Graham: A clumsy, misguided strive for relevance from Oscar
Why the addition of a category honoring "popular film" is a blockheaded move by the Academy
One of the world's top movie stars steps to the microphone. A hush falls over the crowd. Anticipation swells. "And the consolation prize goes to..."
This could be the scene at next February’s Oscars, when the Academy hands out its first ever Oscar for “achievement in popular film,” a new category the Academy announced this week.
The collective barfing was resolute.
The Oscars, facing tumbling ratings and declining importance, have caved. The addition of an Oscar that specifically honors “popular film” represents a dumbing down of the awards and undermines the very purpose of the Oscars, which is to celebrate the year’s best achievements in film, no asterisks.
“Achievement in popular film” is a giant asterisk. It can only be seen as a runner-up trophy, the Miss Congeniality of the Oscars. And it creates more problems than it fixes.
First off, how does one define “popular?” If it’s simply taking the year’s highest-grossers — which at this point would be “Black Panther,” “The Avengers: Infinity War,” “Incredibles 2,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and “Deadpool 2” — does it crown the biggest earner of the bunch? Certainly being the year’s highest-grosser signifies the top “achievement in popular film,” no?
Or does it take smaller films, popular in their own field — the Mister Rogers documentary, a horror title like “A Quiet Place” — and pit them against each other? Then the Academy is forced to play a guessing game as to what the audience really wants for this Oscar, which is essentially a People’s Choice Award.
And there’s already a prize for achievement in popular film, it’s called box office, and people vote 365 days a year with their wallets. Like Don Draper barked to Peggy Olson on “Mad Men” when she felt like she wasn’t getting the credit she deserved, “that’s what the money is for!”
The Academy has created this problem itself, as the awards have fallen out of line with popular tastes.
Despite opening up the Best Picture field from five nominees to a potential 10, a move that was meant to tackle this exact “popular film” ordeal, the last nine years have produced five of the six least-grossing Best Picture winners of the modern box office era; only two Best Picture winners this decade, “The King’s Speech” and “Argo,” have grossed more than $100 million.
The show’s ratings have fallen off a cliff. This year’s ceremony, where “The Shape of Water” earned Best Picture honors, was the lowest-rated in Oscar history, down 39 percent from five years ago.
Something had to be done, and a special Oscar for the movies the masses actually like is the dumbest of all the options. And in trying to appeal to the people, the Academy comes off as snobbish — “here’s your Oscar, now run along” — the total opposite of its intent.
It’s not like the Oscars don’t honor “popular” films. “Dunkirk” and “Get Out” were both smashes last year, were both nominated for Best Picture, and were both winners on Oscar night. And with the Academy’s recent expansion of its voting base, more popular films are likely to be included in the mix next year anyway.
The reason any of this matters — more than, say, when the MTV Movie Awards up and became the MTV Movie & TV Awards — is because the Academy Awards remain the gold standard of the entertainment industry. More than the Emmys, Grammys or Tonys, the other major awards in the arts, Oscar is the shining beacon, and its telecast is the closest thing the entertainment world has to its own Super Bowl.
Other changes were announced for Academy Awards, too. Producers are vowing to bring the telecast in at a clean three hours, 49 minutes shorter than this year’s marathon, and will do so by handing out awards in technical categories during the commercial breaks.
(It’s a good start, and the show could be brought down to two hours if they hand out everything except the biggies in a pre-show telecast, like the Grammys do. It may be the one thing the Grammys do right.)
The Grammys also recently made some big changes to the way it does things, expanding the fields for its top categories from five nominees to eight, a move designed to be more inclusive in the hopes that inclusion leads to increased viewer interest.
Whether these moves signal more viewer friendly, populist broadcasts or are desperate grabs for life vests amid a rising tide of irrelevance remains to be seen.
The Oscars, however, already had a hero waiting in the wings. “Black Panther” just crossed the $700 million mark at the North American box office, only the third picture in history to do so. Audiences loved it and critics did too, with the film earning a 97 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Is that not Best Picture material? The Academy clarified on Thursday that the “popular” Oscar nominee would also be eligible for Best Picture. But if “Black Panther” wins the Joe Blow prize but isn’t seen as worthy of the night’s top trophy, it will open up a whole new debate about the meaning of Oscar.