Oscars’ creation of ‘achievement in popular film’ category preserves status quo of exclusion and favoritism

Emily Bi/Staff
Emily Bi / Staff

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Even for an institution as terminally sanitized as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group’s newly announced changes to its telecast read as its deepest kowtow yet. On Wednesday morning, the organization divulged plans to include a new category for “achievement in popular filmmaking” and to reschedule certain statuettes to be handed out during commercial breaks. Though this has been rightfully criticized as a shallow play at hipness — and, by proxy, a pretty pathetic admission of antiquation — it’s hardly a downgrade from how the academy currently operates.

The group already attempted to foster a category for “popular filmmaking” just nine years ago. In 2009, critical and commercial slam dunks such as “The Dark Knight” and “WALL-E” were omitted from the best picture nominees, despite strong representation among other categories. Whether or not the problem lay with the contenders, the program was met with its third-lowest ratings ever.

Months later, the best picture category was expanded to allow up to 10 nominees, creating more slots that would ostensibly be occupied by the popular cinema. But the expansion instead opened up more room for low-budget independent releases, which now dominate the category. This latest “popular filmmaking” category is a more obvious attempt to complete what the best picture expansion failed to do.

What’s more disturbing than this new category are the other amendments being made. There’s little doubt that the omission of certain statuettes from the telecast will end up affecting technicians most. This pick-and-choose approach betrays the reason for which many devoted Oscars watchers tune into the show. Even beyond movie lovers, the breadth of categories televised is a foundational element of viewing parties and office prediction pools.

What makes these changes sting most of all is their incongruity with the “popular filmmaking” category, which would most likely nominate films that owe their existence to the technicians who must now squeeze their speeches in during commercial breaks.

It’s hard to divorce the decision of the academy from the context of which films have and have not been acknowledged in the past few years. In the wake of the announcement, many noted that this change came just in time for the year that “Black Panther” would be an awards show contender. There is a level of pretension inherent to the Oscars. The fates of films such as “Black Panther,” which will fall into the popular film category rather than Best Picture, reinforce the Academy’s entrenched tradition of excluding of people of color and other marginalized communities. But this pretension is confusing and ever-changing — for example, there have been years in which the academy has aligned with the populist angle, choosing “Titanic” and “Braveheart,” or the safe choice: “Crash” instead of “Brokeback Mountain.”

The academy is incredibly changeable when it comes to selecting best picture. Furthermore, it’s unclear which factors the category is meant to measure. What makes a “best picture” when you’re comparing such wildly different films to one another? The category is arbitrary — whoever sweeps best director is going to sweep best picture, except, of course, for the years when this doesn’t happen. The academy seems torn between wanting to seem in touch with popular culture and wanting to maintain a level of exclusivity.

This inclination toward exclusivity seems at odds with the academy’s decision to acknowledge popular films — a category that is so loosely defined that it can only be assumed to be a direct response to the saturation of franchise films over the past decade. In reality, the addition of this category just reinforces that the academy knows it needs to up its ratings but also seems to dread the kind of messiness that occurs at the more “accessible” awards ceremonies, such as the Golden Globes.

The fact that there’s now a category for best popular film suggests, by extension, that the films in the best picture category cannot be popular. While the increasing fragmentation of categories does allow for more varied films to be recognized, it reinforces the idea that genre films are not on the same level as best picture nominees. They are good films, certainly — awards are given for best animated feature, best documentary and, soon, best popular film — but the cream of the crop consists of the best pictures.

At the end of the day, these troubling updates reflect attitudes that are old news. While this new category serves to untether tentpole releases from best picture, other films have already been subject to this attitude for decades. No documentary has ever been nominated for best picture. Only three animated films have. And the best picture nominees are almost always English-speaking. Though the academy has yet to announce the qualifications for the “popular film” category — which will be philistine at best and cynically capitalist at worst — it will undoubtedly exclude more films from the night’s top prize than many current categories already do. This addition promises to shove unsung artists away from the stage.

Film is an incredibly accessible and intensely collaborative medium — it’s about time the academy learn what it means to sincerely celebrate those things.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].
Contact Jackson Kim Murphy at [email protected].