How the Academy is Missing the Mark

How the Academy is Missing the Mark

It’s been a couple of weeks since The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it would be adding an additional category to its award ceremony and people are still debating and rolling their eyes about the decision. So why the upheaval? Isn’t it a good thing that the Academy is becoming more open-minded about which films should be included in the race to win the coveted awards? Don’t we want to see more types of films winning Oscars?
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the changes, shall we? A tweet from the Academy on August 8th reads:
“Change is coming to the #Oscars. Here’s what you need to know:”

  • A new category is being designed around achievement in popular film
  • We’ve set an earlier airdate for 2020: mark your calendars for February 9th
  • We’re planning a more globally accessible, three-hour telecast

Critics and fans alike have responded negatively and mostly scoffed at the change (see the hilarious tweets that prove it) and while the Academy is working hard to seem more inclusive, many people in the industry and beyond have detected an ulterior motive. Ratings. The Academy is suffering low ratings and they need to do something about it.
Reasons for the decline in viewership range from inaccessibility to a long program, but most importantly the Academy is starting to realize there’s a disconnect between what films win Oscars and what people are actually going to see in the theater. It’s most likely a combination of factors, but the truth is, the current environment for the awards show is not ideal. Gone are the days when families would gather around their TVs at a certain day and time to watch a show together.
Most people have done away with cable altogether in favor of streaming (confirming the accessibility issue). In fact, last year was the lowest in record for subscriptions. The Academy seems to connect their low ratings with the fact that big blockbuster films aren’t receiving enough attention at the award ceremony, but in many ways, the new category is just a band-aid for the real issues.
When you really think about it, the decision to add a “popular film” category makes no sense if they want to improve ratings. Here’s why an “achievement in popular film” category is a bad idea:

It’s an arbitrary category. What does “popular” mean?

One of the more frustrating aspects of this new change is that the Academy hasn’t released any further details. How will they determine what a “popular” film is? Speculations abound, but one thing is for certain: it’s a consolation prize. For films that don’t fit the mold of a traditional Oscar winner, the Academy wants to improve their viewership by giving more widely popular films a chance to win this award.
It seems convenient that Disney/Marvel’s Black Panther is released and loved by audiences and critics, the Academy decides to add this category. Generally, genre films don’t make it into the Best Picture race, but with a big blockbuster superhero movie like Black Panther on the scene this year, the Academy is panicking. If the movie didn’t receive any nominations, there likely would be a backlash and what we can only assume they equate with poor ratings.
The trouble with this is, by not waiting to see what Academy members would nominate, they’ve pulled the rug out from under films that may have made into the race anyway. With the recent diversification of the Academy, who’s to say that more films wouldn’t continue to be included in the list of nominees. The Academy’s decision seems like a reactionary response motivated by money. Why not allow the industry to organically grow and change and make changes in other areas?

The change devalues critically acclaimed movies that don’t typically get the same attention blockbusters do.

Over its 90 year history, there have been various trends when it comes to what wins Best Picture. The past decade or so has demonstrated a growing trend in the “film festival movie” as Oscar bait. Historical context, political environment, and many other factors contribute to what makes a film attractive to the awards ceremony, but film festival entries have won best picture for the last decade. See more on how a film wins the Best Picture award and what has trended historically in this helpful video.
The great thing about film festival films winning Oscars is that it gives Independent filmmakers a chance to go all the way. While film festivals are not immune to bureaucracy and a gathering of “who’s who” that makes it difficult for no-name directors to become contenders, it gives budding filmmakers a fighting chance to enter the race. When films make it to the Oscars (and especially when they win), people tend to take notice. While many of these films defy typical genre conventions and can make audiences uncomfortable, if a viewer has an open mind, they can be given a chance to consider a different perspective, to engage story in a different way, and to reflect on how the art impacts their own life story. I’d argue adding an “achievement in best popular film” category to the awards ceremony devalues the importance of films that tend to accomplish what a blockbuster film usually doesn’t.

It’s a cheap effort to make money, but is it really surprising?

Let’s be honest, this industry is about making money. ABC is concerned about their ratings and the Academy is concerned about the longevity of their program. The Academy has gone through a number of transformations and added and removed categories throughout the years in an effort to keep up with audience trends and stay in the black.
Audiences and critics have debated the Academy’s changes for years. In fact, the conversation about the changes in the programming has encouraged people to offer up other categories that could be created instead. Some have predicted a decline in the show altogether and many are worried about sustainability.
Is the change a good thing that promotes inclusivity? Not really. Is it surprising? Nope. Does it signal the death of an institution? Probably not. As long as there are artists who want to make great art through the medium of film, there will be an audience and judges who will consume and award that art. I’m not sure it will take the same form as it does today, but as long as filmmakers are out there putting their blood, sweat, and tears into their projects, I’ll be around to see what’s next.

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