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Film & TV

And the Winner isn’t the Best Popular Film Category

The Academy Awards’ concept for a popular film category has betrayed its very title, proving unpopular with filmgoers and industry figures

In an attempt to battle its much-documented ratings decline and attract the younger demographics, the Academy have created a new award category titled ‘Best Popular Film’. The decision has been mocked and ridiculed across social media and in many ways their criticism is rightly placed. In fact, the criticism has been so strong that it has led the Academy to withdraw their new category for the time being as they look to reshape and better define the new award for a possible inception in 2020.

Rather than coming across as a genuine award, or as the Academy themselves state, an ’outstanding achievement in popular film’, the Best Popular Film Oscar already sounds like its condescending its future nominees with the awards season equivalent to a participation medal. And possibly one of the worst aspects of this new category is that it detracts from both the critical darlings that feed the Oscar machine as well as the mainstream would-be party crashers.

“It’s contradictions like these, the gargantuan grey areas with little definition, that lead industry experts and fans alike to criticise this desperate, ham-fisted grab at accessibility.”

An instantly obvious problem about this new category is how the Academy defines a ‘popular’ film. Only three of last year’s ten Best Picture nominees grossed under $100m, the lowest being Call Me by Your Name with a respectable $41m. This proves that the Academy does indeed reward popular films – especially when they overlap with their favourite genre specifications such as history/true stories, social commentary and epic romance.

The problem this presents is the possibility of stereotypical Oscar-baiting films crossing into popular territory such as last year’s Get Out and Dunkirk. The award has been introduced to reward the popular films that often get overlooked but it could create more controversy by introducing self-sabotaging boundaries that make it difficult to differentiate from Best Picture and Best Popular Film. It’s contradictions like these, the gargantuan grey areas with little definition, that lead industry experts and fans alike to criticise this desperate, ham-fisted grab at accessibility. This is an obvious move to popularise the Oscars without sacrificing its mantra of celebrating the niche and the artistic – a sidestep dressed up as forward motion.

But as much as this new category attempts to offer new hope for popcorn cinema during awards season, much of the filmgoers’ doubt stems from the Academy’s less-than convincing record for nominee diversity and new award categories. When they were introduced, the Best Animated Feature, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Documentary Feature categories aimed to draw attention to these mediums of film and push them into the Best Picture conversation. However, since their inception only the animations Toy Story 3 and Up and the foreign language film Amour have been nominated for Best Picture whilst the Academy have yet to nominate a documentary in this category.

“Nominating provocative films like Get Out is a step in the right direction but too many of the Best Picture nominees can be seen coming from a mile away.”

With the introduction of Best Popular Film, few film industry experts predict a bountiful crossover into Best Picture. Based on its history, introducing a new category is the Academy’s way of avoiding a problem that refuses to go away. But now, with its viewership receding noticeably, the Academy are in a position where they need to react quickly and defiantly.

The trick that the Academy looks like they will miss with this new category, assuming it does arrive in 2020, is the ability to conquer the one consistent critique that has plagued the Oscars over the last five years: diversity. Recent ceremonies have started to diversify in terms of race and gender, with this year’s Oscars rewarding Guillermo del Toro with the Best Director/Best Picture double, Jordan Peele for Best Original Screenplay and a double nomination for Greta Gerwig in the Best Director and Best Original Screenplay categories.

However, the Best Picture category remains stagnant, continuing to nominate good, but predictable films. Nominating provocative films like Get Out is a step in the right direction but too many of the Best Picture nominees can be seen coming from a mile away. For the Academy to remain relevant in difficult times it must look towards the acclaimed, popular films of the year, such as Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, to help the film industry grow and diversify and redefine and expand on what type of film can be the year’s Best Picture.

Black Panther is probably the most obvious film of the year that straddles the umbrella terms ‘artistic’ and ‘popular entertainment’, leading it to be a contender for both Best Picture and Best Popular Film had the latter made its debut in 2019. If Black Panther were to win Best Picture it would be a watershed moment in Oscars history. The first superhero film to win Best Picture, it would open the vast world of mainstream, entertainment film up to a once denied realm of supposedly superior artistry.

Black Panther’s popularity presents that problem of where it would be placed yet again – Best Picture for its artistry or Best Popular Film because of its huge box office gross? But the Academy have stated a film could appear in both categories so that solves the problem, right? Think again. If Black Panther appeared in both categories, surely voters would be more likely to vote for it in one category and not the other? In effectively competing against itself, surely it would lessen the film’s chances of winning in either category?

It’s problematic in terms of divisiveness. By adding the Best Popular Film category, the divisions that already exist between the artistic, typically Oscar-winning films, and the popular films will widen, defeating the point of the new category. Artistic films and popular films should be able to be celebrated together for their individual quirks and their diversity, no matter how much these individual films contrast in their execution. The ugliness of the Oscars is that they’ve become predictable and closeted and been allowed to be this way for so long. The beauty of the Oscars should be that any type of film should have a chance of winning, no matter what the genre is or how many zeroes its box office gross has.

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