In 2009, The Academy raised the number of Best Picture nominations from 5 to 10. The reason? To give more opportunities for films like The Dark Knight (which did not receive a Best Picture nomination) to get a bite at the apple.
That effort, which saw films like Avatar, Mad Max: Fury Road and Get Out receive Best Picture nominations (but never wins, perhaps pointedly) seems to have run its course. Today, The Academy announced some changes to the Oscars telecast for the 2018 season. They’re moving the 2020 ceremony up a few weeks to early February (sure, that’s fine). They’re going to try and ensure a three hour telecast by announcing some awards live in the room but during commercial breaks (sure, that sucks, but they wouldn’t be alone in that company, right The Grammys?), and perhaps most notably, they will introduce a new category designed to honor the Best Popular Film.
The Academy has done various things to try and spice up their image and appeal to a wider base over the years, but it’s unlikely to get more craven than this. As it stands now, the Academy Awards are already full of consolation prize categories. Best Animated Film, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Documentary Feature, all of these categories are designed on the face to give credit where credit is due to different sorts of films outside of the standard Best Picture fare. And it’s good that these things exist in a vacuum, because it’s cool to see documentaries and animated films and foreign films get their little slice of glory.
The other side of this, of course, is having these categories exist frees up the Academy from having to include animated, foreign and documentary films from nominating them for Best Picture. The last foreign film to get a Best Picture nomination was Amour in 2012. The last animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination was Up in 2009 (notably the first year of the expanded Best Picture slate). The last time a documentary was nominated for Best Picture? Literally never. There are plenty of cases where rightful and deserving films were shut out of the Best Picture category because they were all set to compete in or win their individual category. Inside Out in 2014. The Act of Killing in 2013. I Am Not Your Negro in 2016. All of these films are highly deserving of acclaim on all levels, not just within the genre or style of filmmaking they happened to be shoehorned into to allow for a little spreading of the wealth. No one thinks of Coco, A Fantastic Woman or Icarus as some of the best films of 2017. They think of them as the best examples of their little fiefdoms of expression.
You are looking at the future of genre films at the Academy.
When Black Panther was released in February, it was met with critical acclaim alongside its nigh unprecedented box office success. The buzz had already started: would this be the first Marvel studios movie to receive a Best Picture nomination? Sure, February is still pretty early in the year, but Get Out was nominated last year after release in February, and you can draw plenty of parallels between the two films, genre pieces that examine the black experience in the modern day within the trappings of horror and superhero films. Then, it seemed like it just might be a lock. Now, I can’t really imagine seeing Black Panther as one of the 9 or 10 (or 8 or 7 or 6) Best Picture nominees. Plenty of Academy voters will be more than happy to have the film represented in this new Popular Movie category (and probably win it) and let Marvel finally get its consolation prize. But that’s all they’re ever going to get. Plenty more room for the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Closes of the world at the big table.
You can argue back and forth as to the place of hyper popular genre movies in the headspace of the Academy Awards. They’ve been also-rans for years, mostly nominated for technical awards and losing out to special effects movies that have been deemed acceptable by the Academy like Interstellar or Gravity or The Shape of Water. It will likely be pretty cool for some to see their favorite Marvel movie or other big genre film win an Oscar or two. There’s no need to begrudge that. But the Academy’s assumption that this move will somehow make them more palatable to the mainstream by choosing to shunt off their favorite movies into a meaningless secondary category instead of opening their ranks to give them more opportunities at the top prize everyone actually cares about isn’t the recipe for success. This is a marginalized award for a category and genre of film that the Academy is clamoring all over themselves to marginalize anyway. Take your participation trophy and like it. We have bigger and better things to do. This is cinema. This is art.
You’ll say that at the end of the day, the Oscars don’t really matter. That’s of course true, in the sense that no awards shows matter in the grand scheme of things, but there remains an air of importance (earned or unearned) around the Oscars. That air is dissipating, and we’re reaching the point of watching the old dinosaur screaming that he is relevant in the face of a meteorite careening toward his doom.