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Popular Film Award Is Not Dead, Says Academy President John Bailey

Will the Motion Picture Academy resurrect the idea of outstanding achievement in popular film? Will audience fragmentation continue to drive a wedge between films that are widely distributed and films that win Oscars? Will the Academy ever be able to halt the declining ratings of the Oscars broadcast?

These and other issues took center stage at a wide-ranging discussion about the work of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences held at the EnergaCamerimage Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland. The participants were Academy president John Bailey; Carol Littleton, a member of the board of governors and the film editors branch; and Brooke Boles, associate director of membership and awards.

When the Academy announced the possibility of the popular film award last summer, it drew a backlash so fierce that the organization suspended the plan. And yet, said Bailey, having some kind of additional recognition for “for best picture or best general release is very much on our minds.”

The idea, he affirmed, came about in direct response to the Oscars’ falling TV ratings.

Bailey pointed out that the first Academy Awards in 1929 handed out two best picture awards, one for a box office hit (William Wellman’s war epic “Wings”) and one for a film considered an artistic achievement (F.W. Murnau’s romantic drama “Sunrise”).

Having two such awards again “seemed like a good idea, the board approved it, announced it, but we got a lot of pushback,” Bailey said. “So the board reconsidered and tabled it – which is not to say that the idea is dead. Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.”

One problem today, said Littleton, is that a lot of the smaller, artistic films – including recent winners “The Shape of Water” and “Moonlight” – “are not widely distributed so TV audiences have not seen many of the nominated pictures.”

Bailey believes that the next Oscars could see the nomination of a wider spectrum of films, including the very popular “Black Panther” alongside “two very uncompromising black and white art films,” Polish foreign language contender “Cold War” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma.”

“It will be interesting to see how that plays out,” he added. “It might give us a strong perspective on how to move forward.”

Bailey also noted that the Academy’s “generous contract” with ABC for the telecast runs through 2028, “so we have another decade, and we’re already starting to deal with the problem. There’s desire to expand the awards to millennials, many of whom do not have TV.” He pointed out that ABC parent Disney will have its own streaming service starting next year.

Asked about the possibility of adding new awards categories, including ones for stunt performers, virtual reality and casting, Bailey noted that “a number of different crafts would like to be represented and there are ongoing discussions about creating new branches, but right now we’re trying to reduce the size of the board. However, nothing is written in stone.”

In a separate conversation with Variety, Bailey stressed the importance of boosting the Academy’s international profile. “One if the things I am most committed to is expanding awareness and visibility for the foreign language award,” he said. “To me that award is every bit as important as the best picture award – it’s the best picture award for the rest of the world.”

To that end, about half of the approximately 900 individuals invited to join the Academy this year are from outside the U.S.

Bailey added that despite the explosion of screening options like DVDs and streaming, the Academy, through its Future of Film committee, remains committed to supporting big-screen theatrical exhibition.

Home screening “is the reality now, but the Academy does not want to actively promote that,” said Bailey. “We are committed to having our members and the viewing public see films as they were intended to be seen.”

Bailey said the Academy is working on a program now whereby nominated documentaries could be shown as a package at such chains as Landmark or Arclight.

The Academy topper acknowledged that there have been “discussions” about the policy of requiring films to receive theatrical release in order to qualify, and that rescinding the rule “has its advocates. Some people have said a movie is a movie, it doesn’t matter how it’s screened. But there is not wide support for this.”

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