As someone who follows the Oscars, it’s been an interesting few years to watch how other people view the awards. Often, those of us who love them, are met with skepticism and disregard for the ceremony. “They never award the best movies anyway” is a common issue I hear, and to be honest, I agree. Let’s be honest, most awards shows don’t get it right because opinions of art are super subjective. From the Tonys to the Grammys, to the VMAs, there are always issues. That’s not why I love the Oscars.
To be honest, the Oscars is a cultural touchstone. When I was 12 and 13 and really began my movie education, I went back and looked at the Oscar. I wondered what movie could be better than “Star Wars,” so I watched “Annie Hall” (I still think “Star Wars” is better). I’ve watched “Primal Fear,” “The Tipping Point” and dozens of other films because they received Oscar nominations. If I wasn’t alive for the ceremony, it offers me a window and what the world looked like when that year’s Oscars took place. It’s a gateway for many to begin their film education.
This brings us to the announcement today, that the Oscars are opening a new category for “Achievement in Popular Filmmaking.” At the same time, they’re bumping some of the live acceptance speeches to edited versions, which will exclusively affect the shorts, documentary, and below-the-line categories. Both moves are appalling. Let’s break down my issues.
First, let’s be real for a minute. The Academy has rarely embraced the popular films of the age. With the exception of “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” no big budget franchise features have ever won Best Picture. Of the top 50 highest grossing domestic box office movies of all time, only 8 grabbed Best Picture nominations (“Titanic,” “Star Wars: A New Hope,” “E.T.,” “Avatar,” “LOTR: The Two Towers & Return of the King,” “American Sniper” and “Toy Story 3″). Obvious films that should have joined the party but missed out are “The Lion King,” “The Dark Knight,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Jurassic Park.”
I’m not saying that making money should affect your opinion of a movie. But there’s always been a clear bias against those films that are popular. That’s where my personal issue with the Oscars has always been. It’s great that we can recognize cinema, and to recognize artistic merit. It’s important to showcase the very best filmmakers. We should do that. Yet year after year, we see films that long outlive the cultural significance of others get ignored. Example, 2008 saw “The Reader” get nominated for Best Picture over “Wall-E” and “The Dark Knight.” Or when “Inside Out” missed out for “Bridge of Spies.” I’m not saying those movies are bad (okay “The Reader” is bad), I’m saying they barely left an impact the year they were released, let alone past that time.
This new rule only makes this problem worse. Categorizing something as “popular filmmaking” rather than just “filmmaking” inherently sticks your nose up at the accomplishment. When “Black Panther” likely wins this category next fall, there’s a fair chance that it does so without a Best Picture nomination. Yet that ignores the impact it had on a shifting cultural landscape.
Here’s the thing, “Black Panther” is not my favorite Marvel movie, but I can undeniably say it’s the best one. The cinematography, costumes, production design, and argument about Black excellence in the 21st century is all incredible. It’s well made, fluid, and has some of the best moments of the MCU. If it’s one of the best-made movies of the year, made $700 million in the US alone, AND received substantial critical acclaim, it deserves to be a Best Picture nominee. Yet this new category will likely kneecap its chances.
If you’re worried about keeping popular movies and genre movies in the Oscars, why not just expand to a clean top 10 Best Picture nominees. As it currently stands, Best Pictures are decided on a sliding scale, requiring each film to have 5% of the total 1st place votes from all Academy members. But if we let every Academy member fill out 10 spots, and each spot was worth a certain number of points, and those points were added up, we could have interesting nominees.
The first year of the expanded Best Picture lineup, we had two sci-fi films (“Avatar” and “District 9“), an animated movie (“Up”), a sports movie (“The Blind Side“), and a WWII revisionist history film (“Inglorious Basterds“) nominated. The next year had a thriller (“Black Swan“), Sci-Fi (“Inception“), a Western (“True Grit“) and an animated film (“Toy Story 3). If you want to change something, bring back the 10, so we can actually have people champion their 2nd or 3rd favorite films of the year.
Second, why are we not going to show the people who work below-the-line? It’s not like they’re going to drop a category like Best Supporting Actor or something like that. This is going to start with the shorts, including Live-Action, Animated, and Documentary. Then it’s going to move to the techs. That’s more than a little screwed up if we’re being honest.
Last year, there are two big moments that could have been erased. First was Roger Deakins, the legendary cinematographer that finally won his first Oscar after losing 13 times. Second, Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish took over the Oscars when they were presenting their award. In fact, the award they gave out was Live-Action short, which was a highlight of the evening. One of the winners, Rachel Shenton, gave a touching speech in ASL.
While the Academy will say that the shorter runtime is a good thing. However, these people worked their whole life to accomplish a goal. They deserve their moment in the spotlight. The Academy will say an Oscar is an Oscar and they will still get their time in the sun. Except they won’t. Their family is likely to find out they won on Twitter, or on Facebook, or some alternate live stream. By not broadcasting these awards live, they are inherently saying that this category means less than other categories. To paraphrase “Animal Farm,” all categories are equal. But some are more equal than others.
I understand why these moves happened. I just don’t think the Academy fully understands what is happening to drop their ratings. Their ratings are dropping as people like myself cut cords. They don’t view movies that are swept up in the popular imagination as awards-worthy, but why not? When most of the country is talking about how “Mission Impossible” might actually be the best film of the year, or “Black Panther,” or “Wall-E,” or “It” or “Wonder Woman,” or “Inside Out” or any number of movies, maybe they are among the best. If it turns out they’re not, don’t make them the red-headed stepchildren of the night. Make them Best Picture nominees.