Much of the outrage centered on the Academy’s decision to add a “Best Popular Film” category has focused on the obvious: Popular films win Oscars, too! However, I’m more offended by the implication that there could be a fixed definition for “popular film” at all.
One of the most exciting developments over the past decade, at least for those of us who whine about the poor quality of studio product, has been the influx of movies (and television, for that matter) challenging the notion that only dumb spectacles can reach audiences nationwide. Society may be getting dumber, but the art has wised up. “Get Out,” which grossed $255 million worldwide, wasn’t just a risky statement on race and class through genre tropes; it was a cultural phenomena. That sounds pretty popular to me.
As IndieWire’s Anne Thompson reported, the idea that injecting more blockbusters into the telecast would somehow lift the ratings misses the point. The Academy should have targeted lengthy montages, political grandstanding, and all that song-and-dance, which could be addressed with any number of programming changes. (Well, maybe not the politics, unless you get Roseanne to host.) However, the categorical distinction between “popular film” and everything else is more problematic for what it says about the movies that fall beyond the reaches of the “popular film” category.
We now know that the Academy faced pressure from ABC to add a Best Blockbuster award; that crass label would make for worse optics, but at least most moviegoers know the parameters of a blockbuster. To me, the notion of a “popular” achievement sounds like academic jargon; it’s a categorical distinction used to differentiate between an essay in a peer-reviewed journal and a magazine article in Time. In that context, it makes sense; for the Oscars, it misses the point.
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These days, the very idea of popularity has shifted: Culture has become more about narrowcasting as a means of finding success, and a movie that might have been relegated to the margins suddenly has the chance to find a passionate audience that forms its robust base; from there, it can actually claw its way to the mainstream. “Moonlight” pulled it off — an expressionistic movie about a queer black kid became the toast of Hollywood and generated waves around the country. So did “The Shape of Water,” that peculiar fish-sex fantasy from a revered auteur who makes commercial work largely because his very brand has become commercial on his own terms.
And consider the way “Sorry to Bother You,” a surreal and completely singular look at race and capitalism, has become one of the most talked-about movies of the summer. We live in weird, zany times, so people are talking about movies that hit the zeitgeist. That’s quite a popular achievement, no matter how much its box office receipts have been dwarfed by “Mission Impossible.”
Culture always has the potential to rise up and gain recognition from the masses. There’s something thrilling about the potential for a film-festival discovery or a young filmmaking talent to pierce the upper echelons of the mainstream. In the past decade, the Oscars have rewarded independent films in part because the studios weren’t producing the kinds of movies that win Oscars. But that disconnect provided a necessary reminder that standards do exist, and if they’re best obtained outside the studio system, it either needs to catch up or leave the game. Now, the Academy has made it easier for studios to game the Oscars. That’s an insult to anyone who values good movies. More than that, it works against the possibility that marginalized perspectives can actually become mainstream.
Cinema doesn’t need the Oscars to survive as an art form, and around the world, the metrics for popularity vary wildly. But if the Academy loses touch with the celebration of standards that defines its brand, it will become unpopular with the very same people whose work legitimized it.