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Delayed by Popular Demand: Academy’s Controversial New Oscar Category

There was plenty of positive membership feedback to go along with the well-publicized backlash to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Aug. 8 announcement of an “achievement in popular film” Oscar category, insists AMPAS CEO Dawn Hudson. Nevertheless, the organization last week stepped back its plans for the new category, conceding a need for “further study.”

“We were excited to announce many changes to the Oscars because we wanted to show we are evolving,” Hudson says. “The show is changing and we wanted our members to know and our film fans around the world to know.” But she admits the details and parameters surrounding a popular film prize were still in the process of being determined when the announcement was rushed out.

“We heard from a lot of members who said, ‘We’re nine months into the awards year. This is creating a lot of confusion. Let’s put a pin in this,’” Hudson says.

Whether the category resurfaces in some fashion after further workshopping — following the upcoming 91st Oscars, of course — or whether it is simply allowed to fade, as a conveniently forgotten trial balloon, remains to be seen. But Hudson says the Academy, or at least its leadership, is committed to the new prize in principle, and adds it was misunderstood by its many detractors. Actor Rob Lowe, who was among those opposed to the category, was encouraged by the about-face. “The film industry’s health took a small, but surprising turn for the better today,” he cheekily tweeted.

Popular on Variety

“A lot of people didn’t understand the intention,” Hudson says. “We want to honor excellence in a wider spectrum of filmmaking. That’s not changing.”

That position is on brand for the Academy. A number of recent initiatives, such as the move to vastly expand the diversity of its membership, have been conceived with inclusivity in mind. “The goal everyone supports is how do you widen the net,” Hudson says. “We’ve had a lot of different ways of defining it.”

Nevertheless, many Academy members feel the handling of the popular film category announcement was another botched PR episode for the organization, and that, at minimum, board members should have voted not on an abstract concept but on a measure that had an actual framework in place.

“The messaging out of the Academy is amateurish and mangled in execution,” says one member. “They should have come in with bullet points about how it worked. Not just ‘Let’s toss it around.’”

“We heard from a lot of members who said, ‘We’re nine months into the awards year. This is creating a lot of confusion. Let’s put a pin in this.’”
Dawn Hudson, AMPAS CEO

Furthermore, a commitment to honor “popular” achievements might be baked into a year like 2018, which already features Marvel’s critically acclaimed box office hit “Black Panther.” Also on the way is Warner Bros.’ “A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper’s musical remake starring Lady Gaga, which hits theaters next month. The picture has already wowed critics in Venice and Toronto and is poised to become a crossover commercial hit in the vein of previous Warners Oscar players like “Dunkirk” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Both “Black Panther” and “A Star Is Born” figure to be in the thick of this year’s best-picture Oscar discussion without need for a special category.

“I think people are trying to engage audiences more,” says Michael B. Jordan, one of the stars of “Black Panther.” “We’re in this climate where everybody is looking at viewership, so bringing a category like that in — it’s trying to get more of the audience, people at home, to feel involved in the process. The questions being asked are important ones, and until there are answers, it’s tough to have an educated dialogue on it.”

Others point to the fact that a popular film category, whatever its composition, will not address the underlying concern of sagging ratings for the annual Oscars telecast. The myriad reasons for declining viewership, including the ongoing evolution of home-viewing habits, aren’t going to change. And there’s always the risk of alienating the broadcast audience with a move that’s perceived as political. That can happen even via content and emcee choices: The most successful recent telecast was hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, safe and uncontroversial in comparison with the sometimes incendiary Jimmy Kimmel.

“You can’t whittle away your audience purposely unless you’re on Netflix,” one Academy voter quips.

Along those lines, some have speculated that the Academy should just sell its awards show to the streaming giant, shedding the headache of propping up broadcast ratings altogether — and exacting what would surely be a rich price point. ABC has those rights, and the Academy Awards’ fate, sewn up for another decade. But wouldn’t such a move be a big, bright, flashing sign of the times?

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