The Academy has been trying to fix a problem with the increasingly ratings-challenged Oscars telecast for a decade. Their latest attempt at a solution – a Popular Film category – is, well, it’s not great.
Newly re-elected Academy president John Bailey and his Board of Governors are making some changes to the Oscars. Most notably, the email sent out to Academy members this morning included the following stunningly vague announcement: “We will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film. Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.”
Additional changes include an earlier telecast (February 9th instead of February 23rd) and a strict mandate to limit the show to three hours, which will mean handing out some of the awards (sorry, short categories) during commercial breaks and airing only the highlights later in the broadcast. This shuffling of less popular categories to off-air follows the leads of other awards shows, like the Grammy’s, but it is an insult to film purists, especially if this means craft awards like Best Costume end up shafted. Airing earlier in the month will eliminate that awkward waiting period between all of the other major awards shows (other than the Indie Spirit awards) and the Oscars, but it’s a remarkably tight window. As a frame of reference, this year’s Oscars didn’t even start voting on the winners until February 20th.
The popular film category addition, though, is totally unexpected. I’ve seen awards experts recommend reinstituting the old Best Newcomer award for actors, and there’s the Golden Globes chestnut of bifurcating nominees between Best Comedy and Best Drama. Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, however, feels like the last resort in the ongoing effort to force members to nominate better-known movies. Fine, nominate Call Me By Your Name, if you must, but now we also have a Popular Film category! This is almost a return to the Academy’s first year back in 1927 when there were separate final awards for Outstanding Picture and Unique and Artistic Picture.
Why are they doing this?
Mostly because The Dark Knight rule – the post-2008 expansion from 5 Best Picture nominees to 10 – hasn’t worked. With the category expanded to include as many as 10 slots, surely some popular movies will have a better chance at earning a nomination, or so the thinking went. This ended up having the opposite effect. Instead of ushering us into a world in which well-reviewed blockbusters are regularly nominated thus giving more casual movie fans an actual horse (or two) in the race for Best Picture the Academy just keeps nominating more indie movies and traditional Oscar bait.
Sure, there have been exceptions. A few blockbusters, like Mad Max: Fury Road and District 9, made the cut. But the average Best Picture nominee since 2011, the first year in the current system in which there can be 10 nominees but doesn’t have to be if the votes aren’t there, only grossed around $60m domestic. In some years, only one of the nominees even grossed more than $100m.
Perhaps this simply means few blockbusters have actually been worthy of a Best Picture nomination. We’re not about to nominate a Transformers movies, after all. Hey, they can’t all be The Dark Knight. The Oscars have always been an end-product ordeal. The Academy can only react to what Hollywood has to offer.
- What about Wonder Woman?
- Or Deadpool?
- Or Skyfall?
- Or smaller-budgeted, but high-grossing dramas like Gone Girl and Straight Outta Compton?
The Producers Guild of America nominated all of those for its Best Picture award. No dice with the Academy, though. Last year, they collectively snubbed Logan, Blade Runner: 2049, Baby Driver, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and War for the Planet of the Apes (at least for Best Picture).
Meanwhile, the ratings continue to plummet. Just take out a piece of paper. Write down the year 2014. Then draw a straight line down from there. That’s been the story with the Oscar ratings, posting ongoing year-over-year declines. As I previously wrote:
The last time the Oscars actually saw a year-to-year ratings increase was from 2013 (when 40 million watched Argo beat, among others, Django Unchained, Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook) to 2014 (when 43 million watched 12 Years a Slave beat American Hustle and Gravity). It’s been a steady decline ever since, regardless of host or combined box office of the nominated movies. Not even nominating blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and The Revenant (combined worldwide box office: $1.54 billion) in the same year made a difference.
You might have thought last year would have been better. Mega-hits like Dunkirk and Get Out were not only both nominated for Best Picture, they each had a legit shot at winning, unlike in past years when the token blockbuster clearly had no chance. Shape of Water or Three Billboards were the obvious frontrunners, but an upset was at least a possibility. Beyond that, the previous year’s “It’s La La Land!”/”Ha, ha – just kidding. It’s Moonlight” fiasco injected a fresh sense of uncertainty. What category would they fuck up next? Ratings gold, right?
Sigh. Cue the sad trombone music.
The ratings were actually down 4% from 2017, low enough to rank it as the least-watched Oscars telecast since 2008. Digging even deeper, the 18-to-34-year-old demographic has fallen off by 54% in just the last five years.
The counter to all of this is that other than the Tonys TV awards shows ratings are down across the board. Just this year, the Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globes lost 14 million viewers between them, an 18% decline from their collective haul in 2017. Yet they remain crown jewels for broadcast television, and the Oscars are the biggest of the bunch, finishing each year in the top 10 of most-watched telecasts. 30-second ads during the Oscars still fetch around $2m, and ABC happily re-upped with the Academy in 2016 to formally continue airing the telecast through 2028.
The problem is as part of the renegotiated deal in 2016 ABC gained more of a say in the creative direction of the telecast. Now, after two more years of continuing to bleed viewers left and right the network stepped in and asked the Academy to include a Best Blockbuster category. That suggestion has now morphed into today’s still-vaguely defined Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.
To this point, Hollywood’s general push toward worldwide appeal has resulted in the Academy honoring increasingly smaller films with increasingly smaller box office totals. As I previously argued, it’s not great for ratings, but when Birdman (‘15 Best Picture winner), Spotlight (‘16 Best Picture winner) and Moonlight come out they deserve to be honored, regardless of ticket sales. Awarding those films at least ups the chances more people might seek them out.
But how many times can the Academy keep ignoring those movies people actually go to see? How often must the whole affair be invalidated by history, looking back at the movies we still talk about today versus those the Academy deemed more fitting of a tribute (Driving Miss Daisy, anyone?).
This is really the same debate we’ve been having about the Oscars for decades, and the Academy has always been slow to react. However, the recent leadership has been more motivated to institute change. That’s how we ended up with the Best Animated Film category, the expansion of the Best Picture category, and the unprecedented diversity drive initiated by ex-Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Each one of those moves has been controversial, and this Popular Film addition is no different:
I’m more inclined to wait to hear the Academy out on this. At least let them define how exactly this award is going to be figured out and voted on. But, right now, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a nakedly desperate, horribly undercooked solution to a decade-long problem. In the process, they’ve just devalued their most coveted award by adding a new sister category which feels like it’s being lifted in from the People’s Choice Awards. The ratings are down. There’s no doubt about that. This solution they’ve come up with, though, isn’t the answer.
While we await further details on how exactly this will work, let me know what you think about this idea from the Academy. Might this blunt the box office impact of a Best Picture nomination? How will they even define eligibility?