Bad News for Geeks: The Oscar for Achievement in Popular Film

And the Award for the Worst Idea for Awards Shows 2018 goes to. . .  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announcing an award for “outstanding achievement in popular film.”

It’s stupid, it’s pandering, it’s condescending, and also potentially racist.

On first glance, geeks might rejoice! “Finally, a category that will reward the movies I love — Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park!”

Well yes. And no.

The Academy is correct in identifying that fewer and fewer people are watching The Oscars every year. But this won’t help with that– at all. Yes, please, add more categories and ones that will represent the best in pop geek cinema. In fact, I identified five such ideas earlier this year. I quote myself:

“Most of the Best Picture nominations have made less than $100 million. NONE of the top 10 grossing movies of 2017 are nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. While we should in no way conflate box office with artistic merit, … it’s no wonder the public tunes out– because the Oscars celebrate what Hollywood likes in its movies, but not necessarily the rest of the country. In fact, of the top twenty best performing films of 2017, you only have two that received Best Picture / Best Director nominations — Dunkirk (16th) and Get Out (18th).”

My personal favorites of 2017 included blockbusters and artsy movies. While I would never expect to see Atomic Blonde nominated for Best Picture (it was also only a minor box office success), I am surprised that amazing films like Coco and Your Name are not. (Note: I am talking about the time-travel-starcrossed lovers anime Your Name and not Call Me By Your Name). But why are they not nominated as Best Picture?

Because they are animated films, and animation has its own separate category. Films like Zootopia, Inside Out, and The Incredibles deserve Oscar buzz. But they will never get it because they are stuck in the same situation we are about to put “popular” films in. This is the same problem documentaries have– films like Man on Wire, The Act of Killing, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, or 13th should all be considered amongst the best films of their respective years. Ditto for foreign language films.

The Academy should be asking, “Is how we choose Best Picture, Director, Writer and Actor nominees maybe not considering a whole slew of great films because our voting population is mainly old, white men who are susceptible to lobbying/bribery/marketing from the major studios and bullies/abusers like the Weinsteins?” Instead they’re saying, “Maybe if we nominate one of these superhero movies it will get these rubes off their tractors and turnip trucks.”

In the wake of controversies like #OscarsSoWhite, they are trying to increase the diversity of what films they consider, but this will ultimately backfire. Let’s be 100% real — if this category had existed last year, Get Out would’ve been in it. How do we know this? Because at the Golden Globes, it was nominated in the “Musicals and Comedy” slate.

It’s not hard to posit that the following conversation took place:

A: “They’re going to call us racist if Black Panther isn’t nominated for Best Picture.”
B: “Well, what if we designed a new category it can be sure to win, so we don’t have to worry about it?”
C: “Yes! A separate, but equal, award for. . . best popular movie or something.”

Or maybe the answer is just make sure the people voting are given the option to, you know, vote for Black Panther. And maybe extend your voting to enough people to make sure it can happen. And you don’t have to pander. You don’t have to condescend. But that, of course, would require you to make Hollywood less of an old-boys-club run by suits looking at spreadsheets. The key is having a younger, more racially diverse, more equal in terms of gender ratios group of voters, which means having more of those people making the films we love. But nah, let’s just make a popularity award.

This is not at all to poo-poo “popular” movies. I will fight you why Captain America: Civil War was the best movie of 2016 (and Captain America: Winter Soldier the best of 2014). Of the 100+ films I’ve seen and reviewed this year here on Graphic Policy and elsewhere, Black Panther has so far received my highest score. It shouldn’t be nominated for an award because it’s “popular”– it should be nominated because it’s a damn fine movie. Again, I will fight anyone who says differently. I love nothing more than sit down and obsessively talk about the minutae of Ryan Coogler or Rian Johnson’s work.

Do I want The Last Jedi to be nominated for Best Picture? Sure! The original Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture and should’ve won against Annie Hall, and Rian Johnson’s masterpiece is in that same echelon of great Star Wars movies. (Yes, @ me if you must, because I will die on this hill and am happy to block tons of trolls on Twitter)

But what I don’t want is every year or so for a Star Wars film to get a participation trophy because it made so much money. It doesn’t need a popularity award– it just made a billion dollars! It’s @#$%ing Star Wars — one of the most culturally ubiquitous things on the planet. That’s enough. If you’re going to reward it for its cinematic achievement, then do so. But don’t do it because you think it will get more eyes on a tv broadcast. (SPOILER ALERT: It won’t.) That path leads to the Dark Side. . . and the Star Wars Holiday Special.

What it will do is ghettoize great films just because they are popular.

Let’s play this out. This year’s nominees will likely include Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Mary Poppins Returns. . . yes, those are all Disney films. Add in Deadpool 2 as a soon-to-be-Disney property. Anyone see a problem with this? First, if you’re literally any other film, why even bother? Second, remember that the Oscars telecast is on ABC. If this category — even just for this year — is just an extended commercial for Disney’s corporate holdings, then, again, why even bother?

The biggest tragedy will be if groundbreaking genre films like Sorry to Bother You, Hereditary, or A Quiet Place get relegated to this category.  Again — 100%– Get Out would have been in this category last year. So would Logan and likely Wonder Woman. We shouldn’t be content with this, but instead demand that real artistic work be taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand as though “Best” and “Popular” are largely mutually exclusive categories. Both James Mangold and Patty Jenkins deserved to be nominated as Best Director and their films nominated for Best Picture. Instead, we get Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Darkest Hour. 

It’s precisely that kind of bullshit that makes people not tune in. Another movie about Dunkirk? (and the absolute worst of the three released in 2017!) And a misguided discussion about forgiveness that completely misses the mark, especially when it comes to issues of race? Yeah, no. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Ghettoizing Get Out, Logan, The Last Jedi, and Wonder Woman into a “popular movies” category wouldn’t fix that.

Apologies for using the word ghettoize. I do not do so lightly. I do so in the literal sense of segregating people based on outward characteristics in order to provide them with substandard services.

While The Academy would like to be more diverse, this category will serve as a “runner up” category to keep films like Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, A Wrinkle in Time, Crazy Rich Asians AND their filmmakers away from the podium.

That’s not fair, and it’s not ok. I made a joke earlier about a “separate, but equal, category.” That’s what this is. As long as it exists as a consolation prize while “real” art gets nominated for Best Picture, it will serve to “other” deserving filmmakers.

While this will be good news that early next year we can stop remembering that the only recent movie based on a comic book to win an Oscar is Suicide Squad (executive produced by supervillain Treasury Secretary and therefore fifth in line for the presidency Steve Mnuchin!) that is likely the only good thing about this situation. Sure, Ryan Coogler might get to accept an Oscar, but he deserves to be in the same category as Spielberg and Scorcese.