UPDATE: The award for Achievement in Popular Film has been scrapped by the Academy, even before its first nominees were announced. They say it "merits further study," which you can read as the Academy backing down after the award was widely criticized in Hollywood. But of course, it was a good idea for a number of reasons. I wrote a blog defending the award and its merits shortly after the new category was announced. Keep reading....
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says it will introduce its first new Oscar category in years, which they're calling "Achievement in Popular Film." In short, they'll be giving an annual award to the best of films that make bank! I've seen it described as the Popcorn Oscar.
The idea has been widely mocked -- it "dumbs down" the Oscars, it will honor the most popular movies instead of actual good movies, and plenty of sarcasm.
Is it really such a bad idea? Like anything else, the devil is in the details -- and we admittedly don't have a lot of details yet. But let's break it down a bit.
The category itself gives a few clues as to what we can expect: Best Achievement in Popular Film.
A nomination for this award doesn't seem to preclude a blockbuster from being nominated for Best Picture, as so many have suggested. Any number of great movies could win both. If we'd had this award when Forrest Gump hit theaters, it certainly would have been nominated in both categories. In fact, I think it would have won both categories.
Black Panther is the example so many critics are turning toward. Many people are concerned that Black Panther is deserving of a Best Picture nomination (I'd agree), and they've somehow convinced themselves that the movie will get sent off to a "popular movie" purgatory. There is simply no evidence to support that claim.
In fact, the Academy has been crystal clear in stating that films can be nominated for both awards.
Critics also speculate that bad films with big box office will win the Best Popular Film award. That's simply not going to happen.
The Academy is not going to become the People's Choice Awards, which actually does award movies based on popularity. No, the Oscar will go to a movies that are critically-acclaimed and just happen to do big box office. The winner and the nominees will be good movies!
Frankly, I love the idea. And it's an idea that's long overdue. There has been a massive buildup in the number of Oscar-eligible films over the years. In 2017, the Academy announced that 341 films had qualified. But from 1985-2009, there were under 3000 films total -- which averages out to less than 120 Oscar-eligible films per year. On a proportional basis, fewer good movies are being nominated than ever before.
The vast majority of this increase in Oscar-eligible movies goes to smaller films that most of us won't see, due to simple math. There are only so many movies we can watch, just as I can only watch a few of the many TV shows I've put in my Netflix queue. (Spoiler alert, I won't get to most of them). There is a finite amount of time in our lives for entertainment, meaning the number of blockbuster movies isn't really going to change that much from year to year -- even if there were even more Oscar-eligible movies than we have currently.
The Oscars can and should help us find great movies that are under the radar -- whether it's in the Best Foreign Film category, or increasingly little films being nominated for and winning Best Picture. But the larger films that would have had a shot of winning Best Picture in an era with fewer eligible movies, are not being represented as much; and thus, we see fewer familiar movies being nominated. That's not really a problem for the Academy, as much as it is for the Oscar show's TV ratings. Fans of the movies they've seen (and loved) want to have a rooting interest in the awards, and simply not enough do anymore. Thus, fewer people are watching.
But the real reason why this so-called "Popcorn Oscar" is a good idea is that the winners will have succeeded not once, but twice -- once with the critics, and again with the public. It takes a whole lot to make both a great movie and a movie that can cut through all these entertainment choices we're making, and still succeed at the box office. Remember, even Solo: A Star Wars Story struggled! That dual success deserves to be recognized.
For studios, it's easier to cut corners on an already expensive movie and make a "just okay" movie, rather than a great movie, because they're not going to win an Oscar anyway. Not anymore! Because the Academy just said that if you can make a blockbuster movie that's among the best of the year, you can also win an Oscar for it. I think that could actually encourage better big movies.
So we can either dismiss this new idea, as even Rob Lowe did, or we can embrace it as an opportunity for us to discover a larger number of very good movies.
I'm planning to see the details of this new Best Popular Film award and will reserve any further judgment until then. But on the surface, I'll applaud it as an idea whose time has come. Finally!