Thursday, August 09, 2018

On the "Popular Film" Oscar

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this week that they would be making a few changes to the awards, some of which start with the 91st Academy Awards in February. The least contentious of the three was that they will be moving the Oscars to an earlier time in February, thereby shortening the interminable awards season.

The other mostly-not-controversial announcement was that the Academy would be shortening the length of the ceremony to three hours, in part by giving some awards (read: short films) during the commercial breaks and then running some clips of those awards later in the show. It seems like it's not a terrible decision to make, although there has been some chatter online about how the whole "The Oscars are too long" narrative is overwrought and likely not as responsible for the decline in ratings as some pundits have proposed.

But it was the final announcement of the three that has already been regarded with a mix of derision, skepticism, and puzzlement: the Academy, at some point in the future - perhaps as soon as the next Oscars - will be introducing a heretofore unheralded category for "Best Achievement in Popular Film". They released very few details about the criteria for the award or the timeline in which it will be introduced, but that has not stopped critics from reacting.

There have already been a few takes published: Vanity Fair said it is likely only to make things worse for these kinds of movies; Rolling Stone's Tim Grierson framed his criticism of the decision by examining how the move seems ill-fated and reactionary; and, perhaps most directly, Vulture's Kyle Buchanan's opinion is expressed in his headline: "The Oscars Made Some Dumb Decisions Today".

I have a number of thoughts of my own that I wanted to share as a result of this decision, so I thought it would be useful to present my ideas in a series of posts. This post, the first of the three, will go through some of the questions that arise as a result of this new category, along with my initial thoughts on its inception. The next post will serve as an extended thought experiment of what might have been, and the final post will consist of some of the other ways that the Oscars might make some changes. But for now, here are the questions that are raised as well as some of my initial thoughts.

1. How will the nominees and winner for this category be determined - that is, what makes a film a "popular film"? 

There are actually a series of connected questions that all link to this main idea of how films will qualify and ultimately be selected for this award. The Academy currently has three categories other than "Best Picture" that apply to a particular genre of film, rather than a role in the film: Animated Feature Film; Documentary; and Foreign Language Film. Each of those categories are relatively straight-forward in how nominees are determined: they are submitted to the appropriate authorities, the short lists are made, and the final nominees are released, often with very minor quibbling about films that may have been snubbed, but rarely with questions about the validity of the nominees as part of that category.

But this "popular film" designation seems like it will prove to be problematic for the Academy unless they provide very clear delineations of what kinds of films qualify here. It seems that their intent is to create a category to award the blockbuster superhero and science fiction and action movies that rarely seem to garner attention for the main awards, but there is a lot that remained nebulous from the initial cryptic announcement.

What makes a movie "popular" - is it entirely through box office results, or are there other metrics involved? Is a movie's qualification affected by the movie's final earnings, and if so, are those from the domestic or worldwide totals? Does budget matter in the conversation - that is, can a movie like Get Out or La La Land that has a small budget and a huge commercial impact still win the award, or is this only for the big tentpole movies?

Are "fan votes" a part of this equation? Some of the initial reports indicated that they would be, but then the Oscars would have to determine how to keep from being manipulated or trolled. Also, what happens to movies that are late-breaking in their popularity, like American Sniper? It was released on Christmas Day and went on to become the top earning film of the year, also garnering a (widely criticized) nomination for Best Picture, but would it have had enough mojo to be nominated in this category by the time the votes were due? Probably, but it's not a guarantee.

It seems to me like the best idea, once the Academy has established the criteria, is to operate it like the other aforementioned categories: have studios submit their films for consideration and then for the committee responsible to create a list of five nominees, from which Academy members would make their choice. I doubt it would be based on sheer box office returns or number of tickets sold or fan votes, or else it seems likely that there would be a segment of the population that would seek to game the system to give an advantage (or to cause damage) to certain films.

2. What will happen to the Best Animated Feature Film category? 

The most recent addition to the Academy Awards seems to be the one that will be most directly affected by the introduction of this new category, as several of the nominees in this category seem like they would also qualify in the Popular Film category. But there remains a number of questions as to what could, would, and should happen with this particular intersection of films.

Since the introduction of the Animated Feature Film category in 2001, there have only been five years in which at least one animated film was not in the top five box office hits, and in each of those years, there was still an animated film in the top ten; in fact, the last year to not have an animated film in the top ten at all was 2000, the year before the category was introduced at the Oscars. So it would make sense that animated films would also qualify as "Popular Films" - but would the Academy want animated films to even be eligible?

It depends on what the goal of this new award actually is; if it's to increase viewership and participation in the awards, then it behooves the Academy to attempt to include as many films as possible, which would include animated films. But if there is also a goal to expand the number of films that could win Oscars, or to find a way to award popular films that are already being nominated for Best Picture, then it might be better to omit animated films, the award for which many people already regard to be a "consolation prize" and a way to not give Best Picture nominations to animated films, as a quick look into the history of animated films in the Best Picture conversation will illuminate.

The first animated film to be nominated was Beauty and the Beast in 1992; the only other two were Up and Toy Story 3 in 2009 and 2010. In those latter years, the nominations had expanded to ten nominees, so it made sense that those films, which were critically and commercially very well-regarded, would make the cut. But in 2011, the Academy made a subtle but significant change in which they changed the number of nominated films from a hard ten to "between five and ten" depending on the votes they received. Since that point, no animated films have been nominated, including the most egregious omission of Inside Out in 2015.

Inside Out was a commercial and critical triumph, and many pundits prognosticated that it would earn a nomination for Best Picture - but when the nominees were announced, there were only eight, and Inside Out was on the outside looking in. There were three other movies that perhaps could have taken those two spots - Carol, The Danish Girl, and Steve Jobs - but most awards watchers conceded that Inside Out would likely have been nominated if there were ten nominees and that the reason it was not nominated was because it would still win the Best Animated Feature Film category.

The bottom line is that this new category very well may affect or be affected by the Animated Feature category, arguably more so than any other single competitive Oscar category, and so it will be interesting to see what will happen.

3. Will there be other awards based on genre or box office performance in the future? 

"Best Popular Film" would be the only relatively  arbitrarily defined category at the Oscars, but would it pave the way for more such categories in the future? For example, there has been a lot of discussion over the years about how difficult it is for comedies to break through at the Oscars, even with the expanded slate of nominees of the past decade. There seems to be about one comedic film that makes it into the conversation each year, and even those films are usually quite dramatic by nature (eg. Lady Bird, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Silver Linings Playbook, The Kids Are All Right).

It seems to happen with about the same frequency that a "pure comedy" is nominated for a Screenplay award, and less frequently that a performer is recognized with a nomination - Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids and Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder come immediately to mind as examples - and the list of comedic performances, scripts, and pictures overlooked by the Academy is far too long to list, so perhaps the Oscars should consider a "Best Comedic Picture" category to rectify that particular oversight.

There are, of course, several arguments against creating such a category (or similar equivalents in either genre), several of which are apparent in the Golden Globes splitting of "Best Picture" into the two categories. For instance, there are often not enough quality nominees to comprise a category of comedies on its own, so it would likely have to be grouped with musicals (see the nomination of The Tourist).  Or, for that matter, what is a comedy? If The Martian can be nominated as a comedy, it seems possible that any number of dramatic movies with comedic aspects could be nominated; for example, why wasn't Thor: Ragnarok, one of the funniest movies of 2017, nominated?

Examining the Golden Globes is not exactly the most rigorous method of investigation, but the point remains that this new category may well open up a number of new questions at the Oscars, and with those questions will come equally complicated considerations (if not greater ones).

4. Will this actually result in "non-Oscar" movies earning more nominations and/or awards?

This is one of the key questions that will be answered as the nominees are announced every year: is this category actually going to expand the field of movies that can win an Oscar, or will it mostly result in more nominations and awards from among the existing field of nominees? There are around twenty films that end up as part of the conversation in any given year, but it is unclear whether this category will actually expand that number.

It's not as if there is not buzz every year for at least one or more of these blockbuster movies for major award consideration. Each of the last three Star Wars movies has had varying levels of support for major nominations, and a number of other franchises have had similar entries in the conversation over the past decade: the MCU; James Bond; Batman; even Star Trek. But other than The Dark Knight - in many ways, the movie that inspired the expansion of the number of Best Picture nominees and thus the grandfather of this category - none of these franchises have actually broken through significantly into the main competitive nominations.

Consider for a moment that many of these "popular films" are already ignored in categories in which they should be able to win, like Best Visual Effects. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the biggest franchise out there, has not won a competitive Oscar in twenty films over the past decade, even in this category. The three movies in the Star Wars revival are a combined 0-for-11; in fact, since the first movie, which won six of ten nominations in 1977, the franchise is 1-for-23, with the last win coming for Best Sound for Empire Strikes Back in 1980.

The point is that there is little proof that Academy voters want to recognize these kinds of movies at all, and it is possible that a new category may not change that. As will be demonstrated in the upcoming thought experiment, there are lots of ways that the Academy could reinforce its existing beliefs and snub a whole new category of movies despite having a category that is intended to honour them directly.

So, yes, maybe this new category will open up the doors and allow a new type of movie to be considered an "Oscar movie", and maybe it would even allow for some cross-pollination with the existing categories. Or, it could reinforce the existing divide and further alienate viewers who are now expecting to have movies to cheer for but who are further disappointed by creative ways in which the Oscars manage to ignore them.

5. Will this actually change the way that viewers regard the Oscars?

If, as has been posited in some reactions, this change is largely due to influence from Disney and ABC in response to falling ratings, there is an anticipation that adding this category will affect viewership positively - that there will be more movies that are more popular to more people, thus inducing viewers to tune in. Perhaps that will happen - this category may draw viewers back in and may even result in some of these films being less ghettoized and even featured in other competitive categories. But it's far from a guarantee, and there are several scenarios in which the inverse may happen.

If, as aforementioned, the Oscars find ways to continue to omit popular films even with a category designated for such efforts, it would likely further repel viewers. Or there may be more disillusionment with the Oscars as a result, thereby decreasing interest in the awards. Or maybe this decrease in viewership is not related to the featured movies at all, but it's actually about the continuing diffraction of popular culture and the movement away from a monoculture.


So, after all of this analysis and hypothesis and synthesis, where do I stand with this change? Well, like many other critics, I am very skeptical that this was the right decision and that it will work at all. There are admittedly many details that remain yet to be determined, but I think that even the very idea of this award is more like pandering and that it waters down an already diluted trust pool. In many ways, this is the most "Oscarsy" thing that the Oscars could do to try to fix the Oscars, which is not a good thing.

I do believe that changes needed to be made to the Oscars (more on that later this week), but I do not think that this was the best place to start (or to finish, for that matter). The methods of distribution and consumption of movies have changed significantly in the age of the internet and there is increasing stratification between "awards movies" and "popular films", and while I do believe that the Academy needed to address these changes somehow, I doubt that this will prove to be the right move.

There is also an argument to be made that the Oscars are fixing a problem that does not really exist. Yes, it is true that many of the major nominees do not achieve large-scale commercial success, but that has been the case with the Oscars since the breakdown of the studio system and in the late 1960s. This divide was amplified by the rise of independent studios in the 1990s, and arguably further exacerbated with the continuing franchisification of the past decade, but the fact remains that there are still major nominees that do achieve box office success.

Let's take a quick look at the past twenty-five years of Best Picture nominees. (*The full list of nominees with box office success is included as a footnote at the end of the post.*). In that time, the box-office champion has been nominated seven times, winning Best Picture thrice (Forrest Gump in 1994, Titanic in 1997, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003). In only two of those years (2004-2005) were no movies in the top 16 box office earners nominated, and only another seven did not feature one of the top twelve. In fact, from 1993 to 2003, at least one of the top four box office hits was nominated each year.

Now, granted, there has been a not insignificant divergence in the past decade, but there are also examples of Oscar nominees achieving box office success, and vice versa. Of course, there is a bit of a chicken and the egg situation happening - are these movies regarded as good because they're popular or popular because they're good? - but I think that ultimately that there is somewhat of a system of merit that exists based on box office returns, and that a movie can be regarded as good due to how much money it earns.

That is not to say that all movies are equal and that the best movies earn the most money; rather, box office is one way of determining a type of quality, and despite some overlap and the previously stated examples, the Oscars are typically weaker in recognizing these types of movies, which is why this new category now exists. But I do not think that that is why the Oscars exist, and why I do not think that this category is a good idea.

The Oscars are intended to single out the best in film in a given year; of course, whether they succeed in doing so is a far different question (I would argue that they have about a 50% success rate overall), but the intent is there, regardless of the results and whatever manipulations may have happened to achieve results that are perhaps less-than-ideal. The concept of having a "Best Picture" is worthwhile, and it is worthwhile to have a standard for movies to achieve.

For example, I believe that Titanic was the best picture of 1997? Of course not; I would actually make the argument that As Good As It Gets should have won of the nominated films that year. But do I think the Academy chose wrongly? No, I do not, because Titanic represented that year in film better than any other, and it represented a style of epic film making and an achievement in grandeur that is rarely replicated in prestige cinema. Has the movie and its selection aged well? Actually, I would say that it has, and that despite my own opinions otherwise, that it was the "right" winner that year.

The Academy seems to be working to expand its horizons and attempting to nominate such efforts (Logan's nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay last year, for example), and their efforts to diversify their unfortunately mostly old, white, and male membership base have resulted in a number of very exciting unexpected winners in recent years. I can only hope that there continues to be more movement in that direction in the near future and that there can be increasing diversification reflected in the nominees.

Yes, there are definitely still some institutional biases and some stereotypical Oscar films and non-Oscar films, but what I have tried to demonstrate is that when a movie is good that it can transcend those preconceived ideas and have success in both realms. There remain some very significant barriers, but they seem to be coming down year by year.

But, ultimately, if studios want to win competitive Oscars, they should make movies that can win competitive Oscars. The reason most of the box office hits are not nominated is that they are not worthy of nomination, and the exceptions and snubs (The Dark Knight, Inside Out) are just that: unfortunate exceptions that the Academy needs to correct.

The 2018 Oscars, for which this category may or may not be introduced, should be an interesting testing ground for this tension between the Academy and popularity, as Black Panther has been in the Oscar conversation since its release. Could it be nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor, among other technical nominations? Sure, and there are great cases to be made in each of those categories. But whether it will be nominated is another question - particularly if this new category seems to be sufficient to voters to recognize the true King of Wakanda. Whatever happens, this new category has already made this year's awards season much more interesting - and it's only August.

*Best Picture Nominees with Box Office Success (at least $100 million, unless otherwise noted)(Box Office Year Ranking in Parentheses):
1993 The Fugitive (3); Schindler's List (9) [$96 million]
1994 Forrest Gump (1); Pulp Fiction (10)
1995 Apollo 13 (3)
1996 Jerry Maguire (4)
1997 Titanic (1); As Good As It Gets (6); Good Will Hunting (7)
1998 Saving Private Ryan (1); Shakespeare In Love (18)
1999 The Sixth Sense (2); The Green Mile (12); American Beauty (13)
2000 Gladiator (4); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (12); Erin Brockovich (13); Traffic (15)
2001 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2); A Beautiful Mind (11)
2002 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2); Chicago (10)
2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (1); Seabiscuit (17)
2004 The Aviator (22); Million Dollar Baby (24)
2005 Brokeback Mountain (22) [$83 million]
2006 The Departed (15)
2007 Juno (15)
2008 Slumdog Millionaire (16); The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (20)
2009 Avatar (1); Up (5); The Blind Side (8); Inglourious Basterds (25); District 9 (27)
2010 Toy Story 3 (1); Inception (6); True Grit (13); The King's Speech (18)
2011 The Help (13)
2012 Lincoln (13); Django Unchained (15); Les Miserables (18); Argo (22); Silver Linings Playbook (23); Life of Pi (27)
2013 Gravity (6); American Hustle (17); The Wolf of Wall Street (28); Captain Phillips (32)
2014 American Sniper (1)
2015 The Martian (8); The Revenant (13); Mad Max Fury Road (21)
2016 Hidden Figures (14); La La Land (19); Arrival (29)
2017 Dunkirk (14); Get Out (15)

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