Last month the Academy announced upcoming changes to the Oscars telecast, to combat the ratings slide which is affecting everything on broadcast TV including football, and for the Oscars is mostly down to the fragmentation of entertainment and a little bit the popularity of the host which statistics show is more important to viewers than any given film’s box office or broad appeal but whatever. The Academy determined—with pressure from broadcaster ABC—to “evolve” the telecast to attract more viewers, and those ideas were so dumb they attracted universal derision. The dumb idea that got the most attention was the new “popular Oscar”, presumably to be a Best Animated Feature-like category for films that everyone sees but are otherwise considered second class among the fine show ponies of misery porn and dysfunctional family drama that usually populates the Best Picture race. Yesterday, in a move that shocked no one, the Academy decided to shelve the popular Oscar, at least for 2019.
Just the night before Kathleen and I were talking about this new Oscar, and how dumb it is, and running some what-if scenarios. Like, what if A Star is Born, which seems destined to be a crowd-pleasing smash hit, ends up delivering on both critical praise and box office? Does the Academy then HAVE to put in the popular category, because it made a ton of money despite using the award bait formula for production? And what if Star makes that kind of money but competes for Best Picture but Black Panther is relegated to the popular category? This is, I think, the crux of the issue for the Academy and a big part of why they shelved the new category—the optics.
I spoke to one Academy voter who, while agreeing with the overall idea of a “blockbuster category”, did NOT like the idea of potentially putting Black Panther in one camp while other movies that make bank compete for Best Picture. In this year of all years, when black cinema is excelling, to create a “separate but equal” Oscars category? YIKES. There was no way it would look good if anything even resembling that scenario arose. There was immediate confusion about what would qualify a movie for a popular Oscar, but it seems like box office would have to be part of it. How else do you gauge a movie’s popularity, except by the receipts that show everyone went to see it? But if box office is a qualifier, how do you then determine the difference between “popular” films and just like… films? Unless you just straight-out admit it’s a genre thing and the popular Oscar becomes the home of superheroes, franchises, and rom-coms.
The popular Oscar was a bad idea and the Academy is right to walk it back, but we do still live under the threat of it happening beyond 2019. It’s still on the table pending “additional input regarding the new category”. So it’s not happening now, in the year of Black Panther, but it might still happen later. Let’s be honest, though. Would any of us be surprised if it just quietly went away?
Also, just because they sh*t-canned this one dumb idea, doesn’t mean they’ve rethought everything. They’re still going to cut the presentation of certain awards from the live telecast, and we all know that means the short films and below-the-line categories are still getting short shrift. The popular Oscar was a dumb idea, but limiting award presentations is a BAD idea. Taking the spotlight off the people who actually make movies so actors can continue to give rambling, shambolic speeches goes directly against the spirit of the Oscars, which are meant to honor the craft of filmmaking. Maybe consider putting a hard limit on the run time of actors’ speeches instead of banishing the actual craftspeople of cinema to the commercial break.