An Oscar Category for ‘Best Popular Film’ Is a Terrible Idea
On Monday, I wrote a piece here at ScreenCrush about the 25th anniversary of The Fugitive, the movie adaptation of the old TV series. One of the more notable bits of trivia about the film is the fact that in a very competitive year, The Fugitive — which was released in the dog days of August — was nominated for seven Academy Awards. It remains the only film based on a television show to be nominated for Best Picture.
To put it another way: Movies like The Fugitive — big, fun popcorn films — typically don’t get nominated for Oscars. It’s a fact that the Academy has tried to change with various measures throughout the years; in 2009 (after The Dark Knight wound up not receiving a Best Picture nomination despite widespread critical acclaim and massive box office), Academy voters doubled the Best Picture field from five to ten films. These days, anywhere from five to ten films can receive Best Picture nominations based on the number and percentage of votes they get.
But apparently that still wasn’t enough because now the Oscars will add a prize specifically for The Fugitives of the world: a “new category for outstanding achievement in popular film” designed to help create “a more globally accessible, three-hour telecast.”
Simply put, this is a very bad idea. And here is why.
1. Putting Popular Movies Into a Separate Category Will Almost Certainly Make Them Less Likely to Be Nominated For Best Picture
There’s a healthy and reasonable impulse behind this Best Popular Film category: Honoring larger movies that audiences see. That might get more people excited to tune into the annual Oscars telecast, which has seen a drop in ratings in recent years. In fact, 2018’s Academy Awards was the lowest rated show since 2008, right around the time the Academy expanded the Best Picture field to 10 nominees. It can’t be a coincidence that another ratings slip preceded another major award change.
Getting people to watch the Oscars is important; that’s what keeps the show in business. And adding a Best Popular Film category does allow the opportunity to include more movies on the show and in the competition. But from an Oscar voter’s perspective, it also makes it easier to leave a “popular” movie out of Best Picture race. Now there’s a separate (inherently lesser) award for that kind of film. You don’t need to include The Fugitive in your Best Picture Ballot; instead, you can nominate it for Best Popular Film, and then vote for a smaller film in its place.
Sure, some films get nominated in secondary categories and Best Picture; Toy Story 3 won Best Animated Feature and it was also a contender for Best Picture. And more films get honored this way. But what good is an honor you invent out of thin air that has no history and is obviously an attempt to find more ways to slap the phrase “Academy Award Nominee!” on advertising — especially if it results in those same films being left out of the category everyone actually cares about? An award is meaningless if it comes with asterisk.
2. Making a Category for Popular Movies Effectively Turns Best Picture Into “Best Unpopular Movie”
As soon as you label some movies as “popular,” you inherently suggest the ones that aren’t in that category are somehow not popular. From there, it’s not a stretch to take the inference even further. If these are the “popular” movies over here, then the ones over there become the “pretentious, artsy-fartsy” movies by their exclusion.
The whole point of the Academy Awards is as a generator of revenue for good movies. That’s why studios stick those Oscar statues on their advertising; because these awards sell tickets. Once you begin to hint that these movies are good but also maybe intellectual or snoody or flat-out unpopular, you potentially hurt their ability to make money off their awards.
3. It’s Going to Confuse Average Moviegoers
I’m already dreading the conversations I’m going to have with people who only pay casual attention to the Oscars and are now confused by the notion that two movies won Best Picture. “I thought Game Night won Best Picture?” “Oh, no, actually that won Best *Popular Film*. Best Picture was won by this drama about the life of a man who slowly transformed into a mollusk.”
Multiple Best Pictures muddies the waters and, again, could undercut these movies’ ability to stand out in the marketplace. If there are ten Best Picture nominees and then five additional Best Popular Film nominees, you’re now approaching ten percent of all of a year’s wide releases getting Best Picture nominations. That’s just too many. You can argue that the concept of picking the “best” in a subjective world like movies is a faulty idea to begin with. But selecting multiple bests is even more ludicrous.
4. “Popular Movies” Is A Vague Category, and There’s No Good Way to Define It
Here are some “popular” movies that have been nominated for (or won!) Best Picture in recent years: Inception, The Fighter, Moneyball, Argo, Django Unchained, Gravity, Captain Phillips, American Sniper, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Dunkirk, Get Out, and Lady Bird. The Fugitive, about as unpretentious as movies come, was a Best Picture nominee. So was Titanic, which was literally the most popular movie in history for well over a decade until it was replaced by Avatar, which was also nominated for Best Picture!
Maybe some of those titles don’t meet your personal definition of a popular film. That’s my point. What even makes something a “popular film”? Is it purely determined by ticket sales? Plenty of blockbusters make tons of money and aren’t very well liked in hindsight. Jurassic World made $1.6 billion worldwide. In that sense, it was extremely popular. In another sense, it was very dumb. Lots of people saw it and hated it. A lot of the biggest hits are like that. Should they get Oscar nominations anyway?
5. It Dilutes the Academy Award Brand, And the Excellence It Represents
The Academy Award for Best Picture is one of the strongest brands in film. It signals if not excellence than at least importance and noteworthiness; a movie that must be seen if you really care about cinema. Creating multiple top prizes dilutes that brand. Now you have two winners; a “real” one and a consolation prize that was pretty good but not good enough to get into the main competition on its own merits. It all means less than it did before. Two movies win, but both of their victories are cheapened. What’s next? Best Director and Best Popular Director? Best Editing and Best Popular Editing?
6. There Are Other Categories the Oscars Need First, like Best Stunt
If the Oscars truly wanted to honor popular film and the legitimate craft and artistry it takes to create these movies, why is there still no Best Stunt or Best Action Sequence award? This kind of prize would enable the Oscars to celebrate mainstream popular entertainments and maintain the integrity of the Best Picture category. Instead, they’re going to give a new award to movies that largely don’t need the title of Oscar winner and will see very little benefit from it, while actually cutting back on the number of technical categories on the Oscar broadcast. It all seems very backwards.
Gallery - Terrible Movies That Actually Won Oscars: