A few months ago, in reflecting on the record-low ratings of this year's Academy Award telecast, I suggested a surefire way to lure viewers to the 2019 show: announce now that the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences will be giving as many Oscars as possible to "Black Panther," the critically acclaimed blockbuster.
Here was my reasoning: Oscar ratings always get a bump when the heavy favorite to dominate the awards is a big hit at the box office. For example, the highest ratings in the show's history came in 1998, when "Titanic," nominated for 14 awards, won 11 times. The show drew an estimated 87 million viewers.
Since then, though, it's been downhill for Oscar ratings: This year's ceremony drew 26.5 million viewers, less than a third of the audience of the 1998 event.
Here's the thing, though: I was kidding about those premature "Black Panther" awards.
But the academy might have taken me seriously (although I also would accept the possibility that the academy has never heard of me.) Regardless of the source of inspiration, academy officials announced last week that they plan to add a new Oscar, in the category of "outstanding achievement in popular film," beginning with next year's ceremony.
Let's be honest: The new Oscar is a shameless attempt to lure eyeballs back to the show, but you can see why the academy felt the need to do something like this: More than 80 percent of its $148 million in annual revenue comes from the telecast, and so the diminishing audience represents a real threat to the organization.
Even so, I found that I was in agreement with New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, who dubbed the "outstanding achievement in popular film" Oscar "stupid, insulting and pathetically desperate." Justin Chang, the excellent movie critic for the Los Angeles Times, took it a step further: "And the Oscar for Best Achievement in Pandering goes to..." he wrote in a tweet.
For starters, the idea seems half-baked. It's not clear what constitutes a "popular" film: Does it have to collect $100 million at the U.S. box office? $200 million? If you don't use the box office as a criterion to determine eligibility, what do you use? In addition, it wasn't immediately clear whether a film nominated in the popular category could also get a seat at the big-people table with a nomination for just plain old regular best picture. (A spokesperson for the academy later said that it could.)
In some ways, the addition of the "popular film" category is an extension of the move the academy made in 2009, when it expanded the number of films receiving best picture nominations from five to as many as 10. That move followed the outcry when Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" failed to land a nomination for best picture. The idea was that the expansion would leave room for a handful of extremely well-made but popular films to snag a nomination along with the smaller films that lately have dominated the Oscars — films that most Americans just aren't interested in seeing.
That expansion has kind of worked: Of this year's nine best picture nominees, two ("Dunkirk" and "Get Out") made more than $100 million at the box office — and, although "Dunkirk" likely would have snagged a nomination even with just five slots, "Get Out" certainly benefited from the expansion.
But the eventual best picture winner, "The Shape of Water," although a worthy winner, collected only about $64 million.
In fact, of the last 10 best picture winners, just three have cracked the $100 million mark, as the academy continues to gravitate toward smaller movies. That hasn't always been the case: If you look at the 10 best picture winners before that, from "No Country for Old Men" to "Shakespeare in Love," eight of those made more than $100 million.
It's as if academy voters are increasingly ashamed of the big box-office hits that keep so many of them employed. Or, in a more charitable reading, maybe they just want to call attention to well-made but smaller films that sometimes get lost.
But by creating a category intended for popcorn films, the academy essentially creates a ghetto for blockbusters that are, in fact, extremely well-made: movies like, well, "Black Panther," which seemed a shoo-in for a best picture nomination (and probably is a lock for the first popular film Oscar). There is something magical about a movie that checks all the boxes with audiences and critics alike — a movie like, you know, "Titanic." The academy, in its moment of distress, is putting that magic at risk. (mm)