Best Popular Film: An Okay Idea Eighty-Nine Years Too Late

Since the announcement of “Best Popular Film” was made several hours ago, the general reaction has been something along the lines of “All this does is pander further to some non-existent audience at the expense of condescending to movies that make money.” Let’s take those one half at a time. First, I am generally speaking not in favor of trying to convert people who aren’t interested in you anyway. (If the Democratic Party happens to be reading this, I have some suggestions along these lines.) The audience for the Oscars, which runs for like four hours, is an audience of people who like glitz. They are touched by the so-called “magic of the movies.” They are corny. They are old enough to get AARP in the mail. They throw parties with themed snacks and bet on the results in their Oscar pools. And, although this is a total guess, it’s a guess I’m making based on my own line of thought: they think of the Oscars as history more than they see it as a telecast. When I watch the Oscars, I feel like I’m watching a little culmination of movie history. You have to find a way to get those people, people like me, who are terrifically lame and who might be bothered into watching the ceremony every year instead of when the mood strikes us. And yet in the past decade, the Academy has eschewed tradition badly and upheld it for far too long in the worst circumstances. The Academy took forever to make itself less white and male and old, but caved when everyone complained about The Dark Knight being snubbed for Best Picture. (I may be the last person on the planet who wants to revert to a five-picture field. I also like to think that I understand what the college football playoff committee understands: when you arbitrarily limit the number of possible winners, you create the kind of controversy that gets people to pay attention to you.) Now they’ve done it again when people complained that an organization had the nerve to call some movie the best picture of the year when they hadn’t seen it personally.

Is the Academy brain trust really hoping they can hook people who enjoyed Infinity War into watching any part of a lengthy telecast, when they could just catch the highlights on YouTube the morning after? Or, better yet, on Twitter as it’s happening? There are several TV channels these days. The whole Internet exists. Even Game of Thrones, probably the last of the water cooler TV shows, can only draw so many viewers the night of. It is no longer feasible to shoot for the giant viewership of the days of yore; everyone has to deal with a little less profit than they’d like on television, and the Oscars can’t be any different. The common consensus, for good reason, is that the Oscars get more eyeballs when the biggest movies get more nominations. The problem is that they could nominate Black Panther, Infinity War, and Incredibles 2 for Best Picture and they still wouldn’t rate as highly as they did thirty years ago.

By the way: no one has ever liked the Oscars telecast. It is the Saturday Night Live of awards shows, always complained about in the present and mythologized happily once you’ve got twenty years of nostalgia on it. Here are a pair of competing opinions on the 58th Academy Awards (for movies released in 1985). One review asserted that it was the worst Oscars in years; another argued that it was a refreshing change from “the complaints that had grown deadeningly familiar over the years,” emphasis mine. Go through the Wikipedia pages of the last thirty-odd Oscar ceremonies: it’s hard to find any ceremony that gets better than “mixed reviews” from the TV critics, and most of them don’t even do that well. The 66th Academy Awards (1992) was panned for yet another “song medley” (sound familiar?). If one movie wins too many Academy Awards, then that’s boring. Reviews of the show’s host vary wildly, too, even though you’d think that if Billy Crystal was good at it once he’d probably be good at it four or five times. The dirty little secret of the Oscars telecast is that the most memorable part is always the speeches, and the cringier they are (Jack Palance’s push-ups, James Cameron’s “king of the world” self-reference, etc.), the more they stick in our imagination. They are also not something you can advertise for without giving the game away.

Second, the whole “popular movies aren’t good” strand is an issue because they decided to call this the “Best Popular Film,” a name which of course assumes that the winner of the ceremony isn’t usually popular, which is the new Exhibit A in the You Played Yourself Museum. A better name, like “Outstanding Blockbuster Movie,” would probably make the award seem less stupid from the get-go. I also think people may have initially assumed that Best Popular Film would not be able to cross over with Best Picture; it’s been made clear that a movie will be eligible for both if it’s made enough money.

The real problem with Best Popular Film is that this ignores two strands of Oscar’s own history, and let’s be real, if Oscar ignores his own history this much there’s no reason for the fellow and his many bald gold siblings to exist any longer. For one, this is an idea they’ve done before; the Academy tried it at the 1st Academy Awards and then dropped it for the 2nd. They didn’t call ’em Best Picture and Best Popular Film—they called ’em “Outstanding Picture” and “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”—but the general idea holds. For whatever reason, the Academy decided to choose a 1 and a 1A, and for whatever reason it was set down again almost as soon as it started. I don’t mind this idea at all, incidentally. The Golden Globes sensibly decide to honor Dramas and Comedies/Musicals separately; that began at the 8th Golden Globes, and will continue in this upcoming ceremony, the 76th. The BAFTAs gave out an award for Best British Film from ’47 to ’67 and then again from ’92 to the present; it goes without saying that a Best Film and a Best British Film serve the BAFTAs better than a single winner. And on this blog I have already expressed my fondness in the abstract for the “Outstanding Picture”/”Unique and Artistic Picture” split, which had it lived would have really changed the way we appreciate the Academy Awards. But Popular Film, as I think we all can guess, would not be a 1A. It wouldn’t even be a 1C. There are categories just a little too big to be tacked onto a ceremony which will turn ninety-one when it celebrates next, and this is one of them. The force of history will not array itself behind “Best Popular Film,” and the people who made that decision for us were born in the 19th Century. Sometimes it’s honestly just too late to make a change.

Finally, though, we get to the part of this decision which I find most annoying. I spent this past summer ranking every last one of the Best Picture winners, as well as writing about which movie from the nominated field should have won the prize at each ceremony. And there’s a reason I had to rank Wings instead of Sunrise: the Academy Awards decided that Best Picture descended from “Outstanding Picture,” not “Unique and Artistic Picture.”

I love making ugly charts, so here’s an ugly chart of whether or not each Best Picture winner was arguably the most popular film of the year. I’m not relying just on box office numbers, which I have a feeling the Oscars won’t either; there’s a certain level of word-of-mouth, of good press, and of general “You have to see this” that I’m trying to account for as well. If it’s the top-grosser of the year, I’ve put it in blue; if it’s arguably the most popular movie of the year based on good reviews and high box office placement, I’ve put it in red. I apologize in advance if this is not 100% accurate, because movie grosses are notoriously tricky to calculate with 100% accuracy:

Twenty-two times, by my count, the film with the greatest box office take won Best Picture, a 24% clip. And ten more times, one could argue that the most popular movie of the year won out, which means that historically, one out of every three Best Picture winners is probably the most popular movie of the year. The history of the Oscars is the history of extremely well-liked movies winning the prize; the best example of that principle is probably The Godfather, which won just three Oscars but was enormously profitable. Adding a “Best Popular Film” category pretends that the Oscars have been choosing The Hurt Locker over Avatar all these years, which is an ahistorical move at best.

The real issue here is one of the Academy’s own making, and it’s not just that the new category is stupid and unwanted. The problem is that in the past decade, it’s hard to know who the Academy is choosing a Best Picture for. They certainly aren’t choosing the best or most interesting movies, and except for a few happy coincidences in the past ninety years the Oscars have never done that. Nor are they choosing the movies that might genuinely be said to be the most popular movies in America. Every time the Academy votes for The King’s Speech or The Shape of Water, the Oscars’ raison d’être dies a little. (This is not quite like what happens when they vote for The Artist or Argo, when I die a little.) These safe, middlebrow movies are the most lukewarm choices you can get, and it’s what happens, unsurprisingly, when you tell thousands of people to vote for their favorite movies of the year. We can hardly expect them to make bold choices even when it seems like the bold choices are easy (hello, yes, this is Get Out, or even just nominating Wonder Woman). And I guess we can hardly expect them to make anything other than lukewarm choices, such as this “Best Popular Film” award.

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