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Academy Awards

Oscars adding ‘popular film’ category draws fierce backlash – it’s the death of the movie business, tweets actor Rob Lowe

Academy Awards governors respond to falling TV ratings with changes including a shorter ceremony, but new award category comes under fire, with questions about what it means for blockbusters such as Black Panther

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 2:14pm

Big changes are coming to the Academy Awards, including the addition of a popular film award category and the promise of a shorter ceremony in an effort to combat declining viewership and criticisms that the awards are out of touch with the mainstream.

The announcement triggered an immediate backlash online, raising questions about what the new category would mean for a film like Black Panther , a global blockbuster which has also been talked about as a contender for the best picture Oscar.

John Bailey, the newly re-elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and film Academy CEO Dawn Hudson said in an email to members on Wednesday that the board of governors had met on Tuesday to approve the changes, which also included bumping the 2020 ceremony up to February 9. The date for the 2019 show, February 24, remains unchanged.

“We have heard from many of you about improvements needed to keep the Oscars and our Academy relevant in a changing world,” Hudson and Bailey wrote.

Audiences for the Oscars are in free fall. What then for award shows?

The new film category quickly drew negative attention, with “popular film” becoming a trending topic on Twitter by Wednesday afternoon.

Five Came Back author Mark Harris tweeted that the popular film award “is a ghetto and will be perceived that way”.

Actor Rob Lowe tweeted: “The film business passed away today with the announcement of the ‘popular’ film Oscar. It had been in poor health for a number of years. It is survived by sequels, tent-poles, and vertical integration.”

It truly is something that in the year Black Panther, a movie made just about entirely by and with black people, grosses US$700 million, the Academy’s reaction is, ‘We need to invent something separate … but equal.’
Mark Harris

The addition of the popular film category, a clear effort to attract a larger audience to the ABC broadcast by honouring bigger and more seen films, led many to wonder whether a film like Black Panther would be ineligible for best picture and relegated to the popular film award because of its size and success, or lead to inadvertent segmenting by film academy voters.

Bailey and Hudson said eligibility requirements would be determined at a later date, but it is worth noting that nomination in other top film categories, such as best animated feature and best foreign language film, don’t preclude a best picture nomination. Toy Story 3 was nominated for both best picture and best animated feature.

The division is not without precedent. The first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 actually did give out two top awards, one for Outstanding Picture and one for Unique and Artistic Picture, to recognise both art films and epics, but the Unique and Artistic category was dropped the next year.

Ratings for the 90th Academy Awards telecast fell to an all-time low of 26.5 million viewers, down 19 per cent from the previous year and the first time the glitzy awards ceremony had fewer than 30 million viewers since 2008. Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, the ceremony also clocked it at nearly four hours, making it the longest show in over a decade.

Tweets about the new Oscars category

Running time is a frequent criticism of the glitzy awards show, vexing hosts and producers as they try year after year to keep the ceremony to a palatable length and often use the orchestra to play winners off the stage.

Academy Awards 2018 top shots – best images from the ceremony

In an effort to keep future ceremonies to three hours, Bailey and Hudson said certain awards would still be presented live, but others would be given out during commercial breaks. Specific categories will be determined at a later date, but the film academy said the off-air winning moments would be edited and aired in a later broadcast.

Oscar viewership is often tied to the box-office muscle of the big nominees. The 2018 best picture winner, The Shape of Water , had grossed US$57.4 million in the United States by the time the awards aired and US$63.9 million in total. The biggest Academy Awards audience on record came in 1998, when the blockbuster Titanic was named best picture.

Gregory Ellwood, the editor-at-large of The Playlist, noted that in the past decade there have been a significant number of US$100 million-plus earners nominated for best picture, including Gravity, Dunkirk , Get Out , Toy Story 3, The Help and The Revenant , some of which went on to win, like Argo, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.

Harris wrote on Twitter that, while the academy might dismiss public reaction to the changes, the organisation has broadened and diversified its membership in recent years and might find less support than they expect internally.

“It truly is something that in the year Black Panther, a movie made just about entirely by and with black people, grosses US$700 million, the Academy’s reaction is, ‘We need to invent something separate … but equal.’”