Well, as the kids say these days, that escalated quickly.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its decision to add an award for best popular film on Wednesday, the predictable howls went up throughout the Film Twitterverse. The best hot take might have come from Rob Lowe, who called the new category “the worst idea the Academy has had since they asked me to sing with Snow White.”
The outrage was quickly matched by skepticism, with observers noting that the idea emanated from Disney-ABC Television Group — the company that is contracted to broadcast the Oscars through 2028 and, coincidentally, includes the company that produces the Marvel, “Star Wars” and Pixar movies, all of which stand to gain the most from the change. As reported in Variety, the new category — along with an earlier date and shorter running time of the telecast — was proposed to the academy shortly after this year’s awards show, which clocked in at three hours-plus and suffered a 19 percent dip in viewership compared with 2017. The numbers were particularly dismal when it came to young viewers, who stayed away in droves.
Heaven forfend that ABC should re-examine the writing and production values of a telecast that is notoriously bloated, forced and un-fun to watch. On a deeper level, the company’s concern over the steady decline in audience and the academy’s chronic search for relevance are just the most graphic examples of the fundamental contradiction that has always animated cinema, which is simultaneously — and uniquely — an art form, an industrial practice and a commercial enterprise.
It’s the first two that the academy recognizes in its awards for artistic and technical merit; perhaps the organization should now be called the Academy for Motion Picture Arts, Sciences and Entertainment. This might be the logical, if regrettable, outcome of what happens when you take a relatively intimate, inside-industry event and televise it to the masses, who might jeer at what they consider an elitist ritual of self-congratulation, but are nonetheless eager to have their own tastes ratified by the very elites they’re reviling.
The new category also reflects a misunderstanding of how the Oscars have become a business model unto themself, creating their own brand of blockbusters that become audience-friendly hits because of added awareness that accrues throughout splashy awards season events. It’s the Academy Awards themselves — along with the myriad awards programs that lead up to the big night — that popularize films that otherwise might get lost in an increasingly crowded shuffle.
“The King’s Speech” had made a little over $61 million when Academy Awards nominations were announced in January 2011; the best picture winner went on to earn more than $414 million worldwide, most of that earned in foreign markets after the Oscars. “Slumdog Millionaire” was a similar success story, earning more than $375 million thanks to its awards-season Cinderella story. Even if you lose you stand to win: “The Imitation Game,” which was nominated for eight Oscars and won one, made more than $200 million in the U.S. and foreign markets. And these films were all much more profitable than the typical Hollywood blockbuster, having been made for a pittance compared with the lavish budgets of special-effects spectacles and comic book movies.
The academy declined to get into specifics about how it will define a “popular movie” as opposed to, say, an unpopular one. But a chicken-and-egg problem is already apparent: Exactly how, and at what point in a film’s release schedule, will the academy decide how to slice and dice its qualifications? “The King’s Speech” might not have qualified as popular before it was nominated, but it sure became popular afterward.
And, if they’re as eager as they seem to be to pander to public opinion, hike ratings and increase viewer engagement, why not go all the way and institute a real-time voting procedure allowing the audience to weigh in?
The devil will surely be in the details. For now, in caving so cravenly to Disney-ABC’s corporate interests, by so uncritically accepting the false binary between aesthetic sophistication and rousingly effective entertainment, the academy has consigned whoever wins best popular movie to a special hell: Their achievement will always have an asterisk attached. And they’ll know that, in a cynically conceived tug-of-war between art and commerce, even when they won they lost.