Welcome Tokenism: Embracing the Oscars’ Popular-Film Category

Your 2018 Achievement in Popular Film winnerLike many people, I had an immediate negative reaction to the announcement last week of a new Achievement in Popular Film category for the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can’t seem to do much right with its signature awards, and now it’s taking a hammer to the related problems of decreasing relevance and dwindling television audiences.

But even initially, I was more amused than offended. And as I thought about it, I grew to like the change and see it as a worthy and noble effort.

Why We’re Here

You don’t need to be a genius to understand the rationale behind the new award.

Following the Best Picture snub of The Dark Knight, the PR-sensitive Academy substantially changed the rules for nominations, expanding the field to 10 for 2009 movies. The Academy fiddled with the rules again for 2011 films, resulting in a field between five and 10 movies depending on how nomination votes shook out.

The changes worked, in a fashion. As I wrote elsewhere last year:

“Consider that in the eight years covering the movies of 2001 to 2008, there was only one Best Picture nominee that dealt primarily with the African-American experience: the bio-pic Ray. In the eight years of the expanded contest, there have been eight (including three this year) — and I’m not counting Django Unchained or The Blind Side.

You can see variety in other areas, too. In the past eight years, eight sci-fi-to-some-degree films have gotten Best Picture nominations. In the eight years prior to that? None, although you’ve got the three Lord of the Rings movies in the fantasy vein. Two animated Best Picture nominees in the past eight years, and none in the eight years before.”

The substantial diversification of the Best Picture field, however, didn’t satisfy Oscar critics who’ve complained about the absence of “popular” movies. And, more importantly from the Academy’s perspective, it hasn’t stopped the television broadcast from losing viewers. So after Wonder Woman failed to nab a Best Picture nomination this year, I half-expected the Academy to once again re-think the rules behind its biggest prize, and I even offered some suggestions.

The Academy opted for a more-radical approach.

So if the 2009 initial expansion of the Best Picture field could be called the Dark Knight Rule, the Achievement in Popular Film category is undoubtedly the Wonder Woman and Black Panther Beauty Contest — a reaction to last year’s oft-criticized Best Picture snub and a preemptive strike against the possibility of this year’s.

In essence, the Academy gave up trying to figure out a way to craft Best Picture nominating rules that would bring more popular movies into the fold — and especially popular movies that had cultural moments.

Why Your Feathers Shouldn’t Be Ruffled

To be blunt about it: Arbitrary category distinctions have a long history in major awards shows. The Golden Globes distinguish between “drama” and “comedy or musical” in acting and best-picture categories. The Grammys slice everything as thinly as possible, to the extent that our most-prominent music awards have different categories for American roots, Americana, bluegrass, contemporary blues, traditional blues, folk, and regional roots music. In the Oscars, Best Animated Feature became a new category for 2001 movies.

And then there’s the biggest one of all: the separate categories for male and female actors, a crazy division in these times that must persist because the Academy leadership envisions a nightmare Best Actor scenario of nine dudes against Meryl Streep ... or just 10 dudes. #OscarsSoDicky.

In that context, Achievement in Popular Film is hardly an outrage. Yes, it’s a blunt instrument, but the Academy’s attempts to use more surgical tools have not yielded the desired results — which probably shouldn’t be any surprise, as I’ll discuss in a bit.

The Academy’s only real sin is one of timing, obviously addressing two specific superhero movies, one in retrospect and one in prospect.

And that leads to the twofold Black Panther problem. That movie kinda must win the Popular Film category, draining any suspense it might have otherwise had. And if Black Panther is denied a Best Picture nomination, it will provide ammunition to those who say the new category was designed to keep the popular out of the big race.

Why It’s Necessary

The Grammy model is helpful in making a case for Achievement in Popular Film. Does it not make sense to reward achievements in metal and bluegrass rather than shutting them out entirely — by only allowing them to compete with all eligible music in the biggest categories when they have little chance of being nominated let alone winning?

In a similar vein, the Academy Awards already have a separate category for feature documentaries, and of course the relatively new one for animated features. Without those categories, few if any of those films would be recognized on the Oscars podium. (Fun fact: No documentary feature has ever been nominated for Best Picture, even though there’s no prohibition against it. Where’s the complaining about that?)

When it comes to the vast majority of high-grossing movies, the same dynamic is at work. In nearly all cases, they’re dismissed from the Best Picture discussion before they’re even released. And that’s a serious and perhaps even existential problem for the Oscars.

The quandary the Academy faces is actually pretty weird. The Grammys have so many categories to ensure recognition of less-popular forms of music; the people behind the Oscars have to twist themselves into knots to ensure recognition of Hollywood’s most-popular products.

The value of this category becomes even clearer when you think about recent Best Picture nominees from genres at which the Academy generally turns up its nose — Get Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, District 9. These examples get trotted out (including by me) to show that the Oscars have made progress. But you should notice that they all have an auteurist bent; they’re movies that to a significant degree are extensions of a single personality. That was also true of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy before the expansion of the Best Picture field.

What’s being left out is the decidedly commercial product: franchises, movies by committee, brands — the stuff whose primary aspiration is to make money for somebody, and the stuff that’s largely been ignored by the Oscars outside of technical categories.

I still think there’s ample room in the Best Picture nominating rules to encompass more movies that make lots of money, but I’m also confident that the Dark Knights, Wonder Women, and Black Panthers of the world will almost always be on the margins of the Best Picture discussion.

Why You Should Ignore My Defense of the New Category

Frankly, I don’t think The Dark Knight, Wonder Woman, or Black Panther was or is worthy of a Best Picture nomination; I didn’t love any of them.

But I have a bias that’s even more relevant: None of those movies is, to my eyes, Best Picture material. Yes, that makes me a snob, but my snobbery aligns reasonably well with the voting habits of the people who nominate and pick the Oscars’ big prize.

Even when I love a “popular” movie, my bias remains. One of my favorite films of recent years is Skyfall, and I had great fun with Spider-Man: Homecoming. But neither should have been nominated for Best Picture, period.

To put it differently, I generally judge a movie within its genre. If I’m watching a superhero movie, it’s up against Superman: The Movie, or Nolan’s Batman movies, or more recently Logan — not The Godfather or Vertigo. I love plenty of horror movies that are not good movies, but they’re good for what they are.

Why You Shouldn’t Ignore My Defense of the New Category

Of course, Skyfall is a better movie than Best Picture winner Crash, and I prefer it over a whole bunch of other Best Picture nominees and winners.

But that proves the point about the need for this new category: Time and time again in Best Picture nominations, we’ve seen the Oscars shun blockbusters in favor of smaller pictures worthy and unworthy. That might change in the future, but history is strong predictor. So let’s take it as a given.

And it’s not an unfounded distinction. There’s a difference in kind between the movies that studios hope mass audiences flock to and those that are made for art’s sake or for niche audiences. There is on occasion some overlap on the Venn diagram, but it’s rare.

The difference goes beyond budgets and marketing. Blockbusters look, sound, and feel different from the boutique movies that Best Picture voters have generally favored. They lean heavily on comfortable formulas. They usually have impressive scale and scope that’s a big part of their appeal, yet that scale comes at the expense of being taken seriously, because thinly drawn characters in silly costumes are running/flying/swinging around doing ridiculous things in front of green screens, usually opposed by CGI creatures or supervillains.

Comedies — and especially big-star comedies — are rarely contenders for Best Picture because they’re not intended to be taken seriously at all.

This is the fundamental issue. Best Picture is a “serious” category, and popular movies aren’t often serious. (I cannot explain the Academy membership’s fondness for nominating musicals for Best Picture, just as I still can’t wrap my head around Babe getting a nomination. I love Babe, by the way.)

But the Hollywood assembly line sometimes features great craft, so why not recognize the best of that different style of filmmaking without relegating it to the effects, sound, and editing categories? And then, in the rare cases in which the work transcends “popular film,” a Best Picture nomination could actually feel earned instead of looking suspiciously likely a gift to compensate for the absence of a more-appropriate place to celebrate it. I like the idea of an award recognizing popular entertainment for what it does well, instead of trying to shoehorn it into a losing battle against the bio-pics, period pieces, and social statements that generally define Best Picture.

As an example, let’s look back at the 1993 movie year, when The Fugitive — a pure, unapologetic thriller — nabbed a Best Picture nomination alongside Schindler’s List, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, and The Remains of the Day. One of these things is not like the others, and while The Fugitive probably belonged in that company, it had no shot at the big prize. But it absolutely, positively deserved recognition — a whole-film win — for its overall achievement.

Why I’m a Little Worried

I’m assuming the Academy will have some fairly simple criterion for eligibility for this new award. Given the wording of the category, the only measure that makes sense is box office, whether that’s a dollar figure or a number of movies. I’d suggest $100 million in domestic gross (a figure that would rise periodically to account for ticket-price inflation), or the 30 top performers in domestic gross; both would yield a sufficiently large and diverse pool of nominees to make the contest interesting.

I’m also assuming that the Academy will give Achievement in Popular Film a ceremony prominence that lends it appropriate weight; I’m hoping it’s given right before Best Picture, and I’m also hoping its nominees get stand-alone introductions just like the Best Picture nominees. It’s essential that this award be treated as a serious attempt to reward a different type of filmmaking (as opposed to a lesser type of filmmaking).

And, finally, I’m assuming Oscar voters will not nominate and vote based primarily on box office. One peril of Achievement in Popular Film is that Academy members won’t recognize both components of the category; popularity should not be the achievement.

If any of these assumptions is wrong, my feelings about the award will be substantially different.

Why I’m Not Worried

The biggest concern with Achievement in Popular Film is that it might effectively sideline the year’s big hits from the Best Picture race. The thinking is that even though movies eligible for Achievement in Popular Film will also be eligible for Best Picture, voters might not seriously consider the best popular movies for the top prize.

That’s certainly a possibility, but the animated-feature category didn’t stop Toy Story 3 or Up from being nominated for Best Picture, and I’m skeptical this change will keep some genuinely worthy hit from getting nominated for the Oscars’ biggest award. I seriously doubt it will mean Black Panther won’t get a Best Picture nomination. (I actually believe this award makes is slightly more likely Black Panther will get a Best Picture nomination, because the Academy has already been pre-shamed in the backlash to Achievement in Popular Film.)

The new award is absolutely not meant to shove aside all those megahits that have been clogging the Best Picture race, because there are no megahits to shove aside.

Why This Category Could Be Fascinating

One reason I’m jazzed about the new category is that it could play out in many different ways. “Popular” is not just a measure of popularity; it’s also a style. (Think of pop music, which is not always popular, and music outside of the “pop” realm, which is still sometimes popular.)

I doubt 2018’s movies will provide much suspense in the Achievement in Popular Film category, but the 2017 movie year might have provided some compelling drama. With five nominees, the category would have likely included Get Out, and probably Wonder Woman, and probably Coco. What would nab the last two slots? The Last Jedi? It? The Greatest Showman? Baby Driver? Girls Trip? Wonder? Logan? That sounds like a fun race to me, particularly in trying to guess the nominations.

I didn’t include Dunkirk on that list, even though it meets any popularity criterion, even though it was a summer movie intended for box-office glory, and even though I think it was a worthy Best Picture nominee. I simply don’t consider it an Achievement in Popular Film. Of course there’s no rational argument against nominating it for the award; it just doesn’t feel right.

Get Out, on the other hand, feels wholly comfortable in both the Popular Film and Best Picture categories; I would have voted for it in both. Jordan Peele’s movie likely would have won had the new category existed for 2017 movies. And I seriously doubt that being on the slate for Popular Film would have robbed it of a Best Picture nomination.

But maybe, just maybe, Get Out was too pointed and too much a hard-to-classify hybrid of horror, comedy, and social commentary for some voters to consider it a “popular film.” The concept means different things to different people, and voters have their own sniff tests. Could it have lost the Popular Film contest to Wonder Woman despite a Best Picture nomination? And is it conceivable that Get Out wouldn’t have even received a Popular Film nomination?

I don’t know, and I doubt it, but it’s going to take a few years to see how how voters approach the new category. I could certainly envision situations in which one and only one Popular Film nominee was also a Best Picture nominee yet didn’t win the former category. If I’m right, that would be fascinating.

And let’s say that it turns out that the Popular Film category indeed becomes a slum where genre pictures go to get a consolation prize. I’m not convinced this is necessarily a bad thing, and at the least it would generate some healthy debate.

Consider the Oscar success of the Lord of the Rings movies — with Return of the King getting the top prize after the previous two movies in the trilogy got Best Picture nominations. Might things have turned out differently with a Popular Film category — for instance, with one or several of the installments winning Popular Film, thus negating the Academy’s apparent need to crown the finale Best Picture? It’s certainly plausible, and it seems to me a preferable outcome.

Would it have better for Chicago to win Popular Film instead of Best Picture? Yes!

With a Popular Film category, might The Silence of the Lambs have lost Best Picture? Forrest Gump? Shakespeare in Love? Even Titanic? And, if so, would those be injustices or rightful rewards?

Let’s start having those sorts of arguments, and let’s start with Black Panther. It’s undoubtedly an Achievement in Popular Film, and probably the Achievement in Popular Film for 2018. Is it also one of year’s handful of best pictures? Make your best case. It can be both, and it very well could be in the eyes of Academy voters. But it’s also possible that it’s not both.

I’d much rather honor Wonder Woman with an award (or a realistic shot at an award) recognizing its skill as a product, and of course marking its moment as a hugely successful superhero movie directed by a woman and starring a woman.

Black Panther also deserves to have its craft and importance celebrated. The movie is a cultural milestone and touchstone, it made a ton of money, and a great many people love it. Achievement in Popular Film might be tokenism to an extent, but a worse sort of tokenism would be a nomination for an award it has no chance of winning.

Or, you know, the nonexistent tokenism of no nomination at all.

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