The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying to boost viewer numbers—even if it means making filmmakers and fans angry.
On Wednesday, the organization announced a few changes for its 2019 ceremony:
Change is coming to the #Oscars. Here’s what you need to know:
– A new category is being designed around achievement in popular film.
– We’ve set an earlier airdate for 2020: mark your calendars for February 9.
– We’re planning a more globally accessible, three-hour telecast. pic.twitter.com/oKTwjV1Qv9
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) August 8, 2018
The moves are the Academy’s effort to appease Disney-ABC, which has been pushing for changes that will increase viewership—especially as the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony received its lowest ratings yet.
Just a year and a half earlier, Disney-ABC had set a long-term pact with the Academy to broadcast the Oscars through 2028 — long past the point where anyone can predict what linear-television consumption will look like. Then the ratings fell off a cliff. The 26.6 million viewers averaged by the 2018 Oscars, according to Nielsen live-plus-same day numbers, represented a 19% decline from 2017, and 39% drop from the show’s recent peak in 2014. Numbers for younger viewers were even worse. Ratings in the 18-49 demo fell 24% from 2017 and 47% from 2014. The 18-34 demo was down 29% from 2017 and 56% from 2014.
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By creating a new category for “outstanding achievement in popular film,” the Academy is very likely attempting to ensure that the broadcast will feature movies — and actors, and directors — that many people will be not just familiar with, but passionate about. They want those eyeballs. Those (in the case of films like Black Panther, say) those nerdy, nerdy eyeballs, and the rooting interests they represent.
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.
Though many reporters and social media users applauded the shorter running time for the ceremony, the online backlash over the Academy’s new Oscar category was swift and fierce.
Y’all giving awards in mediocre popular films but still ignore stunt work/choreography… Seriously?
— dennis (@cookiedusterden) August 8, 2018
— Matt E ✂️🎞 (@EllsworthEdits) August 8, 2018
Think about how many people saw Moonlight because it won Best Picture.
Now let’s think about another small indie that wins Best Picture in 2020, but Avengers 4 wins Best Popular film.
What film will the headlines be talking about on the night of the Oscars?
That’s the issue.
— Jacob Brinkworth (@JacobBrinkworth) August 9, 2018
Rethink this. All artists deserve the same respect. Adding a popular film category is an obvious ratings grab and an excuse not to reward them in the “important” categories.
— Dan Town (@DanTown22) August 8, 2018
Awful, AWFUL changes. Shame on you for even thinking about it.
— Pablo Villaça (@pablovillaca) August 8, 2018
2018: Oscar for Best Popular Film
2020: Oscar for Best Film That’s Good For What It Is
2023: Oscar for Most Gif-able Moment
2029: Oscar for Best Film (Based Solely On Trailer Reactions)
2028: Oscar for Most Galaxy Brain Directorial Choice
2113: Oscar for Best Stunt Choreogra
— Thrillmonger, ASC, BDE (@BoringDrew) August 8, 2018
ABC is about four or five years away from letting us pick Oscar winners from home by calling a 1-800 number during the live broadcast
— Eric Haywood (@EricHaywood) August 9, 2018
— Jack Ryan (@doctorjr) August 8, 2018
It seems like you’re bending to the whims of major studios that want their watered-down blockbusters to get this kind of recognition. What made you guys special in the past was that you typically recognized the work that deserved it. This is kind of a shame.
— the wickedly talented adele dazeem (@ChrisBrown239) August 8, 2018
Finally, a *popular* movie will stand a chance at an Oscar! pic.twitter.com/YZtTV7z40j
— Chris Evangelista (@cevangelista413) August 8, 2018
Finally the Oscars will be giving a statue based on popularity so that those poor mountains of box office money won’t be lonely anymore
— Andy Richter (@AndyRichter) August 8, 2018
Some decried the problems the announcement could create, including bumping worthy films to a less significant category and giving Disney an edge for additional recognition.
Is it any surprise that Marvel now sees an opening to begin pushing for Oscar recognition? Getting “Black Panther” a Best Picture nod would be akin to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” being nominated for the 1992 Academy Awards, a vote of artistic confidence that lead to a surge in Disney animated films in the later 1990s.But the Oscars do not want to open that door — some members were reportedly very unhappy with the inclusion of “Get Out” in the 2018 best picture race. So rather than reconsider the elitist criteria for best picture, the academy has created a separate and (it hopes) non-threatening category. Like the award for best animated feature film, which has kept most of Pixar’s best works out of contention (while both “Up” and “Toy Story 3” received best picture nods, neither won), this is a naked attempt to keep both lowbrow blockbusters and sleeper, subversive hits like “Get Out” from invading the hallowed best picture space.
The BBC reported:
It’s also been noted by some media outlets, such as Variety, that the Oscars are broadcast on ABC in the US, a company owned by Disney – one of the studios which may benefit from the best popular film award.
Others criticized the move for potentially segregating minority actors and filmmakers, especially in the wake of the Academy’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
… The Academy has recently made much-lauded moves to diversify and expand its membership, which would theoretically lead to a corresponding diversification and expansion of the kind of films that get nominated for, and awarded, Oscars.Today’s announcement seems like a decidedly inelegant gambit to accelerate, or perhaps do an end-run around, that process, and all for the purpose of Nielsen ratings.
… [T]he 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.”)… 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.
… This new category seems designed, at best, as a patronizing way to include more, well, popular hit movies that don’t fit the stereotypical parameters of an “Oscar movie.” At worst, it would be a way to segregate acclaimed studio biggies (be they live-action or animated) from more conventional Oscar fare. If such a category existed in 2018, would Get Out have been in the Best Picture category or merely in the (holds nose while raising my monocle) “popular movie category?”
Vulture reporter Mark Harris tweeted:
It truly is something that in the year Black Panther, a movie made just about entirely by and with black people, grosses $700 million, the Academy’s reaction is, “We need to invent something separate…but equal.”
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) August 8, 2018
Though the Academy’s announcement might lead to more viewers, it’s also created another PR problem.
How much of this has been thought through? The popular film category will most likely happen at the 2019 Oscars; it’s hard to imagine the Academy announcing this change without intending to implement it as soon as possible. The Academy is therefore going to be rapidly adding an entire new category with an incredibly vague definition and no clear indication of who will vote for the nominees. The idea is already a bad one, but combining it with a rushed process should stand to only make things worse.
What the academy should do instead is reconsider what “high art” looks like and stop assuming that a $100 million opening weekend is somehow a negative. It should also reconsider how it might look, in the wake of controversies like #OscarsSoWhite, if the best picture category in 2020 is filled with predominately white stories, casts and directors, while most popular becomes the home of movies made by Ryan Coogler and Jordan Peele.
However, officials are reportedly unfazed by the backlash.
… Network insiders were also unmoved Wednesday by evident social-media backlash to the announcement, particularly to the addition of the popular film category, noting that changes to longstanding institutions such as the Oscars often yield complaints, and predicting that audiences would ultimately embrace the new format.
What do you think of the announcement,? How would you advise the Academy to respond to backlash?