Brow Beat

The Oscars Announced a New Category Celebrating Popular Films. But There Are Better Ways to Broaden the Awards’ Appeal.

Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett in Black Panther.
Ahem.
Disney/Marvel Studios

On Wednesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced major changes to the Oscars ceremony going forward, including a shorter, three-hour telecast and the creation of a new category “being designed around achievement in popular film.” This marks the first time the Oscars have added a new category since 2001, when the award for Best Animated Feature was introduced. The organization also announced that the date of the 2020 ceremony has been moved up.

In a letter to Academy members obtained by the Hollywood Reporter, the board of governors explained the changes further: To accommodate the shorter telecast, the awards for certain categories—which have not yet been determined but will presumably be the less glamorous ones, like Sound Editing and Mixing—will be presented during commercial breaks, with edited footage of the recipients winning to be shown later in the broadcast. The board did not offer any details about the new popular film category, except to promise that eligibility requirements are forthcoming. “We have heard from many of you about improvements needed to keep the Oscars and our Academy relevant in a changing world,” the board’s letter concludes. “The Board of Governors took this charge seriously.”

But creating a category that segregates popular films from more elevated fare hardly seems like an improvement or likely to keep the academy relevant, since it calls attention to the awards’ elitism rather than actually broadening their appeal. If the academy really wants to make the Oscars more appealing to a wider audience, it should consider just recognizing the artistic merit of deserving popular films instead of cordoning them off in their own category. After all, wasn’t that part of the justification for expanding the Best Picture category in 2009, that having more than five nominees would allow room for both obscure indies and more popular fare that might otherwise be squeezed out of the race?

That expansion was in many ways a response to the academy snubbing The Dark Knight for a Best Picture nomination a year earlier, despite rave reviews from critics and a $1 billion total at the box office. Similarly, the new “achievement in popular film” category seems like the board’s trying to avoid repeating history in 2018, in case another popular superhero movie is similarly snubbed for Best Picture: Black Panther, another commercial success that also won over critics. It’s certainly to the academy’s benefit to nominate a box-office triumph in some capacity, since the Oscar telecast’s ratings go up when it does.

Still, if the academy is really itching to shed its stodgy image and create a new category that will favor blockbusters, it should make it one that recognizes an actual achievement in film, like Best Stunt Coordination or Best Motion-Capture Performance. It could even take its current plan a step further and break down the Best Picture award into subdivisions for indie movies, midbudget pictures, and blockbusters, rather than specifically singling out popular movies as the Other. At the end of the (three-hour!) ceremony, pretty much any solution would be better than sticking Black Panther with a participation trophy.