The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced Wednesday it will debut a new category at the 91st Oscars: the award for "outstanding achievement in popular film."
The decision was immediately laughable — the Oscars are not exactly a bastion of artistic achievement to begin with — but it's also insulting to any blockbusters that get slapped with the label. The misguided attempt to give "popular" films the handicap of their own category does far more to hurt said films than to actually help them.
Details about how the eligibility of these popular films will be determined are, for the time being, in short supply: How will a film be ruled popular enough to compete as a "popular" film? Will it be box office numbers, production budget, or an MLB All-Star-style people's vote? Will popular movies be disqualified from competing in the main Best Picture category, or could a popular film theoretically win both? Does ABC, which airs the Oscars, actually think this will entice more people to watch its three-hour long broadcast? (It won't.)
There is no doubt that the Oscars have a problem: The films that win are largely not the films people actually watch. But the Academy is trying to have its cake and eat it too: By cleaving Best Picture into what amounts to artistic and popular awards, you just end up tarnishing both categories.
The decision to split the Best Picture award has some historic precedent — as a failure. At the first ever Academy Awards in 1929, two top prizes existed, one for "outstanding motion picture production" and another to recognize an "artistic, worthy, and original production." The former commerce-oriented award went to the romantic war film Wings, and the latter craft award to Sunrise, which is often considered the best silent film ever made.
It was the first and last time the awards were divided between "outstanding picture" and "unique and artistic picture" because a single award was quickly understood to be more prestigious. Curiously, today the Oscars website lists Wings as "the first Oscar winner for Best Picture," putting an inherent emphasis on the values of "outstanding motion picture production" over one described as "artistic, worthy, and original." Indeed, an "artistic" film category would have been a more sensible addition to the Oscars, since Best Picture was already modeled on the slightly more business-specific award.
There's another reason to be suspicious of the Academy's head-scratching decision: the timing. The significance of reintroducing two primary film categories specifically for the 91st Academy Awards is not missed: Black Panther, an extremely important and political film, will be in the mix next year.
If the popular film award was determined by box office revenue alone, Black Panther would likely be the winner:
Yet there is a good chance Black Panther will not win Best Picture. This year is especially stacked with Oscar-worthy films, and prognosticators are already putting their money on The Favourite, an acerbic comedy by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose works have previously been nominated for Best Original Screenplay (The Lobster) and Best Foreign Language Film (Dogtooth).
But if there was ever a year for a superhero movie to win big, it would be this one — and if Black Panther wins nothing, there would inevitably be renewed outcry over the Academy's dismal representation, outcry the Academy desperately wants to avoid.
And so we have the "popular" film consolation prize. Even the name is misleading; the most "popular" film already wins at the Oscars, where Academy members' preferential voting means the "least disliked" film comes out on top while divisive or more challenging films lose. Just look at this past March, when the unspectacular Shape of Water took home the top prize, the more artistically interesting film Phantom Thread did not, and the top grossing films (Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Beauty and the Beast; Wonder Woman) were shut out of the category altogether.
A fan of Wonder Woman might rightly be frustrated that the movie did not have a chance to compete while something like The Post, a movie everyone's already forgotten about, did. Still, if Wonder Woman had been relegated to an entirely separate "popular" category, it would have suggested the film was less serious than movies like Get Out, Dunkirk, or any of the other features that arbitrarily made the cut. That is not just patronizing and insulting to "popular" movies and their fans — it's unjust and wrong, and perpetuates the myth that a good film cannot be popular, and a popular film cannot be good.
Should Black Panther be the Academy Award winner for "Best Picture," it should earn its statuette against something like The Favourite. Its fans should be allowed to love a "best" picture nominee — not just a "popular" one.