The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Wednesday that its annual Oscar ceremony will add a new “popular film” category, along with other changes implicitly geared toward audience expansion. Like everything that ever happens with the Oscars, this inspired many loud, profound opinions. Below, Entertainment Weekly critic at large Leah Greenblatt and TV critic Darren Franich discuss their own thoughts on the Academy’s announcement.
DARREN: “A new category is being designed around achievement in popular film,” declares the Academy’s Twitter account. It’s an unlovely sentence, Leah, one of those statements that disappears the more you read it. The passive voice — “is being” — sounds blame-shifty. “Designed around” is a classic turn of New Corporate phraseology, the tone of a go-nowhere meeting wrapping up on an action item everyone will ignore.
But it’s the “achievement in popular film” that’s causing such a stir. Hard enough to define “achievement,” because everything’s subjective and some wrong people hated The Shape of Water. But “popular film” isn’t too precise either. You assume this “new category” is the Big Money Lineup, a spot for superhero movies and Chris Pratt sequels and movies where Tom Cruise falls gracefully.
But I ask you, Leah, what is “popular”? In 2009, The Hurt Locker became the lowest-grossing Best Picture ever. Nearly a decade later, I’m not sure Hurt Locker is considered an essential classic, though it’s definitely Top 3 Renner. But that same year, it grossed a couple hundred million dollars less than X-Men Origins: Wolverine — a financially “popular” film so widely disliked that Ryan Reynolds launched a new career making fun of it. Even people who didn’t see The Hurt Locker like The Hurt Locker more than X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Popularity changes, is what I’m trying to say. The Academy Awards feel that vividly, and this announcement seems to reflect a sincere outreach to viewers after years of declining ratings. The show will also take place earlier in the season as of 2020, a shift I don’t care about. It will also aim to be three hours long, a shift I care A LOT about. But before I rant about the cultural necessity of long Oscar montages, I’m intrigued to hear what you think of all this, Leah. Do you feel like this awards show needs to change? And how do you feel about these changes?
LEAH: Oh my God, I didn’t even realize how passive that voice was until you pointed it out! Now all I can hear is Gary Cole’s boss character in Office Space going, “Yeah, so I’m just gonna need you come in this weekend and collate some popular achievements, mmmkay?”
Clearly, they’re going to need to define exactly what qualifies for this category at some point in the near future, though I’m guessing they’re going to put that off for as long as they can. Because it is a terrible, amorphous idea they most likely have not honestly thought through, and because Vin Diesel has probably already sent them 57 Edible Arrangements made entirely of sliced mango and for-your-consideration Fate of the Furious DVDs.
The most obvious metric for this does seem to be box office, like you say — though if we really want to be all Scrooge McDuck about bottom lines and profit, why not acknowledge the films that brought in the most money proportionate to their outlay? And see what a good accountant would have to say about the eastern-territories marketing budget for the most recent Transformers versus a movie like Moonlight, which grossed more than $65 million mostly by critical word of mouth, and cost under $4 million to make.
Look, I totally get that they’re worried about diminished ratings and the widening gap between “prestige” movies and the ones America actually goes to the multiplex to see. But isn’t 99 percent of our pop culture already designed to reward whatever scrap of of celluloid Dwayne Johnson wraps his BFG biceps around? We are never not smelling what the Rock is cooking, which I’m sincerely fine with. But it also seems like that’s what the MTV Movie Awards and Disney World theme rides and Arby’s tie-ins are for.
I might be in the minority, but I love every weepy, self-congratulatory minute of the Oscars telecast. Give me your best Slovenian documentary shorts! Your uncensored Francis McDormands and your inscrutable 10-minute montages! And just let Vin man the karaoke machine at the afterparty. (No, seriously, do; he’s really good at karaoke.)
DARREN: Agree a hundred thousand million percent, Leah! The Oscars should be long, four hours, five. And they should highlight the efforts of everyone who makes movies, not just the famous faces.
It’s obviously silly to separate quality into financial stratospheres. That said, all your Vin Diesel talk has me dreaming of a not-too-distant future where 9 Fast 9 Furious wins an Oscar, and that sounds less absurd to me than the possibility of The King’s Speech winning an Oscar. So it’s the three-hour change that really worries me. The Oscars are a great moment for Hollywood to express some version of its best self. They’re about glamour, but also about the collaboration, the assortment of creative humans who have to work together to create cinema.
And cinema is history. One of my single most vivid Oscar memories of my life came from the 2001 show. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff received an honorary award, and there was a montage of some of his brilliant work, a shot from The African Queen, a shot from Black Narcissus. I was a little dumbo who didn’t know anything about anything, and that night I learned who Jack Cardiff was, and that bit of education unquestionably made me a better person. Now the honorary Oscars are banished to another ceremony — and soon, perhaps, the Cardiffs of today will get their spotlight moment in a commercial break, their career-affirming awards victory-edited and tape-delayed so there’s more time for whoever’s playing Spider-Man now to banter with one of the five people playing the Joker.
Where will the kids of tomorrow learn about Black Narcissus? Netflix? Fat chance. I just typed “Black Narcissus” into the search bar, and the first thing that came up was The Crown. NOT EVERYTHING IS THE CROWN, NETFLIX!
This year, the Oscar telecast had an all-time-low rating. But every TV rating is lower now, except for the TV shows that kill Milo Ventimiglia. Announcing that the 2019 Oscar ceremony will find new ways to kill Milo Ventimiglia makes more sense than announcing a Popular Film prize. But I will say, Leah, the more I think about it, the more I kinda dig the move up to early February. I don’t love how awards campaigning has become a yearlong ritual, since it gameifies cinematic enjoyment in a way that sometimes gets in the way of cinematic enjoyment. A shorter Oscar season means less Oscar fatigue, and less double-reverse-backlash non-opinions declaring that a movie where Michael Shannon pulls off his own finger was somehow “the safe choice.”
So here’s some positive commentary for you, Academy: Great job moving your show earlier. Now please make it longer!
LEAH: Wait, does Milo Ventimiglia get murdered in the Gilmore Girls sequel?? Never mind, don’t tell me.
But you’re so right about the non “starry” awards: I think my happiest scream last year came from watching Roger Deakins finally, finally win Best Cinematography on his 14th nomination, for Blade Runner 2049. This is the man who shot Fargo and Shawshank and Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men and A Beautiful Mind, and that’s not, like, arthouse trivia. It’s the kind of film history that everyone who even casually enjoys movies should be able to learn and participate in by watching the Oscars the way they were meant to be.
If those prizes are relegated to some sad afternoon in a Culver City ballroom, we all lose. But I agree with you about the timing thing, too; there are so many preliminary awards shows littering the onramp to the big event at this point — DGAs? PGAs? Independent Actor Spirit Guild? — that the winners feel almost foregone by the time we get to them, because they’ve been accumulating momentum and collecting other statuettes for so many months already. At best, you can just hope for a random upset because somebody unexpectedly split the vote or, you know, handed Warren Beatty the wrong card.
Darren for me the bottom line is that most of these changes smell like the world’s worst cologne, which is desperation. I love that they’re working to change the makeup of the voting membership and make it more diverse; that was beyond necessary. But Academy, please don’t morph your entire DNA just to chase the Snapchat kids or the advertisers or whoever this “popular achievement” thing is for. You is kind (not really), you is smart (sometimes), but you is important. And I love you almost entirely, exhaustingly the way you are.