×

Will Oscars’ Popular Film Category Generate Ratings or Just Controversy?

Last week’s announcement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instituting a new Oscars category for “outstanding achievement in popular film” was met with a swift backlash and mockery on social media.

“Seriously, this ‘best pop movie’ category is the worst idea the Academy has had since they asked me to sing with Snow White,” tweeted actor Rob Lowe, whose embarrassing appearance alongside the first Disney princess at the 1989 ceremony was launched into infamy. Other naysayers ranged from former Oscars producer Craig Zadan to ex-Focus Features honcho James Schamus.

But at least one major star appreciated the gesture. “Maybe if they’d had the category before, we’d have won a couple of them,” Mark Wahlberg told Variety. “We’ve had some really commercially successful films that we think certainly warranted that kind of notoriety.” Some of Wahlberg’s recent hits include “Ted,” “Lone Survivor” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which has a meager 18% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Insiders complain that the strategy could disastrously evolve the Oscars into something akin to the MTV Movie & TV Awards. The Academy arrived at the decision after intense lobbying by ABC, the network that airs the ceremony, to stage a more popular telecast. The move will undeniably benefit the $1.3 billion global juggernaut “Black Panther,” which ABC’s parent company, Disney, released earlier this year.

Last February’s Oscars, which saw the top prize go to “The Shape of Water,” attracted 26.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen, a new low in modern history, though still far ahead of previous shows.

One goal, said sources with knowledge of internal discussions, was guaranteeing RSVPs from A-list stars of the Marvel and “Star Wars” franchises. But it’s not clear if that would actually move the needle for viewership. Historically, the most important variable in boosting ratings has been handing the best picture prize to a box office hit, such as “Titanic” in 1998 (a ceremony that reached a record 57 million viewers) or “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2004 (which scored 43 million viewers).

After “The Dark Knight” was snubbed nine years ago, the Academy’s decision to expand the best picture field in the hopes of nominating more blockbusters didn’t lead to an increase in the show’s popularity. And while most of the uproar over implementing the new category has been rooted in anxiety over Hollywood potentially diluting its biggest night by pandering to the lowest common denominator, those who see the glass as half full think the move could elevate popular cinema.

“We’re not talking about honoring movies that don’t deserve it. That’s what I think people are reading into this,” said screenwriter and Academy governor Larry Karaszewski, who was recently elected vice president of the organization. “I think the idea is to have an award that makes blockbusters better.”

When “The Dark Knight” failed to win a best picture nomination in 2009, the Academy widened the field, hoping to include blockbusters.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Films like Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” and Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” have been mentioned in industry discussions about the kinds of movies the Academy would like to see recognized.

Nevertheless, there was debate within the Academy’s 54-member board of governors over the measure, which was approved via secret ballot (not uncommon when there’s internal division) at the group’s monthly meeting on Aug. 7. Another proposed change — the shift of certain live presentations and acceptance speeches to commercial breaks that would then be edited into a truncated package aired later in the telecast — won over some skeptics with a demonstration of what that might entail. “It cuts out a huge dilemma, which is the 60 seconds or more of people walking from their seats to the stage,” one insider said. “That’s the kind of streamlining the Academy is thinking about.”

Other changes that will be rolled out include locking in the show’s runtime at three hours and, beginning in 2020, moving the airdate up to early February.

The new popular film category has the potential to further escalate the never-ending campaigning associated with awards season. How does a studio position a prestige film that takes off with audiences? Conversely, do blockbusters aim for only the new category, or do they also try for best picture, where they are still eligible?

That was part of the strategy behind Paramount’s best picture push for the Al Gore climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006, in order to elevate its stature in the documentary feature field. “We didn’t think we were getting a best picture nomination. However, part of the narrative was that the film had ignited a global conversation about climate change and deserved to be there even if it didn’t get there,” said Lea Yardum, a partner at Los Angeles-based consultancy firm Perception PR, who was the studio’s awards strategist at the time.

Experts said it’s unlikely the new category will drastically alter the way studios campaign. For example, as Disney prepares to mount for-your-consideration ads for ”Black Panther,” which grossed $700 million in domestic receipts alone, the studio will probably include a mention of the new prize on billboards, but the focus will remain on bigger awards like director and best picture.

“We’re not talking about honoring movies that don’t deserve it. … I think the idea is to have an award that makes blockbusters better.”
Larry Karaszewski, Academy governor

A studio such as Warner Bros., meanwhile, which has often straddled the line between art and commerce with films like “Argo,” “Gravity,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Dunkirk” — with Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” on the way — isn’t likely to change its approach. “I think we’re all in a wait-and-see place,” said Michele Robertson, who consults on awards-season strategy with the studio. “There are so many variables because we’re not behind the curtain.”

Indeed, many complaints have centered on the lack of transparency with the general membership over the matter. The plan was baked in committee prior to the board voting on it.

All of that said, the new statue could encourage studios to place advertising for movies that wouldn’t traditionally be expected to compete at the Oscars. “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” and “A Quiet Place” would be prime contenders this year.

As for the other changes, they could create a trickle-down effect. Sources said the Independent Spirit Awards will likely shuffle its traditional day-before luncheon to precede the Oscars. Abroad, organizers from the Berlinale are wondering what to do about their galas. The Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival, with a program built on nightly events celebrating many of the year’s nominees, would need to look at moving, while Sundance could become an even more urgent campaign stop.

In the past decade, the Academy has gravitated toward championing smaller films. While Oscar ratings have been disappointing, audiences for awards shows are trending down in general. It seems like a long shot that one new category will make the show dramatically bigger. For the appalled, there’s some hope that the Academy will walk back what has been received as, at best, an undercooked notion.

“They still have time to rescind any of this,” one longtime Oscar consultant said. “They can say, ‘We heard you loud and clear. We get it. We’re not going to do it this year.’ And then it goes away. That would be the adult thing to do.”

Dave McNary contributed to this story.

More Film

  • sith trooper

    Sith Trooper Revealed From 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'

    “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” revealed a new storm trooper uniform Wednesday at San Diego Comic Con as part of a special exhibit celebrating the evolution of the storm trooper design. Dubbed the Sith trooper, the new uniform sports all-red armor plates with a matching red and black blaster. Also decorating the armor is [...]

  • Dunkirk

    Harry Styles Is the Perfect Prince Eric; Why He'd Rock 'Little Mermaid' Role

    Could Harry Styles be the perfect Prince Eric? One day after the announcement that the One Direction star is “in early negotiations to play the iconic ‘Little Mermaid’ role,” the internet exploded with speculation as to how he would portray the object of Ariel’s affections. “I can see lots of reasons why Harry is perfect,” [...]

  • The Lion King

    Film News Roundup: PETA Sponsors Rescued Lion in Jon Favreau's Name

    In today’s film news roundup, PETA honors Jon Favreau for “The Lion King,” “Tigers Are Not Afraid” gets a theatrical release, a Kirk Franklin biopic is in development and “The Sixth Sense” gets an anniversary showing in Philadelphia. HONOR The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is sponsoring a rescued lion to honor director [...]

  • Tokyo Director-in-Focus-at-Japan-Now

    Nobuhiko Obayashi set as Japanese Director in Focus at Tokyo Film Festival

    Indie director, Nobuhiko Obayashi will be feted as the director in focus at the Japan Now section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival will give a world premiere to his “Labyrinth of Cinema.” Supporting his art by shooting commercials, Obayashi is an indie whose dreamy works have influenced numerous other directors in [...]

  • Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Movie

    Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Thriller 'Unhinged' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jimmi Simpson will play a key role in “Unhinged,” Variety has learned. He joins an impressive cast that includes Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius. Solstice Studios is producing the psychological thriller, which is currently filming in New Orleans. “Unhinged” centers on a woman named Rachel (Pistorius), who leans on her horn at the wrong [...]

  • David Crosby

    David Crosby Says New Documentary 'Remember My Name' Is Like 'Being Naked in Public’

    “It’s not easy. It’s hard being naked in public,” David Crosby, the legendary troubadour of classic rock, reflected at Tuesday night’s New York City premiere of “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” “I don’t know what to do here. There’s no guitars, no drums,” he laughed. Directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton and produced by the legendary [...]

  • Javier Bardem Dune

    Javier Bardem in Talks to Play King Triton in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Javier Bardem is in talks to play King Triton in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. Harry Styles is also in early talks to play Prince Eric. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content