Over the past several years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that votes on the Oscars, has made tremendous strides in diversifying its membership. In 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that 91 percent of AMPAS’s 6,000-plus members were white and 76 percent were male, a barely perceptible change from the figures the LAT first reported in 2012. But that year, the academy invited a record new 683 members, a record it went on to break in 2017, and again in 2018, increasing AMPAS’s overall membership by nearly half in a three-year span and doubling the percentage of members who are people of color.
This has represented a tremendous effort to bring sweeping change to one of the world’s most prominent cultural arbiters. And, Wednesday, in one fell swoop, the academy undid it all.
The announcement that the Oscars would be adding an as-yet-unnamed category for “achievement in popular film” was met with near-universal derision, and for good reason. After The Dark Knight missed out on a Best Picture nomination in 2009, the academy revamped its rules in an attempt to give blockbuster movies a better shot at the brass ring—not only doubling the potential number of Best Picture slots but switching (back) to a preferential ballot that prevents movies with small but passionate constituencies from sneaking to the front of a crowded pack. But instead of broadening the field, the new system merely deepened it. The idea that potential Dark Knights were lingering just out of reach turned out to be false: Instead of a wider range of nominees, we ended up with more of the same. Changing the way the Oscars were voted on didn’t change the results. So the academy decided to change who was voting for them.
Good news! The academy’s newly diverse voting pool did indeed produce a historic result, and not just for the way it happened: The bizarre circumstances under which Moonlight was awarded Best Picture only scratched the surface of how unusual its win was. The first Best Picture by a black American director was also the first gay love story and arguably the first outright art film to win since 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. It’s also the lowest-budget Best Picture winner in recent memory, if not of all time, and the lowest grossing.
It’s the latter that’s the source of the academy’s greatest concern—and, more to the point, ABC’s. Given that the new category was announced alongside changes to the Oscars’ televised broadcast that include a (supposedly) firm three-hour running time and giving some of the lower-wattage awards during commercial breaks, it seemed likely that the network, which has paid for the rights to air the Oscars through 2028, had a heavy hand in the proposed tweaks. And indeed, by day’s end, Variety’s Daniel Holloway was reporting that the changes were the result of a “come-to-Jesus meeting” held after the 2018 broadcast, whose ratings were the worst in the Oscars’ history. The academy could have stood firm, but in the face of trouble with its biggest annual moneymaker, AMPAS’s board caved in, and it did it spectacularly. The Oscars have added new categories before, most recently the award for Best Animated Feature. But there’s a neat, one might even say categorical, distinction between animation and live-action, or documentary, or even foreign-language films. What exactly is a “popular film”? And are the ones that don’t qualify as such … unpopular?
The decision to announce the new category without a name or a list of qualifying characteristics made a bad decision seem even worse, almost to the point of deliberate self-sabotage. Will candidates for Best Popular Picture be determined by budget? By box-office returns? If the latter, is it possible for a movie like Get Out or A Quiet Place to cross over from one to the other? And if not, will it be analogous to the split between lead and supporting performances, where the line is subject to campaigning and manipulation that sometimes verges on outright fraud? The academy has said that any movie eligible for Best Pop Pic will also be qualified for Best Picture, but given the Oscars’ propensity for spreading the wealth, the new category is likely to function as an escape valve, a way to demonstrate that voters are in touch with popular taste—i.e., the comic-book movies, sequels, and comic-book movie sequels that now dominate the box office—while remaining otherwise unchanged.
The decision is especially ill-timed given that Black Panther was widely expected to earn a Best Picture nomination—that’s Best Picture proper, not a category invented under pressure from a TV network that (checks notes) shares a parent company with Marvel Studios. While the academy hasn’t yet said whether the new category will be in place for next year’s Oscars, the anxiety over Black Panther’s potential exclusion is all over its invention. You can practically smell the flop sweat as you read AMPAS’s press release. But if the category is instituted in time and Black Panther wins, it will be hard to see it as anything but a second-class victory—the “separate but equal” of Best Picture trophies.
That, ultimately, is where the true insult lies. In order to see Best Pop Pic’s creation as a stain on the academy’s integrity, you would first have to prove that it has any. (The idea that the new category represents a deviation from the Oscars’ dedication to “genuine artistry” is, um—you know this is the award that The King’s Speech won, right?) But AMPAS has spent years engaged in a push to include members who better represent the movie industry and the world it occupies, and while it may justifiably trumpet the results of that initiative, the academy’s board has made it clear it doesn’t fully trust that newly diverse membership with the vote for the Oscars’ most important award. There’s something all too familiar about finally letting women and people of color through the academy’s doors and then changing the rules before they’ve even had a chance to make their influence felt.