Every couple of years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does something so deeply screwy, with such earnest yet addled intentions, that those of us who care — and, yes, some of us do care — find ourselves doing a classic Danny Thomas spit-take.
This year, by announcing the institution in 2020 of a new Oscar category for “outstanding achievement in popular film,” the AMPAS board has outdone itself in muddying the waters of what a “good movie” even means. At the same time, the move reflects the uncomfortable reality of a medium splitting ever further in two, with a widening gap between movies that steamroller the senses and films that nurture the mind and soul.
It’s the art house versus the multiplex, in other words, and the latter has been getting the worst of it on the annual awards circuit for some time now. As the studios have become ever better at turning out FX-heavy franchise installments based on comic book characters and other corporate-owned intellectual properties, the only place to go find stories about, you know, people has been independent film. And, increasingly, television. Which is also part of the problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The new category isn’t the only change announced by the board. Starting in two years — the 2019 ceremonies will remain the same, so surmises that “Black Panther” was one reason for the change seem moot — the telecast will be limited to three hours, with the less sexy awards handed out during commercial breaks. Goodbye, sound editors and sound mixers, we hardly knew ye. The 2020 air date is also being pushed from late February to Feb. 9, a move designed both to shorten an exhausting awards-season death march and to keep the granddaddy of movie awards relevant. (Expect competing awards to alter their calendars in response.)
Streamlining moves, in other words, and if some hard-working Hollywood craftsmen and women have their moment in the sun shunted off to the darkness of a GEICO ad, well, that just reflects the uncertainty of who the Oscars are for in the first place: the community of filmmakers who vote on them or the greater public for whom these awards have always meant to serve as an industry best foot forward.
It’s the new category that’s raising the most eyebrows, though. In the words of the Academy’s press release, “We will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film. Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” What does this mean? That all other best picture winners will from now on be unpopular?
No, it’s a Hail Mary pass by the board of governors, newly reelected AMPAS president John Bailey, and the suits at ABC, which broadcasts the ceremonies, to bring mainstream audiences back to the Oscar telecast. This past February’s awards ceremony had the smallest TV audience ever, and while some might chalk that up to an ever-fragmenting TV-channel pie or the diminished clout of the Oscars after a six-months-long awards slog, it’s tough not to acknowledge that the films that are nominated and often win best picture are no longer broad-appeal blockbusters. (They rarely were, actually).
Rather, they’re movies like “Moonlight” (the 2017 winner), “Spotlight” (2016), and “The Shape of Water” (2018) — artful, thoughtful fare that appeals to discerning audiences, critics, and the community of people who actually make the movies and therefore might have an insight the rest of us lack. Such movies are the opposite of product, which the rest of the Hollywood machine excels at creating and selling on a worldwide scale. So why is a participation trophy necessary in the bargain?
Because the movie industry, as reflected by its august Academy, is terrified of becoming obsolete in an era of streaming video, diminished theatrical audiences, and an ever-expanding slate of ambitious television programming that represents the true heir to the old Hollywood studio system. That’s what we’re all watching while the movies are dividing into high-fructose digital entertainments and smaller, more challenging films for those seeking an alternative to bread and circuses.
And, of course, some of those mass-appeal entertainments can be awfully good, maybe even awards-worthy (and some of those art-house favorites can be awfully overrated). The new “Mission: Impossible” will make it to a lot of critics’ year-end lists — maybe even mine — and I would have been happy to see, say, “Mad Max Fury Road” take the best picture prize in 2016. By creating a “best popular movie” category, though, the Academy actually enforces the ghettoization and diminution of multiplex blockbusters and creates a protected class of, ironically, the movies that need the least protection of all.
It’s hard not to see the new category not just as a viewership magnet but a desperate attempt by the studios at “fan service” — a way to cater to that part of the moviegoing audience truly devoted to Marvel movies and “Star Wars” installments and who can be awfully persnickety when crossed, as “The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson knows full well.
Their grumbling goes back at least a decade, when “The Dark Knight” opened to a groundswell of popular acclaim and, a month later, the Academy widened the field of best picture nominees from five to a potential 10. (“Dark Knight” still wasn’t nominated in the category; “The Hurt Locker” won that year.)
And the gripe has been consistent over the years: The Academy Awards are out of touch with the common taste, too artsy — too elitist. Well, exactly: That’s their point. Awarded not by audiences nor by critics, the Oscars are a way for the filmmaking community — a group that detractors like to criticize as pampered but which in reality is made up mostly of hard-working men and women who are very proud about being good at their jobs — to say This is what we do best. This is the effort we’re most proud of this year.
Some years it’s about politics. Other years it’s about craft or story or movie-land nostalgia. Some years the stars align, and you get a “Titanic,” a movie that everyone and their mothers (and teenage daughters) agree on. Most years, though, the Oscar goes to the movie that Academy voters truly think is the best and not just the most.
For what it’s worth, there’s precedent for the new “popular movie” category — a lousy precedent, but still. In 1929, at the very first Oscars ceremony, two top prizes were handed out, one for “outstanding picture” of 1927-28 — it went to Howard Hughes’s World War I dogfight epic “Wings” — and one for “best unique and artistic picture.” The latter was awarded to F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (brilliant movie, check it out) and essentially served as a “best art-house movie” award, a way to include a film highly esteemed by the community but lacking in broad market appeal.
It was a bad idea then — a forced dichotomy — and the Academy got rid of the category the following year. And it’s a bad idea now, even if it’s the big-money movies that somehow need special consideration in the 21st century. Why isn’t making hundreds of millions of dollars at the global box office enough of a reward?Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.