The Academy’s creation of this wildly unnecessary new “popular film” category has thus, inevitably, been met mostly with groans. The principal complaint has been that it will create perverse incentives for Academy voters as, arguably, have categories such as Best Animated Film and Best Foreign-Language Film. Though voters are allowed to nominate films both for Best Picture and these more narrow categories (also Best Documentary, although that rarely comes up), the idea is that the latter give voters an excuse not to vote for them for Best Picture at all. (See Wall-E.) If we’d had this new “popular” category back in 2016, for instance, would Mad Max: Fury Road have gotten its delightful Best Picture nod, or simply been relegated to the lesser category?
As David put it in his piece:
“Last year, two Best Picture nominees—Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirkand Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out—grossed more than $100 million at the U.S. box office, exactly the kind of financial yardstick one might use to measure “popularity.” Their Best Picture nominations were highly deserved and, in the case of Get Out, especially exciting, since that movie’s genre often goes unrecognized at awards shows. Dunkirk and Get Out would have been obvious candidates for Outstanding Popular Film and as a result could have lost out on a Best Picture nod—in effect being punished for their financial success.
This year, Marvel’s Black Panther (which has become only the third film in history to gross $700 million domestically) seemed like it had a real chance of becoming the first superhero movie to get a Best Picture nomination. Disney was gearing up for a serious campaign; now, that may well fall by the wayside, with an Outstanding Popular Film achievement waiting as a sort of consolation prize.”
(David also said precisely what needs saying about the only slightly less disappointing decision to limit the length of the Oscar ceremony to three hours by handing out “smaller” awards during commercial breaks and then showing edited versions of the acceptance speeches.)
But I’d like to suggest another downside to the new award that, while slightly more nebulous, could prove more pernicious still: its effect not on Academy voters, but on filmmakers themselves. Here’s the thing: The director of an animated movie knows he or she is making an animated movie. Likewise, the director of a foreign-language film or a documentary. The categories aren’t fungible in any meaningful sense. But whatever benchmark the Academy sets for a “popular film”—it hasn’t yet announced its criteria—it will be eminently fungible and, by definition, determined by audience response as much as directorial intent.
To put it another way: Christopher Nolan never asked himself, “Should I do Dunkirk as an animated movie in order to increase my odds of winning an Oscar?” Get Out’s Jordan Peele never wondered whether he might be better positioned if he filmed his movie in French. But in the future, directors with movies such as theirs, which straddle the Best Film and Popular Film categories, will face just such decisions. If I’m a long shot for Best Picture, maybe I should just dumb my movie down a little and aim for best popular film? There will be all kinds of new cinematic arithmetic in play. Which is worth more? A bit more highbrow critical praise or an extra $40 million at the box office? Is it more important that a movie be really good or really popular?