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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.

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