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The Oscars’ new ‘popular film’ category exists for popcorn movies, but undermines them

Movies that make a billion dollars will finally get the recognition they deserve

Thanos wins Avengers’ Popular Film Oscar Marvel Studios/Disney/Dorith Mous/Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences via Polygon
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

In January 2009, after earning raves and grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, The Dark Knight looked destined to land in one of the Oscars’ five coveted Best Picture slots. That didn’t happen, and as we recently dissected during the film’s 10th anniversary, the snub of Christopher Nolan’s artful superhero movie changed the Academy Awards forever.

Since the upset, high-ranking members of the Academy, award prognosticators and audience members who sit through three and a half hours of the Oscars each year wondering if they’ve heard of Darkest Hour or not have wondered if another populist favorite could rise to the top and nab Hollywood’s most desirable prize, as if validation were necessary for a movie that everyone on the planet already saw. The conversation happens every year, from one direction or another: Why wasn’t [name of top box-office winner of the year] nominated when it was just as good as [quality film released between September and December]???

Despite movies like Avatar, District 9, Inception, Toy Story 3, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Arrival and Get Out representing audience-friendly genre entertainment in the last decade of Best Picture nominees, the pressure to include crowd-pleasing hits rises in anticipation in advance of the annual Oscar telecast, which year to year sees a drop in ratings. Perhaps kowtowing to fans of comic-book cinema and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicles be the antidote?

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences thinks so. A new memo from the Oscars-running organization spells out the latest changes to the ceremony, which will go into effect for the 91st Academy Awards next February. The major tweak, the addition of a new category aimed at “popular” movies, turns the prestigious event into something closer to the MTV Movie Awards. As detailed in The Hollywood Reporter:

1. A three-hour Oscars telecast

We are committed to producing an entertaining show in three hours, delivering a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide.

To honor all 24 award categories, we will present select categories live, in the Dolby Theatre, during commercial breaks (categories to be determined). The winning moments will then be edited and aired later in the broadcast.

2. New award category

We will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film. Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.

3. Earlier airdate for 92nd Oscars

The date of the 92nd Oscars telecast will move to Sunday, February 9, 2020, from the previously announced February 23. The date change will not affect awards eligibility dates or the voting process.

For fans of the Oscars — those of us who gladly sit through three and a half hours of the hokey, glitzy praising of Oscar bait, indie gems and everything in between — the announcement elicits several layers of teeth-gnashing.

The Oscars began as a ceremony to honor the women and men who work tediously long hours making movies we all get to enjoy on a night off. To punt any of the awards to commercial breaks is antithetical to the artistic message that is inherent in the Oscar telecast. Even the person tuning in to see what Angelina Jolie wore to the ceremony should hear from the costume designers, visual effects supervisors and documentary filmmakers, if only to understand what craftsmanship means in the context of pop entertainment. It’s the price of the show, and these days, it might not be a bad idea for the masses to think of movies as intricate works built from the blood, sweat and tears of artists. Empathy is hard to come by in 2018!

The biggest change is the addition of a new category: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. What that means is left ambiguous — maybe the Academy will create an award based on a threshold of box-office performance, or allow the viewers at home to vote like they do for the People’s Choice Awards — but the implications seem obvious. In an era dominated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Jurassic World sequels and Minions, the Oscars look like an act of protest. Last year, instead of nominating The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Academy voters instead highlighted Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, Phantom Thread, Three Billboards and Best Picture winner The Shape of Water — all movies with high marks from critics. But what about fans?

Two years ago, writer-director Alex Kurtzman defended dismal reviews and poor box-office receipts for his remake of The Mummy, the intended first installment of Universal Pictures’ Dark Universe mega-franchise. Kurtzman said he wasn’t making his movie for critics — an occupation that, in the minds of devout Rotten Tomatoes readers, might as well come with a Death Eater tattoo. “We made a film for audiences and not critics so my great hope is they will find it and they will appreciate it,” Kurtzman said.

The quote stuck with me — really, which fans was Kurtzman talking about? Fans of the nascent Dark Universe? Fans of 1932’s The Mummy, which he had transformed into a Tom Cruise stunt vehicle? I knew then and now that Kurtzman’s line in the sand wasn’t intended to make sense, but to rally an incensed crowd around his movie, in a similar way to how certain politicians ignite anyone with an axe to grind, regardless of cause. “Fans” were the real audience. “Critics” were undermining their entertainment. If “critics” liked something, it probably wasn’t for “fans.” The Mummy was not going to win an Oscar because it was never meant to win an Oscar.

Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film is the next step in walling off the entertainment industry from critical thought. The new category panders to a straw man audience who might tune in to the Oscars if they see their movie finally represented. But the same way that the Academy deepened an artistic fissure between “quality film” and stories told in the animated medium when it established the Best Animated Film Oscar, so too does the Popular Film award divide and expel worthy candidates from earning the recognition they all deserve.

There’s no reason Black Panther and First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic due later this year that exists to be touted around Oscar season, can’t both play in the same sandbox. There’s no reason Mission: Impossible - Fallout and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk can’t ride the same awards roller coaster from December through February. Blockbusters and small “prestige” pictures are apples and oranges, but the beauty of the Oscars is that, at the end of the year, we get one big fruit basket with a few bruised pieces to yell about afterward.

The Academy has already taken better steps toward making the Best Picture race compelling and must-watch-worthy: adding more members, younger members and diverse members. The films that the invigorated group will nominate will be curated and discussable. The members won’t be overlooking Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or the movie where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson dangles from a skyscraper because of any critical conspiracy. They will avoid what happened to The Dark Knight: being snubbed by a pretty forgettable World War II drama starring Kate Winslet. (It was called The Reader.)

Thanks to the rule change, Marvel could get its due this year. Or not. It’s unclear if franchise mastermind Kevin Feige really cares. While the MCU would clean up in Best Casting or Best Stunt categories — awards that industry players have long-campaigned to include in the ceremony, yet don’t exist — Popular Film seems to exist to eventually honor the Disney executive. Maybe give him an honorary Oscar and call it a day? He’s sitting on a billion-dollar franchise that isn’t slowing down anytime soon, doing what he loves with total control. Kevin Feige doesn’t need a participation prize.

But unlike anything that might qualify for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, the Best Picture nominees are often small movies looking to become popular. The nomination helps — all of 2017’s contenders saw a bump after nomination day. That’s why the Oscars are still, 90 years later, good: They make Hollywood work for them. Or they should.

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