Why Oscar’s Best Popular Film is so Unpopular
Academy members and cinephiles alike were taken aback on August 8, 2018 when it was announced that the Oscars would introduce a new category for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. If you go on social media, you’ll find that this decision has proven to be anything but popular. Many people feel that this new category devalues everything Oscar stands for and does a disservice to the audience favorites that frequently go overlooked by the Academy. While a movie can still compete for both Best Picture and Best Popular Film, the latter award admittedly sounds like a consolation prize. It’s also been argued that this is a shameless ploy to attract more viewers after the 90thAcademy Awards had the lowest ratings in Oscar history. 26.5 million U.S. viewers may sound like enough to satisfy ABC, but these numbers pale in comparison to the year “Titanic” won, drawing in 57.25 million viewers.
That being said, there was a time when Best Picture winners went hand in hand with big box office. In recent years, however, numerous Best Picture winners have failed to gross more than $100 million at the domestic box office. It’s often said that the Academy is out of touch with mainstream audiences and nowhere was this more apparent than in 2008 when “The Dark Knight” was deprived of a Best Picture nomination. Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman was so much more than a blockbuster. It refined what a superhero movie could be, having a profound impact on Hollywood in more ways than one. The passion people have for this movie remains so strong that it was rereleased into IMAX cinemas this year for its 10thanniversary. Is anybody talking about “The Reader” a decade later, though?
The backlash against “The Dark Knight” snub was so great that it factored into the Academy’s decision to expand the Best Picture race to ten candidates. It appeared this might make leeway for more audience favorites to break through and – at first – it did. In 2009, “Avatar,” “District 9,” “The Blind Side,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and “Up” all made the cut. The category wasn’t solely comprised of blockbusters, however, balancing out with under-the-radar treasures like “An Education,” “Precious,” “A Serious Man,” “Up in the Air,” and eventual winner “The Hurt Locker.” As the years went on, though, the Academy seemed to lean more towards traditional Oscar fair as opposed to box office favorites.
Granted, nobody was complaining that the Academy left out films like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” or “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” What about “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” “Skyfall,” and the long list of MCU movies, though? These films were not only huge money-makers, but also received universal critical acclaim and left an impact on cinema that’s felt even to this day. Meanwhile, certain Best Picture nominees, like “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” have been widely forgotten.
Every year, we look to the Academy to single out the very best in film and decipher what’ll be timeless. Seeing how we live in a world where “Out of Africa” won Best Picture and “Back to the Future” wasn’t even nominated, it’s clear that the Academy doesn’t always get it right. Of course, it’s not like audiences always get it right either. For every blockbuster that deserves to be taken seriously, there’s one that has no right even being in the conversation. One of the biggest fears people have regarding “Best Popular Film” is that the Oscars will essentially become another audience choice award show. Considering that “Maleficent” won the People’s Choice Award in 2015 and “Twilight” dominated the MTV Movie Awards four years in a row, there’s definitely a reason to be concerned.
Part of what makes “Best Popular Film” so frustrating is that it’s not even clear what “popular” means. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” had a lot of hype leading up to its release, but ultimately underperformed at the box office. So… does it count as a popular film? On top of that, “Fifty Shades Freed” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” were box office hits, but imagine if those films were nominated for Oscars while overlooked gems like “Blindspotting,” “Leave No Trace,” and “First Reformed” were shut out entirely. The Academy has shined a light on numerous masterpieces that likely wouldn’t have gotten any mainstream attention otherwise. To say that Oscar voters are completely lacking in taste is grossing inaccurate. However, there does seem to be a mentality in the Academy that box office is its own reward and that the Oscars should only single out films people haven’t necessarily seen. When it comes to Best Picture, though, should it really matter whether a film is popular or not?
2018 has brought us several hit films that are more than worthy of a Best Picture nomination, including “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.” Due to genre bias, these movies stand little chance of breaking through, especially since they were released earlier in the year. Of course, that would make it all the more impressive if any of them actually did overcome the odds. Crazier things have happened in the past. “Mad Max: Fury Road” certainly wasn’t a conventional Oscar movie, but it scored ten nominations, including Best Picture. The Academy has shunned fantasy movies in the past, but that didn’t stop “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” from sweeping.
With the “Best Popular Film” category, voters may be less inclined to expand their horizon. The same thing seemed to happen with the introduction of Best Animated Feature in 2001. “Beauty and the Beast” was the only movie of its kind to receive a Best Picture nomination, but this category opened the floodgate for more animated films to be recognized. At the same time, however, acclaimed films like “Shrek,” “Finding Nemo,” and “The Incredibles” seemed to have less of a chance at getting into the Best Picture lineup. When the Academy expanded their top prize to ten nominees, they did throw “Up” and “Toy Story 3” a bone. Since then, though, animated films like “Inside Out,” “Frozen,” and “Zootopia” have been shunned from Best Picture, despite appearing on various Top 10 lists.
Animation isn’t the only genre that’s frequently overlooked by the Academy. A documentary has never been nominated for Best Picture and foreign-language films are rarely nominated, which is perhaps why they both have their own category. “Best Popular Film” feels like it would give the Academy permission to never again nominate anything outside of the norm. If the Academy introduces a Best Popular Film category, should we just change the Best Picture title to Best Unpopular Film? Well, either that or Best Live-Action Drama That Was Released in The Last Three Mouths of the Year.
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