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And the Oscar goes to . . . shameless pandering to mass audiences

The people who run the Oscars make a populist appeal, and it is blowing up in their faces.

And the Oscar goes to . . . shameless pandering to mass audiences
[Photo: Flickr user Mr. Gray]

In a Hail Mary pass that swiftly caused jaws to drop all across Hollywood, the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences (aka, The Oscars) announced on Wednesday sweeping changes to upcoming Oscars ceremonies. The biggest change–and the most universally abhorred by insiders and observers alike–is the addition of a new category: “For outstanding achievement in popular film,” as the Academy wrote in a letter to its members that was published by the Hollywood Reporter.

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In other words, in addition to a Best Picture award, there will now be the equivalent of a Popcorn Movie award, for movies that aren’t considered high-minded or highly artistic but that appeal to the masses–i.e., the people the Academy desperately needs to tune in to its annual telecast. Deadpool 2, maybe? Mamma Mia 2? A Marvel movie? This year’s Black Panther is likely already a Best Picture candidate anyway. Now, what if it ends up in both categories? Who knows? The Academy’s letter was painfully short on details as to how this will all play out.

The thinking behind the Academy’s decision is obvious enough. It needs to get more people to watch the Oscars, which last year hit an all-time low in viewership, attracting a mere 26.5 million people. In other words, how to popularize a televised event that is more steeped in tradition and precedent than perhaps any other, at a time when many Americans feel the way President Donald Trump does: Hollywood is the enemy.

It’s an issue that the Academy has been grappling with for years now, and it has led to “innovations” like the expansion of Best Picture to 10 films back in 2009–another attempt to open the door to more popular films that, with the exception of The Martian, really just opened the door to more indie movies. And to hiring hosts like James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011–an attempt to appeal to younger viewers that ended up being more of an absurd performance piece for Franco, who sleepwalked through the show. And to having host Jimmy Kimmel bring a busload of Hollywood tourists into the Kodak Theater last year to gape and take selfies with stars like Denzel Washington, in what was perhaps the most condescending moment in all of Oscar history.   

So now the Academy is throwing out any kind of subtlety and simply playing into the Red State/Blue State divide, saying: Hey! We know we can’t keep you in your seats long enough to see a movie like Moonlight win–which we know none of you ever saw (or even heard of!)–even if we inadvertently throw in a little Envelopegate action right at the end, for your amusement. Ditto for all of the other recent Best Picture winners: The Shape of Water, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave. . . . So, don’t you worry about all those quirky little festival movies that, as we all know, make zero money at the box office anyway.

You just sit there in your La-Z-Boy and wait for the Most Popular award for all the movies you have seen. Action movies, gross-out comedies, movies probably starring The Rock. You just sit tight for that! And! To make the experience even more pleasant, the Academy is also promising to cut the show to three hours, which means they’ll be cutting out some of those annoying awards for below-the-line folks that everyone treats like a bathroom break anyway. (They’ll be presented live during commercial breaks from now on.) The date for the 2020 Oscars is also being moved up, to February 9 from February 23 (next year’s show remains, as announced, on February 24, 2019), in order to cut down on the long-drawn-out process of campaigning that makes the actual show feel after-the-fact.    

[Photo: Flickr user Davidlohr Bueso]
In short, the Academy is selling out, and basically saying that in order to stay relevant they need to become a mass-market people pleaser, and by “people” they mean all of the people who don’t live in Los Angeles or New York or any other city that has more than one art-house movie theater. Wait, what were we saying about condescension?

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As for how this is being taken in Hollywood, there’s already a revolt. As one Oscar consultant told me, “It’s a complete blow job. It’s beyond the pale. It’s a pathetic admission that ‘we’re a TV show’ and nothing more. What are they gonna do, campaign for popular films now? Idiots.”

How this affects the months-long Oscar campaign season, indeed, remains to be seen. (Will there be “For Your Consideration” billboards for Paddington 2?) But there are other questions. Such as what happens to Best Picture now that it’s sharing the top slot with another category? Will Popular Film really just be seen as a shined-up People’s Choice Award? If a film is nominated in both categories, does that hurt its chances of winning an actual Best Picture? By cutting out the less showy awards for sound editors and foreign documentaries or whatever ends up getting sidelined to an off-air presentation, isn’t the Academy effectively creating a caste system and saying that those men and women, who work as hard as anyone else to make a film, are not important?

Why not look at things like commercials and “innovate” there? In order to make up for declining ratings, ABC has sold more ads, making the commercial breaks during the Oscars insufferable. Why not do something about that, which has surely had an effect on ratings?

No one enjoys a three-hour-plus Oscar show. Hooray that there will be an attempt to streamline it and make it a (slightly) more bearable three hours, if in fact they can pull that off. The Academy should work to be entertaining for an audience that goes beyond its own myopic world. But throwing in an award that not only has a paling effect on Best Picture–a hallowed, meaningful award that filmmakers spend their lives dreaming of, even if people like Harvey Weinstein proved that it could be won with marketing genius (cough cough, The King’s Speech)–but will be seen as a joke within the industry, what’s being accomplished here?

Many years ago, when the Academy threatened to take the Best Documentary category off the air (apparently the issue of populism is one that’s persisted), there was a huge uproar and the decision was reversed. Given the Twitter rage that’s already brewing over the new changes, back-stepping could be in store. As one source said, “It’s still only August. We’ll see how this plays out.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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