by William Burleigh ’19
Recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the addition of a new competitive category at the Oscars to recognize the “best achievement in popular film.” This new award is set to debut at the 91st Academy Awards in February 2019. It is the first new category at the Oscars since 2002, when the Academy introduced the award for Best Animated Feature.
While they have not released any information regarding specific details about the new category, it seems to be tailored to big summer blockbusters and superhero films; films that are traditionally overlooked for the more prestigious awards of Best Picture and Best Director in favor of more technical categories, such as Sound and Visual Effects.
Several critics have compared this exclusion of popular films from prestigious categories—and the subsequent creation of a category catered to them specifically—to the backlash that the Academy faced in 2008 when critically acclaimed blockbusters The Dark Knight and WALL-E were not nominated for Best Picture. This led to the expansion of the Best Picture category from five nominees up to 10. Most years since have seen nine films nominated.
The announcement of the category, Best Popular Film, has been met with a nearly universal negative response. Many view it as a desperate attempt to cater to mainstream audiences, in hopes of increasing annual ratings since the 90th Oscars hit an all-time low this past March. Others have criticized the award for diminishing the reputation of the Oscar brand, which is historically meant to be prestigious and desirable.
Some view the decision to add a popular film category as a way for the Academy to acknowledge blockbuster movies and studio tentpoles that often do not make the cut for Best Picture. This creates issues stemming from the fact that putting studio blockbusters in a “popular” category suggests that they usually are not as artistic as the indie movies that get nominated for Best Picture.
With this announcement coming ahead of an awards season where Black Panther is considered by many to be a major contender for Best Picture, the Academy is facing even more criticism. Black Panther has received enormous critical acclaim in addition to breaking numerous box-office records since its February release. On Aug. 5, it became the third film to ever gross $700 million domestically, after Avatar and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Black Panther, viewed by many as being transcendent of the superhero genre due to its cultural significance and strong African American representation, was widely predicted and even assumed to become the first superhero movie to be nominated for the Best Picture category. With the creation of the Best Popular Film category, these chances could be diminished; critics are worried relegating Black Panther to a popular film category will hurt its chances of being nominated in the more prestigious ones.
The Academy has since released a follow-up statement in response to this backlash ensuring that any single film is eligible to be considered for both the Best Picture and Best Popular Film categories. However, many remain unconvinced that the Oscars will not be relegating blockbusters worthy of an award—such as The Dark Knight, Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road, La La Land, Get Out, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther—to a “consolation prize” of Best Popular Film instead of allowing them to compete in prestigious categories and earn meaningful awards.
Only when the Academy announces the eligibility rules for the Best Popular Film category at a later date will the public find out how the Oscars define “popular,” and whether they intend to judge films based on genre or content.