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How the Academy Fumbled the Push for Best Popular Film

President John Bailey and CEO Dawn Hudson haven't given up on the controversial category, which Bailey said is meant for "all kinds of films."

Kathleen Kennedy and Dawn Hudson.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors is a collection of three high-profile leaders from each of 17 branches, plus three more minority reps, president John Bailey, and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson. Put 54 voices in a room, and you’re bound to be herding cats.

Bailey is a 76-year-old cinematographer (“Ordinary People”) who is used to walking onto a set with authority, commanding his troops, and deferring to one person: the director. Getting an unwieldy group to come to a consensus proved a challenge. He pushed for the new Best Popular Film category that, he said, had nothing to do with Oscar-night ratings. He insisted on that point in a September 6 phone interview, the day the Academy announced it would postpone implementing the new category and continue trying to define what exactly it could be.

The best way to get this new category across would have been to define it from the get-go. Knowing what they were talking about would allow Academy members to debate its merits. With only speculation to draw on, this vague announcement went south, fast. Some suggested ABC and Marvel owner Disney orchestrated it to benefit “Black Panther.” Others accused the Academy of shunting the popular Ryan Coogler film into a lesser category.

Hudson and Bailey stepped back and waited out the storm until they figured out what they were doing. “We heard a lot from our members,” said Hudson. “A lot of them understood that the intention of the award was to honor excellence across a wider scope of filmmaking. That intention wasn’t clear in our announcement. I understand people began to speculate that it was something else. We wanted to go back. We want to make sure we get this right and achieve what we set out to achieve in the first place, which was to organically honor a wider spectrum of films.”

Academy governors Carol Littleton and Gregory Nava flank John Bailey in Telluride.

Pamela Gentile

At Labor Day Weekend’s Telluride Film Festival, where the Academy throws an annual party, Bailey, Hudson, Kimberly Peirce, Sid Ganis, Gregory Nava and other board members — as well as  former board-member Kathleen Kennedy, who will accept the Irving Thalberg award at the Governors Awards this November — engaged in many conversations about how to define Best Popular Film. They didn’t see a clear path to solving the divisive issue, and so it was no surprise that the board backed away from it in its September 5 meeting.

For his part, Bailey still likes this category, and sees no problem with it. But “the majority of the board made that decision,” he said, acknowledging the intense blowback. But mainly, said Bailey, “it was still not having defined a consensus point on what the terms were, the qualifications. Fifty-four governors, all of whom are high profile, involved in productions, it was hard to get a full amount of information regarding how the award might be defined or presented. The discussion and the narrative of the award kept shifting as well. It was a double moving entity and the board just felt it needed to be more clarified and defined.”

Bailey gets hot under the collar about the need to accept change for the Academy. “The concept of these awards is not an iconic ritual enacted year after year in the same way,” he said. “The history of the Academy and this award is a constantly moving entity, awards have been added and dropped, branches have been added and dropped. It’s a living entity, as is the entire concept of any art form, especially motion pictures, by virtue of being so technologically defined.”

He said the category was not necessarily meant to honor the studio blockbusters. “All kinds of films, for the last number of years, have fallen out of high visibility. For Academy consideration, so many small, wonderful films are not the films most audiences are going to see. There’s been a disconnect that has evolved in the way studios decided to make movies or not make movies. To focus on this new award as if it is somehow oriented primarily toward big-action films, it might be a part of it, but it’s about films that have not been recognized, not been seen by people. The last three Academy award-winners were not films large numbers of people were going to see, which is unfortunate. They should have been seen the same way by the same numbers of people that go to see ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Black Panther.'”

That said, all three of those winners — “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” and “The Shape of Water” — received huge boosts in attendance from winning Best Picture. That’s one of the major benefits of winning this icon of excellence.

Hudson and Bailey aren’t giving up on the Best Popular Film Oscar. “It isn’t the idea so much as they way they communicated it,” said one publicist. Many would agree, although there are many who do see it as a ratings grab at the expense of the Oscars’ primary goal: to celebrate the best in motion-picture achievement. Many are hoping the Popular Film award just goes away.

“We’ve had ongoing meetings and conversations with our members, studios, and filmmakers,” said Hudson. “And announcing this new award nine months into the awards year was more problematic for a lot of people. It posed more difficulties.”

One thing most Academy members agree on is pushing the 2020 date up to February 9, the earliest ever, and shortening the show to three hours, editing down many of the crafts acceptances taped live during the commercial breaks, rotating the ones who get to accept live each year. “The award season is so long, it’s fatiguing,” said Hudson.

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