Academy Creates More Problems Than It Solves With "Popular" Oscar

Matt Sayles/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

"I think change is needed," one new Academy member says, "but I’m not sure creating a new category and calling it 'popular' is exactly right."

And the Oscar goes to … Ryan Reynolds!

Reynolds’ 2016 Deadpool, which he both produced and acted in, was snubbed when it came to Oscar consideration even though it was a critical and commercial hit. But the star — who could certainly be counted on to give an entertaining acceptance speech — might have better luck this year with his Deadpool 2 because of changes to the Oscars, unveiled Wednesday, that include the addition of a new category: best popular film. In fact, the award would seem tailor-made for blockbusters hailing from the Star Wars, Marvel and DC universes — which, like last year’s critically acclaimed Wonder Woman, have been shut out of the big best picture race in recent years.

But in an effort to combat declining ratings for the annual ABC broadcast, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences appears to have opened up a Pandora’s box that raises more questions than the organization is currently prepared to answer. How will the Academy decide what criteria defines a "popular" film? Will it be a matter of box office or budget? Will there be a committee that will arbitrate any close calls? Will studios be able to lobby to argue for a film’s popularity, and, conversely, can they decline a “popular” designation if they decide they don’t want a given film like, say, Black Panther, relegated to what some might regard as the kids’ table?

The immediate reaction to the idea made it sound anything but popular.

“The film business passed away today with the announcement of the ‘popular’ film Oscar. It had been in poor health for a number of years. It is survived by sequels, tent-poles, and vertical integration,” tweeted Rob Lowe, who knows something about Oscar low points, having participated in the notorious “Snow White” production number at the 1989 Oscars.

Mitchell Block, a member of the documentary branch and a frequent Academy critic, posted on Facebook, “AMPAS cuts categories from the show, shortens the awards show and will give award to the ‘best’ popular film even if it is not the ‘best’ film. How Embarrassing.”

“I think change is needed,” one new Academy member told The Hollywood Reporter, “but I’m not sure creating a new category and calling it ‘popular’ is exactly right.”

Addressing some of the initial confusion — like exactly when the new award will make its debut — an Academy spokesperson quickly issued a follow-up statement, saying, “While the details for a popular film category are still being finalized, a single film is eligible for an Oscar in both categories — Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film and the Academy Award for Best Picture. The new category will be introduced this coming year, at the 91st Oscars. In creating this award, the Board of Governors supports broad-based consideration of excellence in all films.”

But the organization declined to address many of the other questions swirling around the new Oscar category.

If the Academy uses box-office results to help define popularity, how will that work? If there is a cutoff — say, the top 20 or 30 films make the cut — there will inevitability be a “popular” film in the 21st or 31st spot, knocking on the door. And will the measure be domestic or worldwide box office, since some films that appealed to the domestic market last year didn’t play well abroad? Get Out, for example, ranked 15th domestically, but 37th worldwide, while Girls Trip ranked 26th domestically, but 62nd worldwide.

And how to assess a movie whose popularity hasn’t quite been established by the time voting begins? Last year, for instance, The Greatest Showman opened Dec. 20 to just $8.8 million, ranking fourth for the weekend. By Jan. 1 — with Oscar nomination voting about to begin Jan. 5 — it had grossed just $54 million domestically. But the movie didn’t fade away and went on to gross $174 million domestically, ranking 18th domestically among 2017 releases and 21st worldwide with $435 million.

Once there is a list of qualifying popular movies, who will then vote for the nominees? All Academy members, as is the case with the best picture vote? And, having promised to recognize popular movies, if the nominees fail to include a film that lots of fans love, has the Academy only created another problem for itself?

There also is the question of whether animated features, which have their own category, will be able to compete for most popular movie. Last year, four of the top 20 films at the domestic box office were animated, led by Despicable Me 3, which failed to earn a best animated feature nomination, in ninth place with $265 million. 

Another question mark is how Netflix films will be treated considering that little is typically disclosed about how many people view any of the streaming service’s pics — making their popularity difficult to gauge, since those that have been released theatrically have received only very limited distribution.

And yet another open question: How many films will vie for the title — five like in the best director category, or up to 10 like in the current best picture race? 

However it ultimately plays out, the biggest beneficiary of the new category will likely be Disney, since it houses Lucasfilm, Marvel (Black Panther would seem a shoo-in for a nomination) and a successful live-action division under its corporate umbrella as well as ABC, the network that airs the Oscars. With the popular category, ABC will be able to promote films from its sibling studio, as well as stars from rival studio franchises — like Mission: Impossible – Fallout leading man Tom Cruise — who enjoy mass appeal but are not necessarily critical darlings.

Certainly, most Academy members that THR spoke to see the move as a ratings grab, one that could boost the broadcast’s recent poor performance. This past year, when The Shape of Water nabbed the best picture trophy, the telecast suffered its worst showing ever: 26.5 million viewers, a 19 percent drop from the previous year. Though Shape of Water ultimately grossed $195 million worldwide, a not inconsiderable figure for an arty genre movie, it still was considered more obscure than some of its fellow best picture nominees like Dunkirk and Get Out. And the commercial clout of the best picture winner the previous year, Moonlight, was even more limited since it collected just $65 million worldwide, a sizable number for a low-budget film, but not big enough to ensure that millions of its fans tuned in to the broadcast.  

Ironically, while the Academy’s new moves could give some added visibility to some already-quite-visible films, they could also hurt the smaller pics that depend on the Academy limelight to lure moviegoers to the multiplex.

By moving the ceremony to early February — the Academy has set Feb. 9 as the date for its 2020 broadcast  — from its traditional berth in late February, it is squeezing that time frame during which nominees can exploit their Oscar hopes.

Assuming the Academy doesn’t shift its time frame for announcing nominations, the length of time between nominations and the awards themselves could be as short as two weeks. Right now, there are typically five weeks between noms and the big show — and this past season, there were six, since the Oscars moved to March 4 so as to not conflict with the closing of the Winter Olympics.

In those crucial six weeks, Shape of Water collected 43 percent of its $63.9 domestic gross; I, Tonya made 48 percent of its $30 million; and Phantom Thread pulled in 67 percent of its $20.3 million. The results were similar for the five-week window between noms and wins in 2017: Moonlight picked up 23 percent of its $27.9 million; La La Land took in 40 percent of its $151 million; and nominee Lion claimed 51 percent of its $26.6 million. But a shorter window could mean less time to promote a film based on its nominations and thus a smaller final box-office tally.

Still, at least one specialty distributor head gave an OK to the shorter Oscar season: “It cuts down on costs,” he said. “I think the window was too long.”