Let's define "popular film"

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Over brunch on Saturday, I was discussing with a friend how it is difficult to define and determine “popularity” in college. The concept of “popularity” hadn’t even crossed my mind during my three years at Carnegie Mellon, partly because popularity is so heavily broken down and circumstantial. Popularity mostly concerned people within organizations – they’d won the most awards, participated the most, devoted a lot of time to said organization, or were just likable and friendly people. There weren’t many people whose popularity extended outside of the organization; if anything, their organization was more of a tool to help people remember who they were and what they do. Unlike high school, there was no list nor guidebook as to who was popular or how to be popular in college; in fact, individuality was respected the most more than anything.

There are a lot of problems with the inclusion of a “Popular Oscar,” formally known as the “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” category, at the Academy Awards. It put all eligible and already released movies in a weird place and a hot spotlight when it was first announced, creating a singled out and very clear division as to what a “Best Picture” contender and what a “Best Popular Film” contender were. It exposed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an organization struggling to remain relevant, announcing other changes that month, such as a shortened broadcast time in order to appeal to viewers. It took some class out of the Academy, making next year’s Oscars feel more like the Kids’ Choice Awards and reminding us that, above all else, the Oscars will always be a production more than an award show.

There are two big problems that arising from the new “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” award, the first being: what is a "popular film"? More specifically, what is popular? Is it measured by a film’s news coverage, and how much buzz it builds up before awards season? Is it measured by a film’s financial performance, or by how much it makes during its opening weekend and its drop rate thereafter? Is it measured by a film’s critical acclaim, and its stellar reviews from audiences, and is that not already how the Academy voters determine the “Best Picture?”

Academy President John Bailey and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson noted that they were still working on defining what constitutes a “popular film,” and it is perhaps that uncertainty that made the reception to the category worse. If “popular film” were defined by news coverage, then winners would be fairly easy to identify and the actual content of the film could be overlooked. If “popular film” were defined by financial performance, then a range or a benchmark would need to be set in place. However, that also vastly limits the field of nominees and puts more pressure and emphasis on the dollar in Hollywood, the latter which is a larger problem throughout the film industry. If “popular film” is defined by critical reviews, whether from audience or from journalists, then this category really isn’t necessary.

The second problem is that the category devalues and delegitimizes “blockbuster movies.” While eligible, genre movies like science fiction and fantasy that mostly are regulated to the Best Visual Effects categories, comedies of any kind on a small scale, surprise horror hits, or movies from larger franchises such as Marvel, DC, or Harry Potter rarely receive nominations for categories like Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, or Best Picture. Bailey and Hudson recognized that when creating this new category. In an article from The Hollywood Reporter, Bailey said that the category “wasn’t some knee-jerk reaction to falling ratings or to ABC or to anything like that. It was real[ly] clear on the part of the board and the Academy that we needed somehow to make certain kinds of films eligible for new awards.”

However, putting films like Mission Impossible: Fallout, Crazy Rich Asians, A Quiet Place, or Black Panther into a playground of their own feels more like an insult to each film’s directors, cast, and crew. It makes the word “popular” feel like a stigma. It only furthers the belief that blockbuster, franchise films can’t tell an actual story and are just cash grabs, when in reality the storytelling and thematic possibilities that some of these larger budget movies can convey and tell are endless, rich, and mind-blowing. The “popular Oscar” takes out the diversity that the Best Picture Oscar desperately needs, and neglects attributes of film that make it meaningful and impactful to audience members.

Despite being the least-watched show in the history of the Academy, the 90th Academy Awards actually made some progress in breaking the barrier between “Oscar bait” movies and “popular film.” Horror film Get Out was nominated for four awards, winning one for Best Original Screenplay. In that same category, Amazon romantic comedy The Big Sick also received a nomination. The most landmark of all, superhero western Logan received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, becoming the first superhero movie to receive an Academy Award nomination outside of a technical category.

Even though the Academy postponed the category for this year’s awards ceremony last Thursday, their proposed ideas to help bridge this gap are still alarming. Whether they decide to reintroduce the idea in the future or quietly push it off to the side, the Academy should take the perspective of the people in mind to see what constitutes “popular” and apply it to their broadcast, not in their film classification.