For something I've heard referred to as irrelevant and out of touch with society for years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, aka AMPAS, aka the organization that runs the Academy Awards, sure did blow up film Twitter yesterday. The Academy announced three new changes that will impact how the Oscars work starting next year.
I'm going to be honest. This is one of the most infuriating set of changes to the Academy Awards since they tried to raise the quality of the Original Song category. Remember that? Remember how they added a scoring system to guarantee higher quality nominees and instead made it so as few as two songs were nominated ("Real in Rio" from Rio and "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets) for arguably the only category that adds to the telecast? You know, with songs being performed that were written for film? And then they still only let about a minute of each nominee be performed onstage?
What part of this announcement is infuriating? Most of it. Take the three-hour telecast announcement. In this tweet, it seems fine. Who, on the east coast of the United States of America, wants to stay up until almost 1AM to find out what wins Best Picture? I normally wind up taking a nap during the telecast in the hopes of seeing something as iconic as La La Land accidentally being named Best Picture over Moonlight and the chaos that follows; that is the one time it was worth staying up that late in decades.
But how do they plan on achieving this change? They're going full-Tony Awards. Never go full-Tony Awards. Entire categories will no longer be televised to cut down the running time. The Tonys do that by, for some unknown reason, preventing either the winning composer or the winning book writer of Original Score or Original Book of a Musical from speaking onstage, as well as most of the technical categories (lights, sound (when they don't eliminate it to the rage of the theater community), sets, costumes).
There is no confirmation on what categories won't be televised. We can take a pretty good guess based on the other hotbed issue in the announcement. Say goodbye to some mix of short films (animated, live, and documentary), sound mixing, sound editing, production design, makeup, and cinematography. Foreign Language Film will stay (the change is to be "globally accessible," after all). Animated is one of the more recognizable set of nominees, so that's safe. Documentary might be moved to commercial breaks, too, since who cares about that?
The other hotbed issue is the new category. Explain to me, in 2018, why we are discussing if popular films can be good films. Creating a popular film category in addition to Best Picture is an exercise in absurdity.
It doesn't take a film historian to see how this is a flawed concept from the start. Popular films that are good films get Best Picture nominations. Just last year, Get Out, Dunkirk, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Shape of Water all received Best Picture nominations. Get Out and Dunkirk grossed over $150 million domestic, and The Shape of Water and Three Billboards... cleared $50 million. Lady Bird hit $47 million. These were not unpopular films. They did very well domestically and were all original cinematic properties, rather than the sequels or adaptations that dominated the Top 10 highest grossing films.
Go back a little further. Since 1978, when box office gross became easier to track, 21 of the 40 winners grossed over $100 million dollars; three grossed over $300 million. This isn't even looking at overall nominees, where there is almost always a popular film in the mix. Sometimes, a popular film is also the best film of the year. We might not agree with the winner, but films like Titanic, Forrest Gump, and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King clearly resonated enough with audiences and Oscar voters to earn both distinctions.
Forget about the fears expressed that this is somehow to stop Black Panther from being a Best Picture nominee. The changes don't go into effect (if they even get adopted after the outrage) until the ceremony honoring films made in 2019. The Academy is clearly warming to superhero films with the influx of new members. Logan, of all films, got an Adapted Screenplay nomination. The superhero films are regular players in Visual Effects and Makeup and Hairstyling. Two animated superhero films have won Animated Feature and one of those also received an Original Screenplay nomination. Superhero films are arguably more popular than horror films, and horror films have routinely been among the most popular films released throughout the history of cinema.
The issue is not one of exclusion--let's find ways to honor more great films--but of separation. You read it every year in the secret Academy voters confession articles. There are voters who refuse to vote for documentaries, animated films, and foreign language films in the Best Picture category because they already have their own category. It's also why films that fit into multiple categories (foreign and documentary, documentary and animated, and sometimes animated and foreign) struggle to find footing in one or both categories regardless of quality. Adding a popular film category is only going to further segment the nomination pool and justify never nominating a "popular film" (whatever that's supposed to mean--that's not been defined at all) for Best Picture.
Some of these category distinctions are crucial. Honoring great documentaries and films not written in English are wonderful goals that expose a wider audience to films they might have never heard of. One of these categories has long been rumored to literally be a reactionary movement to trends.
Animated Film will always have the stigma of being created in response to Shrek's universal critical and commercial acclaim. Instead of risking that film being a Best Picture nominee, they created a new category that stopped any genuine Best Picture momentum. A grand total of three animated films have ever received Best Picture nominations, and two only got in because of another rule change.
That rule change was the simple and effective answer to adding popular films to Best Picture. Remember when we were suddenly guaranteed 10 Best Picture nominees? That was reactionary, too, but it wasn't a process of exclusion and separation. Wall-E and The Dark Knight both missed out on Best Picture nominations despite, again, universal critical acclaim and massive box office success. There was genuine outrage from film professionals, critics, and fans, and the result was twice as many nominees.
Love it or hate it, this was an easy way of adding popular films into the mix. The 10-wide field made way for indies with a passionate fanbase, like Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. It also made it so more commercially successful films of varying genres got into the category. It's hard to imagine District 9 (action/sci-fi), The Blind Side (feel-good melodrama), Up (animated fantasy), Inception (psychological hard sci-fi), Black Swan (psycho-sexual horror/thriller), and Toy Story 3 (animated sequel) had any chance of being in the top 5 of the year under the old system.
The rules then changed again to institute a new preferential balloting system that changed how people vote for Best Picture. No film that receives less than 5% of first place rankings on a nomination ballot can be nominated for Best Picture. Period. This was, again, a reactionary move, as the Academy claimed the lowest scoring nominees were nowhere near the same percentage of votes as the rest, so it was only fair to change the system. The current system actively discourages people voting for these niche films by Academy standards because they become a wasted vote. A risk now is saying you think Lady Bird, a beloved but incredibly small film, could use a number one vote. A risk in the 10-wide years was saying District 9, a satirical science fiction film about racism after apartheid in South Africa, deserved a vote for Best Picture.
Genre films have snuck in since--Her, Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road, Arrival, etc.--but they have mostly been in vein of other films. The Academy loves romantic dramas about isolation, realistic space epics, over the top stunt spectaculars with innovative technology, and serious films about making contact with aliens. There were no real surprise nominees from 2011-2016.
2017 changed that, and the new popular film category is clearly a response to those nominees. Think back real hard to those secret voter articles. How many did you read that said Get Out didn't deserve ANY Academy Award nominations because it was ONLY a genre film? What about the reaction to The Shape of Water for just being a monster movie? Or a silly romance? Or too unbelievable to be a real contender? They both won major awards and, after months of discussion, the Academy Awards decide to create a popular film category. Interesting. It must be a coincidence that the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that multiple fantasy/sci-fi/horror films won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay led to the creation of a popular film category. One genre film has grabbed Picture/Director/Screenplay before, but not two or more.
It's entirely transparent. There was outrage when Moonlight, a brilliant but tiny indie film about a gay black man, won Best Picture over the far more popular La La Land. The next year, there was outrage that that movie about a woman falling in love with an amphibian/human hybrid won Best Picture over more serious films. If a film is too small, people complain that a more popular film didn't win. If a film fully embraces a less-revered genre, people complain that better films were looked over for a genre film.
I understand AMPAS feeling trapped by negative publicity, but literally creating a separation between what's popular and what's REALLY good (that's what this comes down to: keep you popular silly films away from our REAL films) is a terrible choice. I can only hope the Academy takes the criticism they received to heart and finds a way to reconcile this in an open, honest, and inviting way.
Reinstating the 10-wide field on a popular ballot, not preferential, is the easiest choice. They could also hand out an honorary award to the highest grossing film released in a year. It would not be a competitive category and would have an objective metric. This would not exclude a popular film from a Best Picture nomination, but it would allow a film like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Avengers, or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to be recognized in the broadcast for their popularity and Box Office success.
On the plus side, moving the ceremony back to February mercifully shortens the awards season so that we don't have to keep arguing about the Oscars well into March for films that have to be released by the end of December. 1/3 is a failing grade, but at least some good has come out of this disastrous announcement.