The Oscars Are Adding a New Award for 'Popular Films,' Whatever That Means [UPDATED]

With $700 million, Black Panther is this year’s highest grossing film so far. That may make it eligible for a new Oscar.
With $700 million, Black Panther is this year’s highest grossing film so far. That may make it eligible for a new Oscar.
Photo: Disney

Have you ever been frustrated that none of the movies you go see are nominated for Academy Awards? Well, hypothetically, that’s about to change.


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced today that it is going to add an award “for outstanding achievement in popular film.” What does that mean? “Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming,” according to the release in the Hollywood Reporter.

It’s no secret that the Academy has been trying to come up with ways to beef up the viewership of the Oscars. That was the impetus behind the Academy extending the number of Best Picture nominees from five to a possible 10 about a decade ago. However, since that change, those extra five slots have not always gone to more “popular” films. Instead, we’ve seen more small, critically acclaimed films end up in the category, which almost makes it more frustrating for a viewer who now hasn’t maybe seen up to 10 of the nominees instead of five.

A lot of big questions come with this announcement. For instance, what constitutes a popular movie? Box office? Who in the Academy will decide that? What qualifies them to judge popularity? And, once they do, will members vote on which movies are most popular or which is the best of the popular movies? And if these movies are so good, why aren’t they also winning Best Picture? If a Best Picture contender is popular, does that make it eligible for either category? And how will history view a film that wins an Academy Award that seems like it isn’t based on artistic merit?

This is just weird. Very weird. And we think, potentially, a bad idea—in contrast to the very good idea of continuing to diversify members of the Academy, which has already slowly been happening. Presumably, good and popular films will continue to organically make it into the other categories as the voting base becomes more varied and eclectic. If that happens, why force certain movies into what feels like an afterthought category?

Other changes are an Oscar ceremony that’s guaranteed to only run three hours (we’ll see about that), which is meant to be achieved by presenting “select categories live, in the Dolby Theatre, during commercial breaks (categories to be determined); the winning moments will then be edited and aired later in the broadcast.” The Oscars will also have an earlier air date starting in 2020.

What do you think about this popularity development?

Update 4 p.m. August 8: The Academy has clarified a few questions about this new category. First, it will begin with the upcoming Oscars in February 2019. Second, films are indeed eligible for both Best Picture and Best Popular Picture. Third, they hope the award celebrates “broad-based consideration of excellence in all films.” Well, two of of three pieces of info ain’t bad.




The reality is that nobody’s given a shit about the Oscars for decades. It used to be a big deal — back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, people would be interested in stuff like Amadeus, Platoon, Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Titanic, etc. People would get upset because Star Wars and Raiders got passed over by the voters. But over time movies have gotten to be a lot less important culturally than they used to be, and the only really popular movies are part of bigger franchises. There are no mid-sized middlebrow dramas like Terms of Endearment, Rain Man, or American Beauty that come out of nowhere and sweep the awards because nobody makes mid-sized dramas anymore. Lots of the iconic movies from the ‘90s, like Forrest Gump and Braveheart, would simply not get made today, for various reasons. They would probably be premium TV shows instead.

So that leaves two kinds of movies — big effects-driven franchise films, and small indie films. Almost no one is going to see the latter, because almost no one can see them in theaters, unless they live in big cities. In the meantime, franchises have effectively become the stars. So the ecosystem that the Oscars have relied upon is almost gone. I’m not saying that traditional movies are going extinct, but they are becoming specialized and niche-based in a way that makes popular spectacles like the Academy Awards irrelevant. Rock music was central to American culture for about forty years, with a few fallow periods (Elvis going into the Army, disco), and then suddenly around 1997 or so it wasn’t really that important anymore, it because a thing for dads in Wilco t-shirts. Same thing is happening to “the movies” — they’re not going anywhere, they’re just not central to popular culture anymore, and the Academy is struggling to adjust with this alarming (but unsurprising to everybody else) turn of events.