Why the Oscars’ New Popular Film Category Is Problematic

On August 8, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science announced plans to add a new category to its roster of awards. It will be called “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film,” and it is a patently terrible idea.

The addition of an award for so-called Popular Film distracts from the Academy’s penchant for privileging pictures by and about white guys. It’s the award-show equivalent of a slimy CEO who supports the Republican Party but starts a charity that buys bikes for the kids of his underpaid employees. Basically, it’s a pathetic attempt to make amends for decades of snubs to the films we love. I’m sorry, but it’s never going to make up for Wonder Woman not being nominated for Best Picture.

We’ve prepared a list of every damn problem with the new Popular Film category.

What Even Counts As Popular Cinema?

Currently, the Popular Film category is a vague abstraction. We know it’s coming, but we don’t know what the Academy will consider “popular.” Will it be determined by the film’s budget? By Box Office returns? By genre? By some snobbish panel of rarified judges who claim to know the difference between “art cinema” and flicks for the unwashed plebs like us? Will the Academy employ some nebulous formula put together by the same PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants they use to count ballots?

The word “popular” is an inherently subjective one, making this category difficult to pin down. It’s doubtful they’ll come up with a universally acceptable definition.

It’s Basically a Consolation Prize

Let’s face it, this category was probably devised as a consolation prize to appease angry film fans. Over the past decade, the Oscars telecast has suffered from anemic ratings. Creating a prize for movies we “normies” enjoy is a condescending attempt to attract viewers.

Last year, when the fantastic Wonder Woman failed to receive a Best Picture nomination, there was uproar. The first proudly feminist superhero movie had a solid pedigree. Directed by Patty Jenkins, who also made the critically acclaimed film Monster, it boasted engaging performances by Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Robyn Wright.

The Academy’s failure to recognize such a groundbreaking work of cinema was upsetting to critics and laypeople alike. But the solution is not to give overlooked films like Wonder Woman some sort of cheap consolation prize. Just like how the members of your childhood soccer team knew winning a “participation trophy” was meaningless, a second-class Oscar will feel like an insult to hardworking filmmakers.

Popular Cinema Already Gets Nominated If It’s By or About White Guys

The issue is not that the Academy’s tastes are too lofty to appreciate movies with big budgets and/or big Box Office returns. The Oscars have a long history of nominating popular tent-pole movies, as long as they are by/about white guys. Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of films that were bananas popular with audiences, all of which secured Best Picture nominations (some of which won the prize itself: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Star Wars: A New Hope, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, Inception, American Sniper, The Martian, and Dunkirk.

The Academy has no problem appreciating that white men’s stories can be popular and have artistic merit. Sure, there may be the odd snub–like last year’s Logan–but overall, well-made movies by white men have no problem getting considered even when they’re blockbusters. The problem isn’t popular cinema in general getting neglected by the Oscars; it’s that a certain kind of popular cinema is.

It Creates a Problematic Film Hierarchy

When debates about modernizing the Oscars arise, there is a chorus of cynics that invariably asks the same question, “But do the Academy Awards even matter?” The answer is yes, yes they do! First off, people in the film industry DREAM of having that sort of public recognition for their work. And when they get it, that social capital helps filmmakers get funding for more movies. That is why Damien Chazelle will work forever after winning Best Director for La La Land at thirty-two.

Not only do the Oscars help talented people progress their careers but the awards are also a de facto film curator. People who aren’t super into film but want to be culturally literate turn to them for guidance. For many North Americans, reading the list of nominees/winners is a way of figuring out which films to watch in their limited free time. That’s why Oscar nominees and winners get an “Oscar Bump” at the box office. Best Picture awards and nominations are symbols that announce to the world, “These films are not a flash in the pan like the latest Iron Man! They are future classics! They should be taught in film school and added to the canon!”

But when you categorize some movies as worthy of Best Picture consideration, while others are “popular” fare, the subtext is that the latter group is fun but unimportant. This delegitimizes them and suggests audiences do not need to consume that work to stay up to date with the culture.

Simply put, the Academy Awards matter, and they just created an internal hierarchy that will arbitrarily classify some movies as “art” and others as “not art.” Would Get Out, a horror movie that made a killing in theatres, have received its historic Best Picture nomination if the Popular Film category had been around in 2018? Perhaps not, and that is a problem.

We Need a New Academy, Not a New Category

The reason movies like Wonder Woman do not get their due is because the Academy is disproportionately white and male. In recent years, it has attempted to diversify by admitting members from more diverse backgrounds. This is probably how Lady Bird and Get Out were able to eke out recognition from the 2018 Oscars.

Now they’re basically doing a 180, setting themselves back by decades. They have effectively given their less progressive voters the permission to ignore movies like Black Panther in the real Best Picture category.

Let us not encourage Academy voters to keep rewarding boring films about white guys, like Birdman.

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