The Academy Board of Governors didn’t think things would go this way. They may have expected some backlash to their radical changes in the Oscar show for this year and next. (People eventually got used to the Animation category, after all.) But in their attempts to placate a demanding ABC, which airs the Oscar show — and is paying the Academy some $75 million a year for the rights to do so until 2028 — the Board blundered into a public relations disaster.
When the 54-member Board voted to add the “Best Popular Film” category in time for the 2019 Oscar show, they failed to consider Disney/Marvel’s $700-million worldwide blockbuster “Black Panther,” which has a good shot at racking up enough Oscar nominations (among them Best Costume, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Directing, Writing, and Supporting Actor and Actress) to have a real shot at a Best Picture nomination.
Not any more. It didn’t take people long to suggest that Disney owns ABC, and that Disney owns Marvel, and that Disney wanted to create a category to reward its Marvel films with Oscars.
It truly is something that in the year Black Panther, a movie made just about entirely by and with black people, grosses $700 million, the Academy’s reaction is, “We need to invent something separate…but equal.”
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) August 8, 2018
Clearly, the Academy did not predict or imagine that this charge could be leveled at them, or that people would think that the Academy would assume that “Black Panther” had no chance at a Best Picture Oscar and therefore would give it a chance to compete in this separate category instead.
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Academy governor Kimberly Peirce, who reps the Directors branch, said the Academy has been deliberately focused on how to improve the show for a long time, and brought these changes to the Board, which took them under serious consideration. “We live in a constantly changing media landscape,” she said. “I am working with my colleagues at the Academy exploring the future of film and television content and the way it is distributed and viewed. I want people to love and enjoy movies in all forms, and I see the value in the transformative and electrifying experience of seeing movies in a theater.”
She seemed to imply that the Board knew what it was getting into here. “My colleagues on the Academy Board are hardworking and knowledgeable filmmakers,” she said. “They’re passionately working towards protecting and continuing the theatrical tradition as well as looking towards the future of film and TV and our awards show.”
Nevertheless, no one knows yet how this category will work, because the Academy did not spell it out. Speculation is rampant: Will there be a special committee? Will the whole Academy nominate, as they do for Best Picture? Is there a budget or wide-release cut-off? If “La La Land” made $100-million, is it a popular film?
One Oscar campaigner went so far as to suggest that the Academy threw out this trial balloon to show ABC how stupid it was. That is not true. But more than one person has suggested that the Oscars still have time to pull this bad idea back.
Here’s what is true: ABC asked the Academy to change the show in order to improve its historically low ratings, especially with younger viewers. ABC wanted a category for popular films — more specifically, the network reportedly asked for Best Blockbuster. And, ABC wanted a shorter show.
Of course, various Academy branches are freaking out about winding up in the section of the three-hour show shot live during commercial breaks and then edited down. What will make the cut on the show, costumes? Do we still get to see cinematographer Roger Deakins accept his historic Oscar? Animation? Foreign Language? Documentary Feature? Likely the three shorts categories will wind up in the hole, with long sections edited down including unknown sound mixers, editors and makeup artists. We will all know who won — it just won’t take as long.
I have to admit that this change bothers me less — a three-hour show in today’s rapid-fire day and age makes sense — than the Best Popular Film category, which like the expansion in 2009 from five Best Picture contenders to up to 10 nominees, will not accomplish the stated goal: improve ratings by getting more people to watch the show.
Following the laws of unintended consequences, since the Best Picture change, the Oscars have tended to make room for more “little” films, like recent Oscar-winners “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight” and “Spotlight.” (Notable exceptions include “American Sniper,” “Braveheart,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Life of Pi,” “Avatar” and “The Martian.”) The more blockbusters, the thinking goes, the better the viewership.
Clearly, Academy and industry insiders are more negative about these changes than the general public. Judging from their comments on various trade sites, Oscar-watchers don’t mind these changes as much as the Oscarcast’s penchant for montages, musical numbers and liberal politics. However, there were plenty of ways for the Oscars to celebrate and showcase the most popular films of 2018 without creating a special award category for them.
Despite ABC and the Academy’s desire to restore a prior grandeur to the Oscar show, the Oscars now reflect a much narrower slice of the culture. My recent poll of USC film school grad students revealed little interest in the Oscars — or in two-hour movies, for that matter. They were focused, like everyone else, on television and Netflix. How long has it been since Hollywood movies were part of a national cultural conversation? At least our last president watched and talked about them.
If the Hollywood studios diversified their slates to include more smart well-made mainstream risk-takers like the ones above, then there would be more commercial entertainments in the Oscar race. Most quality films aimed at discerning adults are lower-budget films from the three surviving specialty specialty divisions and independents like A24. They tend to play fewer theaters, and also benefit tremendously from Oscar attention.
The Oscars are still relevant — but to a smaller world of ardent cinephiles. Ratings-wise, 26.6 million may be lower than any other Oscar show and down 39 percent since the peak 2014, but it’s still an amazing number.
In any case, if the Oscars proceed with the Popular Films option, on nominations morning we will presumably see titles that are also racking up a bunch of technical awards (as genre films tend to do) in this category: Disney’s “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” Paramount’s “A Quiet Place” and “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” Universal’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” and Disney/Pixar’s “Incredibles 2,” which is also the frontrunner in the animation race.
“Black Panther,” for various reasons, rises above the usual genre fray with more gravitas and high-end execution than most superhero movies. It could have wound up shut out like “Wonder Woman,” but it wouldn’t have. Even if the Academy eventually made clear that the film is eligible for both Best Picture and Best Popular Film, that’s a clarification it should have made from the start — leaving the rules vague was a public relations blunder, leaving tout Hollywood scratching its head.