On August 8th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that they would be creating a new Oscar category for “Achievement in Popular Film.” The Academy has not yet announced (and does not yet seem to know) what this means, but it seems pretty clear that it is an attempt to boost what have been increasingly dismal ratings for the Oscars telecast by showcasing more blockbuster films.
This is not the first time the Academy has tried to include more popular films to increase ratings; in 2009, the Oscars once again expanded the Best Picture category to include up to ten films as a response to the backlash that occurred after The Dark Knight was snubbed the previous year. In practice, the decision ended up changing little. Yes, certain blockbusters like Avatar and The Martian were nominated when they would have probably been snubbed in the past, but at the same time nobody expected them to actually win so…who cares?
Yesterday’s change is more fundamental, and more harmful. First of all, the new award diminishes the purpose of the Oscars. What is the point of awards shows and why do we care about them at all? There are two basic reasons. The first is to validate our own opinions. We want the films we like to win awards (and, more importantly, the films we dislike to be snubbed) because it proves that we have good taste. We are all guilty of this on some level, but it can appeal to some of the ugliest aspects of fandom, which have only become worse in the social media era. In this sense, this new category does little more than offer validation to the same types of folks who think any critic who gives a bad review to a DCEU film has been paid off by Marvel.
But the change is even worse when we consider the good that the Oscars and other awards can do for the film community. When a film is nominated for Best Picture, it attracts attention. Films that failed to get an audience on their own can gain one during Oscar season. Nominations help us to discover films that they might not have heard of and once a year shift the conversation away from huge blockbusters to smaller, lesser known films. Of course the Best Picture category will still exist, giving smaller films their shot, but having an entire new category made up of films such as Infinity War, Black Panther, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Deadpool 2 (currently the five highest-grossing films of 2018, according to Box Office Mojo), just gives us another excuse to let big budget blockbusters suck more of the oxygen out of film discourse.
Last year, would those who write about film have spent so much of January talking about a film like Call Me By Your Name if they had the opportunity to write articles about The Force Awakens’ Oscar chances? I doubt it. The argument in favor of the Academy’s decision claims that this new category will give recognition to films like Wonder Woman that don’t receive recognition from the Academy, but to what end? Academy recognition is really only useful as a form of advertising. Does a movie that makes $500 million to $1 billion need such recognition? Isn’t everyone who would even kind of like Infinity War going to see it regardless of what the Academy does? Won’t almost everyone have already seen it by the time of the awards?
While this new category will harm smaller pictures by devoting yet more time to major blockbusters, it will also detract from the great genre films that do get made. A Popular Film category suggests that what is popular is not good and vice versa. It is pandering rather than legitimately appreciating the art of good genre filmmaking.
How could the Academy move to actually appreciate these films as art? Matt Singer had an excellent suggestion: add categories like Best Stunt or Best Action Sequence. Just as the Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects categories give recognition to artists who work tirelessly to help make films great but receive little credit from the public, these categories could give similar recognition to the unsung artists of genre filmmaking. Stuntwoman Zoe Bell’s thrilling fight work helped to make the Kill Bill movies brilliant, yet nobody even knew her name before Tarantino gave her an acting role in Death Proof. Similarly, it would be great if the Academy took the time to recognize great action sequences like the chases in Mad Max: Fury Road, the throne room duel in The Last Jedi, or one of the fight sequences in John Wick. The best of these sequences can be as captivating (and even as beautiful) as an Astaire/Rogers or Kelly/Charisse dance number, but they are not similarly recognized as art.
These are just two possibilities, but there are more. Though it fits under the umbrella of the visual effects category, there is no special recognition of virtual performances. Some have lobbied to get Andy Serkis a Best Actor nod for his various motion-capture performances, but I’m not sure that is the best fit. Serkis’s performances are aided by a team of animators who help bring his characters to life. Why not create a Best Virtual Performance category, which, like the Visual Effects category, would go to a team, the actor and animators?
Rather than mindlessly pandering to casual moviegoers, these categories would call attention to the art that lies beneath the surface of popular films. They would encourage the fans of these films to look at the craft that goes into making them, creating a more literate film-going public and, perhaps, a better class of popular film.
Great genre films deserve better. They shouldn’t be given an empty category that is meant to do nothing but validate the opinions of casual moviegoers, the Academy Awards equivalent of a Facebook like. These films deserve recognition for what they do well, not a participation trophy.
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