Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film?!

What a day.  I knew that the declining ratings for the Oscar telecast were causing AMPAS some dismay, but the changes announced in the letter they sent out a few days ago point to full blown panic behind the scenes.  How else to explain these latest developments? Not only are they going to pre-tape some of the more obscure categories to help cut the ceremony down to three hours, but there's the sinister announcement of a new category aiming to recognize "outstanding achievement in popular film."  What the hell is that?!

Let's put aside the pre-taping of winners for now, which I'm not exactly happy about, but I think that everyone could live with it if corners have to be cut.  The Tonys already do something similar. The bulk of this post will be dissecting this "popular film" award, which has rightly drawn the most attention and ire.  The thinking behind the announcement is pretty clear. Oscar telecast ratings are higher when more popular box office hits are in contention, so AMPAS has an interest in seeing more blockbusters get more nominations.  That was a major reason why the number of Best Picture nominees was increased back in 2009. The trouble is that those extra nomination slots didn't go to the blockbusters, but often to more prestige films.

Most of the Best Picture winners and nominees over the past few years have been tiny, low budget movies like "Moonlight" and "Spotlight" that hardly anyone saw.  Sure, "Dunkirk" and "The Shape of Water" were legitimate hits, but they've been outnumbered by obscure movies like "Phantom Thread" and "Darkest Hour." Meanwhile, the real box office winners like "Avengers" and "Star Wars" never get more than a few technical nods.  The tastes of moviegoing audiences and the Academy have increasingly diverged. At this point we're decades away from the era where "Titanic" and "Lord of the Rings" were winners at both the box office and the Oscar podium.

Getting back to that point is difficult, however.  There's a legitimate argument that the Academy has biases against more populist films, especially genre fare and children's entertainment, that should be corrected.  However, it's also very clear that the composition of moviegoing audiences has changed drastically over the last twenty years. The box office is dominated by lightweight superhero and action franchises, nearly all of them aimed at young adults and children.  The more serious, artistically challenging fare favored by the Academy is still being made, but titles have to fight for the steadily declining pool of adult viewers.

It looks like the Academy chasing after the popular movies necessarily means lowering its standards, and pandering to the tastes of younger audiences.  Frankly, this not a new thing, as the Oscars are an industry award heavily influenced by popular sentiment. These are not a critical or artistic awards voted on by people trying to be impartial.  However, the Oscars have a reputation for honoring quality and have historically been much subtler about tilting the playing field one way or another. They generally do it through obscure rule changes, like who gets to vote on which categories, or the screening requirements for eligibility.

That's why this latest announcement is such a shock.  There is nothing subtle about a whole new category coming out of nowhere, especially one determined by an eligibility  metric that has never been used for Oscars before: box office numbers. Because really, how else do you measure a film's popularity except with box office numbers?  Compare this to the last time we got a new category back in 2001, for Best Animated Film. The stated reasoning was that there was a boom in the number of animated films being produced in the late '90s, creating real competition for an award.  But it sure didn't hurt that those films were suddenly making a lot of money.

It's also difficult to imagine how the category is going to work in practice.  The top five films at the box office in 2017 were "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Fate of the Furious," "Despicable Me 3," and "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle."  Do they just automatically get nominations or is there a minimum level of quality they have to meet? Does a panel of voters choose nominees from the top fifty earners of the year as of December 31st?  Do we use domestic or worldwide totals? Do we factor in home media sales? My guess is that the winner will be determined by popular voting by the "Transformers" loving public, which opens up a whole new can of worms logistically.

What gets to me is that there are a lot of other steps that the Academy could have taken to honor and include the blockbusters.  They could have finally approved that outstanding stunt coordinator category. They could have created categories for outstanding visual characters and virtual performances.  They could have made that new category Outstanding Genre Feature, or Outstanding Children's Feature, or Outstanding Franchise Feature even. Instead, we get a mini-People's Choice Award segment mashed into the telecast.  Oh well. I am a little impressed that AMPAS didn't hide their intentions and just came right out and said they wanted more blockbusters in the ceremony.

The prospect of an Oscar going to the next "Minions" movie, however, just makes me die a little inside.

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