Earlier this month, it was announced that the Academy Awards would adopt a Best Popular Film category in order to better represent Hollywood blockbusters. The decision was swiftly met with widespread criticism and endless question marks. What excludes a “popular film” from being a Best Picture contender? Aren’t the dozens of other mainstream awards shows already designed to celebrate box office behemoths? If the Oscars are now showering prestige on the biggest films Hollywood has to offer, doesn’t that dilute the importance of smaller films that typically drive the ceremony?
The truth is that the powers involved aren’t as interested in representing blockbusters as they are in juicing the show’s declining ratings. This year’s Oscars telecast was the lowest-rated in history, a fact that has made the Academy take a magnifying glass to their proceedings (self-preservation is a very powerful motivator). But as it turns out, the Disney-owned ABC Television Group, which is set to air the Oscars for the next decade, was the entity pushing the Academy to create the new award, according to Variety. You know, the same conglomerate that routinely dominates the box office with Marvel movies, Star Wars adventures and Pixar hits and will be the network most affected by Oscars viewership.
Ain’t that something?
As far as backroom deals go, this was a fairly transparent one. And Disney doesn’t appear willing to stand by it in the face of overwhelmingly negative responses.
The Mouse House has now hired veteran Oscar strategist Cynthia Swartz to conjure up a Best Picture campaign for Black Panther, according to the Los Angeles Times. The studio is reportedly determined to get the movie into the more prestigious mix rather than push it for Best Popular Film. The quality of Black Panther, which has earned $1.3 billion worldwide and $700 million domestically, is not the issue here (it’s great, easily Marvel’s most sophisticated movie). The issue is Disney strong-arming the Academy into creating a controversial award that celebrates blockbusters to suit its own business needs, then eschewing the category following public backlash. That’s not to say Disney-Marvel won’t push something like Avengers: Infinity War in the new race, but the message is clear.
In the last two decades, the top-grossing domestic film has gone on to win Best Picture just once (The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, 2003). Prior to then, it happened more than 25 percent of the time, according to IndieWire. Yes, the slipping ratings are a concern, but we’ve seen the Academy implement sweeping change before only to be met with unintended consequences.
Following the uproar over The Dark Knight‘s snubbing, the Academy opened up the field to as many as ten films as opposed to the traditional five. This was meant to capture more commercial hits. While some biggies such as Inception and Avatar made the cut, the rule change largely induced the opposite effect. More and more, smaller films that connected with critics and industry insiders began to sneak into the race. This decade’s winners include smaller potatoes such as The Hurt Locker, The Artist, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, Moonlight and The Shape of Water.
There are some obvious drawbacks to the Best Popular Film category, and likely other consequences we have yet to discover, but such is the nature of major change. Given the upheaval surrounding the new award, though, Disney could at least stick around to babysit the monster it has helped create. Instead, it’s off pursuing the old guard’s barometer of success.
Oh well, here’s to the 2025 Oscars in which Avengers: Nursing Home goes head-to-head with Star Wars: Episode 14—Revenge of the Geriatrics for every single award.