Academy President John Bailey on How the Popular Oscar Got Shelved

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John Bailey

The proposed new Academy Award met resistance and ultimately was tabled by the organization's board of governors.

John Bailey, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, went into a special Wednesday morning meeting of the board of governors ready to argue the case for launching a new Oscar this year that would recognize “outstanding achievement in popular film.” But, by the time the event ended, a majority of the 54 members voted to table the award — at least for this awards season and the upcoming Oscars show set for Feb. 24.

When the Academy first announced the creation of a popular award last month, without having settled on the criteria that would determine exactly which films would be eligible, the idea, immediately dubbed “the popular Oscar,” ran headlong into a wall of criticism.

“I wasn’t expecting that kind of knee-jerk reaction, largely from journalists,” says Bailey. “I don’t know why that happened because these are the same people who have also criticized the Academy for being quote unquote irrelevant and not actually addressing the taste of people that go to the movies. The same people who have criticized us for irrelevance and elitism now suddenly were the guardians at the gate, talking about the bowdlerization of the Oscars.” Those initial judgments, in turn, were soon echoed by many Academy members.

The proposal, Bailey says, “didn’t meet with universal disdain, but it’s always the naysayers who like to jump on first.”

As Bailey explains it, he, joined by Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, was a big proponent of the move. Bailey, a cinematographer, and his wife, film editor Carol Littleton, also a member of the board of governors, both established their careers in the '70s and '80s, working on character-driven films — he shot Ordinary People and The Big Chill; she edited Body Heat and Places in the Heart — that were considered mainstream entertainment. But they’d both watched as the major studios abandoned that kind of movie, with the result that smaller independent films like SpotlightMoonlight and The Shape of Water — “all beautiful films,” he adds — have come to dominate the Oscar broadcast, while studio-backed mainstream productions have mainly had to settle for mentions among the crafts nominations. Bailey argues that, as a result, the Academy needs to find a way to recognize those films “that are being seen by the public.”

When the new award was announced, it was viewed by many as nothing but a ratings grab, since last March’s Oscar broadcast attracted just 26.5 million viewers, a 19 percent drop from the previous year. That decline was deeply unnerving to both ABC and the Academy, which relies on the broadcast fee of about $75 million from the network to fund its activities.

But, says Bailey of the proposed pop Oscar, “it wasn’t some knee-jerk reaction to falling ratings or to ABC or to anything like that. It was real clear on the part of the board and the Academy that we needed somehow to make certain kinds of films eligible for new awards.” He cites comedies as one type of movie the Academy has consistently overlooked, proffering the example of Groundhog Day, which he also shot: “It’s a film that’s become iconic, but if it had been made today, it probably never would have been considered for best picture in terms of the type of pictures that are considered today, but it certainly would have been a prime candidate for this new award.” He also is adamant that the award wasn’t proposed to ensure that movies like Black Panther or one of the Star Wars films are guaranteed Oscar consideration. “Unfortunately, some people misinterpreted this as our laying down pipe for big mass-market franchise films.” 

When the award was first announced last month, neither Bailey nor Hudson stepped forward to lay out the rationale for the proposal, declining to comment until specific details had been worked out. But that created an opening for critics of the popular Oscar, whose voices dominated the subsequent discussion. 

Meanwhile, Bailey had two committees working to devise criteria for the new award. One was a special panel of about two dozen individuals, composed of both members of the board of governors and key industry players, and the other was the Academy’s standing Awards and Events Committee, chaired by makeup artist Lois Burwell, board member and Academy first vice president. They looked at various statistics and options — one measure they settled on was whether or not a movie opened to a wide release. Looking back at last year’s films, they estimated that of about 340 films that qualified for Academy consideration — which requires only that a film play one theater in Los Angeles for a one-week run — about 70 of them would have qualified for the popular Oscar under the criteria that were being devised.

The two committees presented their ideas at a special meeting of the board of governors at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters Wednesday. In addition to questions about the criterion, some board members were also concerned about the timing of the award’s introduction. Typically, the Academy announces rule changes for the coming awards season in March, giving campaigners plenty of time to devise plans for the coming fall. But with the fall awards season already getting underway, as Oscar hopefuls began to be unveiled in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, a number of campaigners were complaining that the Academy was introducing the award too late in the season for them to factor it into their strategies and budgeting.

“I will say this, and I made no secret of it at the board meeting,” Bailey says. “I thought it was a great idea and I wanted to move forward to present it in 2019.” He also notes the irony of the situation, admitting, “If anybody on the board has elitist taste, it’s probably me. I’d rather watch a restored silent film from the '20s made in Estonia or a six-hour Bela Tarr movie than the latest Marvel film. So if I can embrace the idea …”

But, after some discussion, a majority of the board decided the Academy needed more time to consider the proposal and voted not to institute the award this year.

Bailey isn’t ready to predict whether the so-called popular Oscar will make its debut at the 2020 Oscars. “We’re going to continue to evaluate it and seek more engagement with our members and try to sort it out,” he says. “What do I personally think will happen? I have no idea. But I am willing to say I think it was admirable and even courageous of the board to come up with the idea, to bring it to the state of making an announcement. Having then been put into a position where the majority of the board decided this was not the time to do it, I don’t know where it stands.”