There's a new reason to tune in to the 91st Oscars on Feb. 24. In a major break with tradition, the Academy will not only introduce a new Oscar — the first since the best animated feature award 17 years ago — but it is putting out the welcome mat for big commercial, fan-friendly movies that haven't been considered typical Oscar fare. On Aug. 7, the Academy's board of governors approved the creation of an award for "outstanding achievement in popular film." It was immediately dubbed the "Popcorn Oscar" by its critics; making things worse, the Academy hasn't yet settled on what criteria to use to determine eligibility for the prize.
A few industry notables applauded. "I think it's great," Jason Blum, who scored a best picture nom for Get Out, says. "They have to shake up the show. What the Academy does is help us as producers make more commercially challenging movies. In order to do that, the Academy Awards has to make people want to watch it." Adds Peter Berg, who has directed hits like Lone Survivor, "There are a lot of movies being made that impact people in different ways, and a movie like Black Panther — maybe it gets nominated, maybe it doesn't — deserves recognition for how popular it is and how much people loved it." Others adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Says Tim Robbins, an Oscar winner for Mystic River: "I don't know what 'popular' means. They haven't defined it yet, so it's an ambiguous thing." Meanwhile on Twitter, the news attracted a resounding thumbs-down. Adam McKay, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Big Short, even suggested other new Oscar categories, like "best movie where shit blowed up good."
Many regard the move as simply a ratings grab. March's show attracted just 26.5 million viewers, down nearly 20 percent from the previous year. And so when ABC executives met with Academy officials for their annual postmortem, they said, according to one source, "Your house is on fire — what are you going to do about it?" Amid growing concern — ABC, which has domestic broadcast rights to the show through 2020, pays more than $90 million annually — Academy members, who for several years had been discussing opening up the awards by creating some sort of new category, suddenly found that the idea had momentum.
The Academy had earlier tried to expand the playing field by allowing 10 nominees in the best picture category in 2009 (amended to the current five-to-10 formula two years later), but that became "a failed experiment," says one governor, as smaller, specialty films crowded in to take the available noms. In the process, some Academy insiders worried, the concept of what constituted a winning "Oscar movie" had become too narrow. Studios, which had once turned out critical and commercial hits like The Godfather and The French Connection that went on to Oscar glory, had mostly gotten out of the Oscar business. And, says the board member, "that's really unfortunate for the state of our business." Indie and specialty distributors stepped into the void, promoting low-budget movies that could be aimed at specific constituencies within the Academy. While a big action movie like 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road could rack up nominations (it collected 10) and win technical awards (it took home six), it was never a serious contender for best picture laurels, despite a nomination in that category, because in the eyes of many Academy members it lacked the requisite seriousness. "It was stuck at the kiddie table, even though it was a great movie," the board member concludes.
While Academy president John Bailey and CEO Dawn Hudson declined to discuss the new award, former Academy president Sid Ganis, who returned to the board this year and was elected vp, acknowledges the ratings concerns but says: "We have to change because we have to stay relevant." He argues that inventing a new award is akin to other initiatives — like the push to diversify the Academy's membership — that have been remaking the organization. "Best picture will always remain best picture," he adds, "but now there will be another interesting new category, representing another layer of filmdom. More than anything, the absolute integrity of this Academy and the brand is on our minds."
Adds screenwriter Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood), another Academy vp who strongly endorses the proposed new trophy: "People are a little freaked out by the idea of a popular Oscar, but the board came to the conclusion that certain films were not being recognized on the show anymore. When I was growing up in the '70s, you had Star Wars nominated against Annie Hall, Love Story against Five Easy Pieces. But at a certain point, the Oscars were drifting into becoming the Independent Spirit Awards — which are totally fine, I've been on that jury many times — but the Oscars are their own thing.
"I think there is enough room at the table for all kinds of films, he adds. "The important thing is that we're not just looking to celebrate popular films. We want to celebrate excellence in popular films."
But even if the Academy broadens its purview, skeptics still wonder whether the possibility of, say, an Avengers: Infinity War nom will lure millennials back to the broadcast. Since 2000, while Oscar viewership has fallen 36 percent, the audience for the Emmys has tumbled an even steeper 48 percent. And the drift away from the show may not just be generational. Another Academy insider theorizes that it could also be symptomatic of a blue state/red state divide, with many of the current Oscar picks playing to the coastal elites. He points to the 2010 telecast, when the heartland hit The Blind Side was in the mix. Viewership rose to 41.6 million, although there was also another factor at play: the blockbuster hit Avatar, even if, ultimately, both Avatar and The Blind Side lost to The Hurt Locker.
Whether or not creating a popular Oscar can reverse the downward ratings trend of recent years, Academy officials, who still have to define the new category's eligibility requirements and voting procedures, are resigned to facing lots of criticism — at least until the envelope announcing the inaugural winner of the new honor is opened. "If it works," says Ganis, "the proof is in the pudding."
A version of this story first appeared in the August 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.