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Why Repealing The Popular Film Category In Oscars Was A Poor Decision

Oscars night is a night that celebrates making money by making some more money

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Let us first dispel of the myth that the Oscars are about art, integrity and pure cinema. They are about TV ratings, designer dresses and suits, and ultimately, money. Oscars night is a night that celebrates making money by making some more money. Many have argued that the introduction of the “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” is degrading to the academy and the ethos of the award function, forcing the Academy to scrap the award from this upcoming year’s program. Not only is the category in line with the ethos of the Oscars, i.e. the ethos of fame and money, but would have also promoted the ethos of artistic integrity and cinematic excellence, thereby achieving the dual purpose of making the Oscars relevant again by recognizing blockbuster films while also promoting smaller, independent, and truly artistic films. 

How is it that a film like The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) not only does not win the best picture for the year, but does not even get a nomination? It’s because the truth is that Oscar nominations are not solely determined by the artistic merit of a film but the force of lobbying powers behind it. Ridiculous amounts of money are poured into dinners, drinks, parties, drugs, and so on by film producers and marketers to bring Academy members into their camp. Such were the tactics of the brutish Harvey Weinstein to ensure a win for Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998) over Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan at the 1998 Oscars. 

By creating a separate category for films such as The Dark Knight, the Academy had accepted that the public cares more about Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), than The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro, 2017). And this care is justified too. The films that we as a society revere and hold dear are deeply determined by the social and political contexts within which they are made. The Academy too is well known for adjusting its taste according to the general mood of the year, proven by Moonlight’s (Barry Jenkins, 2016) win over La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016). The Popular Film category could have been used to appease both Hollywood producers and audiences, while the Best Picture category could be reserved for, well, the best picture. The rage over the new category may have seemed prominent now, but I’m sure that if the Academy had stuck to its initiative, in 10 or so years, it would have been regarded as a staple of the award show. 

One key factor that critics of the category miss is the voting mechanism of the Oscars Best Picture category. While winners of all other categories are determined by popular votes, the Academy introduced preferential voting, or instant-runoff voting for the Best Picture category in 2009. Academy members are asked to rank their preferences from 1-10, and if a film doesn’t get more than 50% of the #1 spots, the overall lowest ranked film is dropped from the #1 spot of those that chose it, and its votes attributed to the film in the #2 spot. What this means is that from the 8000 Academy votes, if a film receives the top spot from 3000 members, but the lowest spot from 2000 members, then a film that came second for 4000 members could win the best picture. As a result, innovative and polarizing films stand less chances of winning than populist ones.

Since the introduction of this mechanism, 4 out of 8 Best Picture winners have been about cinema, or a subject adjacent to it. This is how a movie like The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) wins over nominees such as Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010), Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) and The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). What results is a narcissistic intellectual circlejerk of Academy members preferring films about cinema, literature, and art. Interestingly enough, the love of art was one of the appeals Weinstein made to Academy members to vote for Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. 

After several years of criticism for being too old, white, and male, the 2017 Oscars ratings dipped to an all-time low with a 40% decline since 2014. Keeping this criticism in mind, the academy’s taste seems to have shifted from populist cinema to smaller, independent films such as Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) and The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro, 2017). While preferential voting would have to be eliminated to ensure that truly the best picture receives the award, a separate category for large films would also change the perception and preferences of Academy members for the best picture category. 

Much of the fear in introducing the category stems from the fate of films such as Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018). If the film were to be nominated for Popular Film but not Best Picture, there would have been an uproar from the public and backlash that would further deteriorate The Oscars’ and Hollywood’s poor reputation in terms of race relations. Had the Academy stuck with the new Popular Film category, bigger films could compete in a block for themselves while the accolade of Best Picture could be reserved for purely artistic productions. Black Panther could have qualified both criteria. But I guess we’ll never know.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Vishnu Gupta

The author is a recent Swarthmore College graduate, filmmaker, photographer, and writer. Follow him on Twitter @vishnu96gupta

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