The Oscars’ attempt to be populist turns out to be pretty elitist and racist

Image: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Update: The Academy announced Sept. 6 that it will postpone the introduction of the new “popular film” category, admitting that it needed “further discussion with our members” after a fervid, widespread backlash to the initial Aug. 9 announcement. The new award will not be presented at the 2019 Oscars as originally intended as the film Academy “seeks additional input.”

The Oscars have long had a reputation for being elitist, narcissistic, and, until very recently, blindingly white. Its sweeping changes, announced by the film academy yesterday, are not going to change that. If anything, the misguided attempt to appear more inclusive only makes the Oscars seem even more out of touch.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the body that governs the Oscars—revealed that it will enact some major tweaks to the annual award show in hopes of making it more accessible to a wider range of people, and boosting the telecast’s sinking ratings (last year’s edition hit an all-time low). These changes were threefold:

  • The Oscars will be no longer than three hours. To achieve this, several categories will be announced during commercial breaks and then edited and added in later in the broadcast.
  • Starting in 2020, the Oscars will air earlier (on Feb. 9 that year), ostensibly to shorten “Oscar season” and keep the show “relevant.”
  • And here’s the whopper: The Academy is creating a new award category for “outstanding achievement in popular film.” It did not provide details on what constitutes a “popular film.”

The announcement was immediately and comprehensively picked apart by observers of all kinds (fans, film critics, industry analysts, even some actors themselves) on social media. Most of the ire was rightly directed to the new popular film category, a blatant effort to make the Oscars more populist and less snooty—that will have exactly the opposite effect.

No matter how the Academy decides what’s “popular” and what isn’t (box office? budget? IMDB rating? Twitter buzz?), the result of this half-brained idea will be a ghettoization of these films into a separate category that’s inherently less prestigious than best picture. It will give Academy members an excuse not to vote for films like Black Panther for best picture, since the blockbuster Marvel film will almost certainly qualify for whatever this other dumb category is.

Had this category existed last year, Get Out, which against all odds made almost $200 million at the US box office, probably would have been relegated to it instead of receiving the best picture nomination it got (and deserved). There were whispers last year that a sizable contingent of Academy voters did not consider Jordan Peele’s social thriller to be “an Oscar film” and were upset when it was nominated (and, presumably, relieved when it was beaten by The Shape of Water).

It hasn’t escaped notice that right at a time when Hollywood has proved that non-white actors and filmmakers can carry a film to enormous box office success and global popularity, the Oscars have drastically diminished those films’ chances of earning a coveted best picture nomination.

As well as marginalizing films that reached a wide audience, the “popular film” category is insulting to the very viewers that the Academy thinks will be interested in it. It implies that these are people of lowbrow taste, who need a special category of their own to be invested in, one that’s markedly different from best picture (which, by the way, has nominated plenty of “popular” films over the years, including Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and Mad Max: Fury Road).

The Academy apparently blames the lack of popular films at the Oscars for its rapidly declining TV ratings, but that likely has nothing to do with it. Oscar ratings are declining because all TV ratings are declining, and including more superhero and action films in the ceremony won’t suddenly reverse course on what’s an inevitable industry-wide sea change.

In fact, it’s entirely possible these changes will make the ratings even worse. As Richard Rushfield points out in his Hollywood newsletter The Ankler, the new category will set aside the best picture field even more for niche, arthouse films. “The center ring will now be preserved to go full Spirit Awards, and we can look forward to annual shoot-outs between Call Me By Your Name and The Florida Project,” he writes. ”Think having a special side category will save the ratings then?”

The Academy has every right to try to change the Oscars to make them more entertaining and accessible. But to quote a character in a franchise that will surely come to dominate this new award category, “This is not going to go the way you think.”