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The Academy Awards have added a new category so superhero movies can win Oscars, too

The Academy Awards have added a new category so superhero movies can win Oscars, too


The Academy is struggling to stay relevant, in response to plummeting ratings

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89th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences president John Bailey today sent out a missive to AMPAS members, announcing changes to the 2020 Academy Awards, intended to keep them “relevant in a changing world.” It’s the latest series of changes intended to battle dramatically dropping ratings for the annual Oscars telecast.

The planned updates include cutting the telecast to a maximum of three hours long, down from an average closer to four hours. To make the awards shorter, some wins won’t be televised, and will be awarded during commercial breaks, in a bid to make the show more globally accessible. The Academy is planning an earlier airdate for the telecast, moving it up to February 9th from February 23rd. But the biggest alteration — and the one that instantly drew the most response on social media — involves adding a new award category for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.

To make the show shorter, some awards will be handed out during commercials

The category is the first new addition since 2001’s addition of a special Academy Award category for Best Animated Feature. That change was widely seen as an elitist response to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast earning a Best Picture nomination, but it could also be seen as a response to the animated-feature-film industry expanding rapidly and significantly in the 1990s.

The Popular Film award is also the most major change to the awards list since 2009, when the nominee list for the coveted Best Picture award was expanded from five to a potential maximum of 10. (That year, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker bested her ex-husband James Cameron’s CGI-heavy stinker Avatar.)

The addition of a popular movie category seems aimed at rewarding summer popcorn blockbusters, which typically don’t get the kind of awards love — outside of the technical categories — that lower-grossing, more prestigious art films tend to garner. In 2009, then-Academy president Sid Ganis attempted to address that issue by raising the number of nominees in the Best Picture category, which backfired; as The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey observed, the longer list was more diverse, but it also diluted the significance of a Best Picture nomination — and ratings for film’s biggest night have continued to drop in spite of the changes.

Taken together, a separate category specifically for popular, globally successful films and a more globally oriented broadcast time says the Academy is trying to draw in casual viewers while retaining the prestige of the Best Picture award. That line of thinking — if you can get people buzzing about which superhero flick might win an Oscar, you can draw in more viewers — makes sense, even if historically, popular films have instead been rewarded with positive buzz and vast box-office earnings.

The Academy is trying to draw in casual viewers without losing any prestige

Bailey, a cinematographer elected to his second term as Academy president on Tuesday night, has been a controversial figure, initially seen as a potential micromanager with a more hands-on approach to the position than previous presidents. Variety recently described him as “the first craftsperson in more than 30 years to helm the Academy, after a recent run of producers and marketing execs.” He was recently accused of sexually harassing a colleague, but an Academy committee “unanimously determined that no further action was merited” less than two weeks after the accusation surfaced.

Given that the changes to the Academy followed so closely in the wake of his re-election, it seems likely that Bailey and his board of governors were holding onto the announcement until they’d confirmed his position for the coming term. The initial announcement was predictably met with derision and backlash on social media, largely from film critics and pundits who suggested the purpose of the award was to acknowledge immediately popular films like Black Panther without diluting the Academy’s self-perceived gravitas. It remains to be seen whether the move will help in granting the Oscars some of the popularity of the films they’re trying, belatedly, to acknowledge.