Two days ago, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences dropped a bombshell. Oscarologists, Academy voters and moviegoers at large were stunned to learn about new forthcoming changes to the Oscar ceremony in response to its telecast’s declining ratings. One such amendment is the addition of a new category exclusively honoring “popular film.” This knee-jerk reaction stems from the Academy board’s assumption that not enough people are tuning in because the films honored don’t cater to their taste.
To make matters worse, ABC – the network that broadcasts the Oscars – is owned by Disney, a company whose films haven’t received a “Best Picture” nomination since M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” in 2000 (not counting their DreamWorks releases from Steven Spielberg). The studio annually dominates the box office yet their films continually go unnoticed in the most competitive field. Even with the 2010 expansion of films eligible for “Best Picture,” movies that corralled worldwide affection like 2013’s “Frozen” couldn’t make the steep grade. Thus, this Academy shakeup of rewarding such “overlooked” tentpole movies will no doubt benefit its broadcasting network’s parent company when it comes to exposure via recognition.
The optics are less than ideal when noting all the participants of this decision and their overarching studio ties. The Oscars are about celebrating cinema, but this rash and ignorant move to “improve” the show only heightens the feeling that elitism is the root of fading interest. Most regrettably, it cheapens the value of genre movies by relegating them to a ghetto of consolation prize-winning. That the most successful blockbuster of 2018 also happened to be the film with the biggest Oscar buzz before this abhorrent revision was unleashed adds insult to injury. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” garnered rave reviews before it made billions for Disney and became the most financially “popular” film of U.S. domestic release.
Instead of riding that train of excitement of becoming the first superhero movie to earn a “Best Picture” nomination, the Academy takes the conversation away from “Black Panther’s” groundbreaking content and instead fixates on its income. The unfortunate consequence of such action ignores an achievement on all fronts – for race, for an overlooked genre finally breaking through, for its craftsmanship, for the way it’s bridged discourse and respect among cinephiles and casual moviegoers – and minimizes it by essentially segregating it from the main competition in order to appease a vocal bottom-feeder fandom that pays no mind to a movie’s artistic value, let alone the Oscars.
If the Academy invitation doors remained permanently closed off to artists of different backgrounds and age groups, I could see why this could be a last resort. However, considering the diverse influx of new members, this is never going to happen. Varying tastes of what is deemed “popular” have already peaked through with movies like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Get Out” getting their prestigious time in the awards spotlight. The former won the most Academy Awards its respective year, while “Get Out” became the first “Best Original Screenplay” winner from an African-American writer (Jordan Peele). Heck, has the Academy forgotten that “Best Picture” champions “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” are tied with the most wins ever with over $2 billion in combined earnings? Are those movies now retroactively considered “unpopular”?
What’s important is that the term “popular” not be solely synonymous with franchises, sequels, reboots, remakes or superhero flicks. Whether some like it or not, the film that wins cinema’s most coveted trophy does so by achieving consensus. Whether it’s from a small pool of artists or an online community of cinema know-it-all’s, there will always be one movie that rises above the rest because it angers the least. What matters is that a diverse roster of films are selected to be in the running, their recognition often boosting underrepresented stories or artistic perspectives. By saying “popular films” aren’t deserving of such assessment, their entire worth instantly becomes monetary. As someone whose top three favorite films of the year so far include “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” it’s vexing to believe that the only way to honor them is by applauding their global consumer supremacy. The Russo Brothers and Ryan Coogler would become cogs of their studio factory, their indelible handiwork completely ignored.
Genre films matter because they have a pulse on the state of contemporary movie-going. However, that pulse isn’t solely dictated by a consumer-studio relationship predicated by soulless transaction. The communal love shared en masse by certain films and the consequential reactions to said movies are what make genre films so integral to the arts. What the Academy is attempting would nullify the significance of embracing movies that hit the zeitgeist. Instead, they would be viewed with scorn, pity and become the ironic second-class that the white male majority within the Academy already unofficially view them as. The division between the popcorn and arthouse crowds would widen and turn the Academy Awards into a less relevant judge of annual cinema than it was previously.
Genre films exist so that unlimited fantastical possibilities can play out. They provide a sacred space for wonder, imagination, technological marvel, characters growing behind their two-hour confinement, and most importantly resonate on a universal human level. “Star Wars” has been the most popular franchise of the past few decades because of its prevailing sense of hope in the face of overwhelming adversity. It’s a universe that sees the ordinary and extraordinary working together to defeat evil; if only our own reality could emulate such heroism.
Unfortunately, too often genre movie sentiment is hijacked by a truly vicious and deplorable lot obsessed with straight white males remaining in charge of the narrative. Varying ideologies, perspectives or updated versions of past material to more honestly reflect the times are instantly met with their rancor. Instead of taking a firmer stance against such intolerance, studios often compromise or cave in to demands they see as resounding when in actuality it could be a hack-job designed to create the illusion of public disdain. With this recent turn of events, the Academy has tipped their hand by showing how they truly feel about genre movies. “Birdman’s” victory was a foreshadowing of this misplaced hatred of genre fare, and this new categorization enforcement sends a loud and clear (and reductive) message: “popular” genre movies are too commonly cherished to be considered high art. “Best Picture” is for the elites with a narrow view of excellence. Folks, the country club has reopened its doors.