Following widespread backlash to its introduction of a new “Outstanding Popular Film” category, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced today that it will pull back on the decision to include the category in the 91st Academy Awards ceremony in 2019. It will be holding off from implementing it in the future, pending further input and examination.
Citing “challenges for films that have already been released” and “a wide range of reactions” to last month’s announcement, the Academy acknowledged in a press release that implementing a new award mere months before the 2019 nominations are announced in January was probably not the best plan. Its Board of Governors “continues to be actively engaged in discussions, and will examine and seek additional input regarding this category” — which is to say, it will be workshopping the idea, which is exactly what it should have done prior to announcing the category in the first place.
“We recognize the need for further discussion with our members,” Academy CEO Dawn Hudson says in the release. “We have made changes over the years — including this year — and we will continue to evolve while also respecting the incredible legacy of the last 90 years.” Adding to the release’s hilariously backpedaling subtext: its failure to even mention the name of the Outstanding Popular Film award. It instead repeatedly refers to the “new Oscars category.”
Initially intended as a play to boost the annual telecast’s ratings, which have flagged in recent years, the idea of a “Popular Film” category was immediately torn apart by virtually all parties, from Academy members like Rob Lowe and director Adam McKay to fans and members of the media.
Critics argued that shuffling off mainstream blockbusters into their own People’s Choice-style category only compounded the issues the Academy was hoping to assuage — that is, a lack of interest from a growing chunk of the population who see the awards as an elitist gatekeeping exercise that devalues marginalized voices and stories in favor of a narrow subset of cishet, white, “serious” actors and filmmakers. By creating a separate award for what was assumed would end up being mostly blockbuster superhero and genre films, the Academy would be implying that those types of films weren’t actually worthy of being considered for the highest honor Hollywood has to offer: the Oscar for Best Picture.
Even if such a category had been a good idea, rolling it out the same year record-setting films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians — featuring casts and crews comprised largely of people of color — would have been eligible for Best Picture was ... shortsighted, at best.
That said, the issue of failing ratings remains a legitimate issue. As The Verge’s Bijan Stephen put it when “the new category” was first announced, previous attempts to diversify the Best Picture pickings haven’t done much to solve anyone’s problems:
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 91st Academy Awards will air on ABC February 24th, 2019. The ceremony has also been blessedly limited, going forward, to a three-hour telecast.