This past week the Oscars, in what has been labeled as a bid to save themselves, announced a new category that would be handed out in next year’s show, one reserved to the film which showcases “outstanding achievement in popular film”. Following up their announcement with on-brand vagueness and and lack of clarity: the industry on cue, led by its self-identified vanguard of film critics had a complete meltdown.
You could almost hear the collective sneer of cinema bros across the world explaining to their Tinder dates why it was a sign that movies, as a proud and cultural art form, had reached an expiration date. Defiled film was by the masses of Jurassic Park-going imbeciles who probably think Citizen Kane is something you pick out of a cereal aisle.
Yet the wording of the award, and the stage it’s being presented on, gives reason to think the Oscars might have done more than just hatched a plan to save their broadcast dollars. In fact if the stars line up just maybe they’ve devised a way to keep the industry afloat.
Wait till you see the nominations before you burn that TV
There is merit in an exercise of handing out an award to a film on the grounds of how many people it managed to get in seats. It’s no question movies, specifically movies in cinemas, have been struggling in the Netflix and low-attention span era with this for some time.
Even entrepreneurs and startups like MoviePass once hailed as disrupting the industry back to life are in a slow, death spiral. If a movie is filling seats it is doing something the industry is in desperate need of. While the first thought might be well okay does the art form of cinema really need more superhero flicks? The conventions of what makes a film popular are constantly being rewritten around us everyday.
Every Oscar is coveted, every Oscar pushes big budget producers to chase it.
It’s no secret that the Oscars have a diversity problem. And one of the initial gut check reactions on the new award was that it was a cheap and easy way to fix this without putting in any real effort. Black Panther for example was a tremendous success at the box office. Thus it’s likely the Oscars knew they needed to throw out a “dummy” category in order for it to have a presence in the broadcast.
Unpacking that argument, a very common one, I think there are a lot of assumptions we lean into that ultimately harm film. The first is that producers, directors and creators who defy the traditional notions of what makes a film sellable, and yet create smash at the box office regardless, don’t deserve acknowledgement for that act alone.
Racist and and bigoted ideas percolate in the closed circles of Hollywood’s elite everyday. White actors are constantly cast to play roles that should have gone to people of colour. Cis actors are cast to play trans roles. Both of those instances are hedged on and rooted in a far more widespread assumption and issue: the idea white male leads are the only ones who can really sell top-tier Hollywood movies.
This assumption is wrong. Black Panther defied it. Crazy Rich Asians defied it. Wonder Woman smashed it to pieces. We now, at least I hope, have a category on cinema’s biggest stage where films of the like can duke it out to see who defied it best.
After all in no scenario will “achievement in popular film” simply mean “most seats sold.” One hopes that the Academy will take it upon themselves to seek out, like in most other categories, films which broke the mould in their respected category. Best Cinematography should go to a cinematographer who changes how we understand cinematography in their work. A Best Director laureate should push boundaries in film direction. Best Achievement in Popular film now stands as a tool to reward those who re-defy what a popular film is.
It also brings me to the next corrosive assumption industry analysts have when they throw out the cheap-ploy-to-boost-diversity argument: a popular film can’t be a good film.
To be clear I’m not saying Black Panther deserves Best Picture. As I mentioned I think an Oscar, at its best, is rewarding a film for pushing the medium forward and breaking the mould. An honest review of Black Panther should find a really good example of superhero cinema. What you wouldn’t find is something along the lines of The Dark Knight which is likely the closest a big budget and popular superhero ever came to being nominated for the top prize. Nolan’s masterpiece to this is day is a notable example of a film which broke and reshaped the genre it was working in.
By rewriting what a popular film is we open the door to a better, bolder industry
Moonlight you’ll recall was bold in the same way Black Panther was bold. It’s all Black cast rewrote the rules on what a Best Picture looks like. It is likely one of the greatest films of the decade, and possibly century thus far. One thing it was not was popular, at least within the same scope of a film like Blank Panther. Removing it’s post-Oscar bump it holds a good indie’s numbers at the box office and nothing more.
But imagine for a moment a world where the nuanced story of Chiron, a gay Black man growing up in Miami does draw Black Panther numbers at the box office. Imagine the cultural impact of stories beyond rom coms and action movies piercing past the film crowd into truly popular culture. That after all is what the movies were for. Without tools to acknowledge and push the boundaries of the cinema we deem successful we’ll never get there. Let’s hope the Academy feels the same.