There are many reasons the new category is concerning, but three in particular stand out.
The new Oscar awarding achievements in popular film is a bad idea.
Yes, I’m aware I’m saying that knowing essentially nothing about how the award will be defined and adjudicated; the press release from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announcing the new category states that those details “will be forthcoming.”
But the announcement of a new category for “outstanding achievement in popular film” nonetheless feels like a panicked move by an Academy that’s worried Black Panther won’t be nominated for Best Picture, an echo of when they expanded the Best Picture category to 10 nominees in 2009 in response to The Dark Knight and Wall-E being snubbed in that category. (The number of Best Picture nominees changed again two years later to “five to 10 nominees.”)
To be sure, the announcement of this category is vague enough that it could mean just about anything. Hollywood stunt people have long wanted the awards to add a category for the best stunt coordination, and this could, theoretically, be that — popular films do often feature a lot of stunts, after all. Or “achievement in popular film” could just be a de facto special Oscar given to the year’s box office champ, along the lines of the existing Honorary Awards.
But c’mon. It’s not going to be that. It’s going to be the Oscars nominating a handful of the year’s biggest blockbusters, to make sure that the Black Panthers and the Mission: Impossibles of the world are nominated somewhere other than the sound and visual effects categories.
It’s going to feel like shameless pandering, and it’s just going to make the awards less meaningful. When blockbusters are good, like Black Panther, they should be nominated for Best Picture, not some category created in a panic.
But my concerns about this category extend beyond, “This seems like it wasn’t really thought through.” Here are three of the most significant red flags raised by this vague announcement.
1) This will make it harder for big movies to be nominated for Best Picture
A common misconception about the Oscars is that they never nominate big hits. In truth, the Oscars do nominate big hits, especially if those big hits overlap with some of the Oscars’ favorite genres, like historical dramas (Lincoln) or musicals (Chicago) or epic romances (Titanic).
The more accurate thing to say about the Oscars is that they rarely nominate big popcorn movies, which is true. But even there, it’s hard for the Academy to resist a true box office sensation that garners warm reviews, then takes off and becomes a big-time cultural touchstone. Everything from Jaws to Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings movies to Get Out would fit that description (as would Black Panther), and all of these examples were nominated for Best Picture.
In fact, The Dark Knight — the rare blockbuster with big box office, great reviews, and cultural touchstone status to not get a Best Picture nod — is the exception that proves the rule here. (It’s probably worth noting that Dark Knight is specifically a superhero film, and the Oscars have yet to nominate a superhero movie for Best Picture — which may be the impetus behind this move in some way.)
And the idea of a “best popular film” category meant to honor movies like this specifically could, conceivably, lead to those movies then being in the conversation for other categories as well. After all, the Academy has made clear that movies nominated for the popular film award can also be nominated for Best Picture. If Oscar voters are watching Black Panther for awards consideration, rather than writing it off as “just another superhero movie,” this line of thinking goes, then they’ll realize it belongs in the conversation in other categories.
But we know how this will turn out because we’ve seen it happen literally within the past 20 years.
The creation of the Best Animated Feature category was supposed to have a similar effect: As animated films became more and more popular and better and better made, the category was added to draw attention to the craftsmanship in that arena. Before it was first awarded in 2002, just one animated film had been nominated for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast, nominated in 1992.
But since then, only two animated films have been nominated — Up in 2010 and Toy Story 3 in 2011 — and since Best Picture went from 10 guaranteed nominees to five to 10 nominees, no animated film has been nominated, even as movies like 2015’s Inside Out and 2017’s Coco have boasted both great reviews and great box office.
The same goes for the Foreign Language and Documentary categories. The former will occasionally see a Best Picture nomination — most recently with Amour‘s nomination in 2013 — but no foreign language film has actually won Best Picture. (Ironically, Slumdog Millionaire, which features the most non-English language work of any Best Picture winner, was ineligible for the category, having been produced by an American studio.) And no documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture.
No matter the intentions behind specialized categories like this, they just end up segregating the films they’re meant to honor, keeping them from the “real” categories. Would Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King have won Best Picture if the popular film category had existed? Maybe — but it would have added another major hurdle.