year.
Ten million tickets puts a movie in about the top 40 for the year, a large-enough universe to offer diversity in both genre and artistic ambition. For 2017, nominees might have included “Baby Driver,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Coco,” “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “Girls Trip,” “It,” “Logan,” “Wonder” and “Wonder Woman.”
Create a Hindsight Award for the best picture from 25 years ago. Nominees would be selected through the same process as the current year’s best picture nominees but from the earlier year’s offerings. (To keep already-confusing dates consistent, the award would count back from the year whose films are being honored — say, 2018 — rather than the year of the ceremony.)
A Hindsight Award would allow both academy members and the TV audience to revisit the best of the past, whether previously nominated or not. Along with “Groundhog Day,” 1993’s overlooked offerings included “The Age of Innocence,” “In the Line of Fire” (with cinematography by academy president Bailey), “Jurassic Park,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Tombstone” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” In addition to “Schindler’s List,” the original list of nominees included “The Fugitive,” “In the Name of the Father,” “The Piano” and “The Remains of the Day.”
The Academy Awards have two purposes. One is to let industry insiders honor their peers and congratulate themselves for jobs well done. But their more important goal is to get the general public to appreciate and patronize the movies — and thereby to keep the insiders in business. In that pursuit, the Oscars need to find ways to recognize that popular taste isn’t always bad. You don’t win fans by insulting your audience. And many popular movies are actually excellent — even if it takes hindsight to realize their merits.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour.”
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