The Academy Awards is something near and dear to my heart. I watch it every year, eagerly consuming articles, talk shows, and general awards buzz to help make my predictions for who will take home Hollywood’s most prestigious prize. It’s my Superbowl, and I love every second of it.
The Academy’s announcement Wednesday morning sent shockwaves through the film industry. On its official Twitter page, the Academy tweeted that it would be making some changes to its annual telecast, both in length and in the awards categories themselves. The gist is this: the program will premiere a few weeks earlier, it will be about three hours long, and a new category will be added to recognize “achievement in popular film.”
On the surface, this doesn’t sound so bad. I certainly see no problem in moving the premiere date up — the sooner the better! Let’s break down the rest of this announcement, though. The Academy Awards is notorious for its lengthy broadcast, beginning in the early evening and extending well into the night. The Academy’s solution to this is to take some of the “smaller” categories and award the winners during commercial breaks, which will be broadcast later on. Although no specific categories have been mentioned yet, it’s likely that many of the technical categories (sound, set design, costume design, etc.) will be the first ones booted from the main telecast.
I see the appeal from a viewership perspective. Most people tuning in — the general audience — likely only care about the “big” awards: your Best Pictures, Best Actors/Actresses, etc. There’s no doubt that these categories receive the most analysis and intrigue — including from myself — but with this decision, the Academy renders the achievements of those working in technical, below-the-line categories less meaningful.
Yes, the biggest parts of a film revolve around the directors, producers and actors, but what would the best films be without stunning cinematography, immersive set design or immaculate costumes? These people work around the clock, at the peak of their own ability, to help bring these films to life. For their work to be deemed unworthy of being announced alongside the more notorious categories at the Academy Awards is a vastly ignorant, unilateral decision to make.
Furthermore, I understand that the ratings of the telecast have dropped in recent years, with the 2018 awards the lowest yet. Like I said, though, this is my Superbowl. I would gladly watch a 10-hour telecast without complaint, especially if it meant that every deserving individual received their recognition.
The other troubling piece of this announcement is the introduction of a brand new category: “achievement in popular film.” For years, the Academy has been criticized for not recognizing films that make waves in pop culture — most notably, perhaps, is the exclusion of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” a decade earlier. The Academy has since expanded its Best Picture pool up to 10 potential nominees, but a big blockbuster superhero film still has yet to break through. Rather than examine their voting practices regarding the Best Picture category, the Academy has decided to sweep this issue under the rug entirely by offering a new category to place all these films in.
This is a colossal mistake. To address the most obvious concern, what is a popular film? Is it one that performs well at the box office? Is it one that performs well critically? How much money must it make to be considered a success? What kind of critical reception does it need? Will metrics like Rotten Tomatoes or the audience controlled Cinemascore play a role? Is cultural significance a factor?
The Academy will have to come out with some sort of criteria, but this is arguably the most qualitatively indescript category that has ever emerged. If it’s not being judged on its merits like other films in contention for Best Picture, then what is it really being judged on? If it does factor box office and critical performance into the equation, then by that logic, a “Fast & Furious” film could win an Oscar. I’m not trying to condemn those films, but I don’t think these franchises belong in the same telecast as films like “Moonlight.”
With this new category, it all but guarantees that a film like “Black Panther,” which passed $700,000,000 domestically and holds a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, will receive some recognition from the Academy. That’s great, but it will likely come at the behest of allowing a film like “Black Panther” to compete in the main categories. The same goes for virtually any other blockbuster film this year.
I don’t believe that “achievements in popular film” should be ignored, especially by the Academy, but this announcement feels like a consolation prize. Gold star for you! What also bothers me is that we’ve already seen the voting body take steps in the past to recognize these types of films in the bigger categories. Last year, James Mangold’s “Logan” was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, which isn’t exactly a small feat, and let’s not forget Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor win for “The Dark Knight,” the same year the film itself was snubbed from the Best Picture race.
Lastly, though, it further waters down the meaning of the Best Picture category. We already have Best Animated Film and Best Foreign Language Film in the mix (the former, especially, seems designed to allow Disney to win an Oscar every year). I understand the need to separate these types of films out, but at what point does a Best Picture contender distinguish itself from new categories like the one just announced?
That’s not to say there won’t be overlap among the categories — there has been overlap in the past, so I certainly hope there would be more at some point — but it’s hard to imagine the next “The Dark Knight” ever truly getting the recognition it deserves when a new category like this exists. It also opens the door for more categories to continue to divide up the race. Will “Best Drama” or “Best Comedy” be next? I certainly hope not.
It remains to be seen how these new changes will affect awards season moving forward, but today, I can’t see this as anything other than a mistake.