When the Film Academy revealed on Wednesday that it will be adding an “outstanding popular film” category to the Oscars, confusion, questions, and even conspiracy theories abounded. According to a Variety report, the Disney-ABC Television Group—which will air the Oscars through 2028—had been pushing the Academy to factor more popular films into the ceremony, in an attempt to revive the telecast’s sinking viewership, which hit an all-time low this past March.
But that report still left myriad issues unanswered. Among them: what qualifies a film for popular-category contention, versus best picture? Aren’t there plenty of award shows—like the People’s Choice Awards, for example—that already celebrate more mainstream movie fare? Will this category essentially be considered some kind of “consolation prize” for films not deemed “artsy” enough for the Oscars’ big award?
One Academy board member who spoke to Vanity Fair Thursday said that the decision to add a popular-film category is not a ratings ploy. Instead, the board member, who was not authorized to speak publicly, described the change as one the organization hopes will inspire Hollywood studios to harken back to the cinema-boom strategies of the old days, before the high-stakes, big-money, political-style campaigning that Harvey Weinstein and others brought to the race in the late 90s.
“When you look at the best-picture nominees [now], they are all a bunch of movies that no one saw,” the board member explained. “In a way, this goes back to one of the many things that is the legacy of Harvey Weinstein. In addition to all of the terrible sexual stuff he did, he also figured out how to rig the system in terms of the Oscars. He created a type of movie which is not a well-known film by the general public, but gerrymanders the different voting blocks perfectly so they would win the Oscar for many years.” (Weinstein has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex.)
The board member pointed to the 1999 Academy Awards—when the Weinstein-produced Shakespeare in Love won seven Oscars including best picture, besting Saving Private Ryan—as the moment when the industry shifted. “I think that [Weinstein] not only built an incredible business for himself, but then every other studio said, ‘O.K., let’s do that. Instead of attempting [to make big great movies], we’ll just create these little art movies, or else we’ll just buy one at Sundance or Telluride—and then devote all of our resources to making big popcorn movies.’
“Studios that used to make movies like The Godfather and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and they don’t do that anymore, and that’s bad for the ecology of cinema,” he continued. “This new category is the Academy going, ‘We want to encourage studios to make movies like that.’ . . . The Godfather was the best movie of the year and the most popular movie of the year. . . . How do we motivate studios to go back to that grand era of cinema? This is the Academy trying. . . . So that’s part of the reason for the new category. The other part is there are really good movies that never win best picture.”
To further the point, the board member looked back at past Oscar ceremonies, reimagining what may have happened if they had had a popular-film category.
“If The Wizard of Oz won popular film, would people be mad? No! The Wizard of Oz is one of the most popular movies ever made, and one of the best movies ever made! [Then] no one thinks that is a bullshit award,” the board member said. “Or look at a movie like The Matrix, which wasn’t even nominated for best picture . . . but it was the best picture. Not only did it have the style that influenced movies for the next 20 years, it was also deeper. The idea of ‘red pill, blue pill,’ people still say that. . . . Go back to 1983: Gandhi wins best picture. But what if it was Gandhi and E.T.? . . . If you go back any year and look at the probable nominee in this popular-film category, you’ll think, ‘Well shit, that’s a worthy film.’ In fact, it could be more worthy in the measure of time than the so-called consensus best picture.”
In the member’s view, the Academy is actually taking action to fix an industry problem, as it has recently after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. “What the Academy has done, to their credit over the years, is not just be reflective of [the industry], but start to take a leadership position,” the member said. “This is a great example of the Academy stepping up, and that leadership leads to Moonlight getting best picture, and more black actors getting nominations, and Get Out getting nominated.” When the Academy announced its plan to diversify membership, the board member said, “There was a lot of complaining about how [that effort would inspire] tokenism, but no one looks at those nominations or winners as tokens or undeserving.”
The member acknowledged that the best-popular-film strategy was not introduced in the most elegant fashion—mainly because the Academy has a problem with members leaking information to press, and the organization wanted to announce the change itself. “It was unfortunate that [the award] was announced before we had the actual title of the award,” said the member, suggesting the category might get a classier moniker. “People saw the word ‘popular’ and got really riled up.” According to the member, the Academy had also considered other alternatives for awarding more mainstream films—even toying with the idea of introducing an honor that was not an Oscar. The board member said he was inspired to speak out to press after watching the backlash unfurl on the Internet Wednesday: “As I’m reading the responses [online], I’m thinking, ‘You’re not getting what this is.’ . . . This is really being misunderstood. It is an experiment. It could go wrong. But the intentions are way more noble than people are seeing on first blush.”
The member also bristled at the suggestion that Disney-ABC was pulling the Academy’s strings. “There have been people on the Academy who have been pushing for something like this for years,” he said—though he also acknowledged that this year’s low ratings marked “a flash point, a moment of ‘never let a crisis go to waste.’ . . .There were two subcommittees devoted to the concept, working through all the different possibilities. This is a big deal. We move in geologic time, so moving this many things this fast was a lot for us.”
Why is it necessary to create a popular-film category, though, when the Academy has already expanded its best-picture category to include 10 nominees—an effort made to incorporate more popular contenders? “That was a worthy attempt that didn’t work,” the board member said. “That’s the thing about these things: there is no guarantee that these will work. The Academy should be given credit for trying these things.”
The member said that the Academy board is still working out other details about the category—such as how a film will qualify, and how voting will work—but that films will be able to qualify for both the best picture and the outstanding popular film categories.
“There are all kinds of points of view represented in the organization,” the member said, explaining that it took awhile to reach this compromise. “There are people who never want anything to change. . . . But at a time of great evolution—who is going to the movies, how people are consuming movies is changing, and there is almost no film left in the film industry—we have to evolve as well.”
He also warned that there may be bumps in finding the best popular-film formula: “We have to see, in practice, how this really works. It may take a couple of years to fine-tune it, like healthcare or something. It’s better to have some version of it than nothing.”
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