The Oscars' Popularity Problem

The Oscars can’t seem to get anything right. This year’s ceremony, which aired live this past Sunday, was mired with controversy from the start. While some believed the controversies involving Kevin Hart would keep the awards ceremony in the public discourse, the initial ratings are nothing to celebrate. Although an improvement over 2018’s ceremony, this year's presentation was among the lowest rated telecasts in Oscar history. No one seems to want to celebrate films like they used to.

What makes this surprisingly low figure all the more shocking is that the popularity of some of the films nominated this year. The nominations for the 91st Academy Awards responded to a problem that many have with the Oscars: that popular films have been disregarded for smaller, independent features. With multiple nominations for Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born, the Academy tried to show that they were willing to hear out the criticism and do something about it—until they didn’t. None of them won the coveted Best Picture trophy.

There was a time in Hollywood where the big-budgeted spectacles were seen as worthy of the esteem and affection of the industry’s artisans and craftsmen. From the forties to the end of the twentieth century, eight out of ten best picture Oscars were presented to one of the ten highest grossing films of the year. The last bona fide blockbuster to win Best Picture was The Return of the King in 2003. Since then, the median revenue for Best Picture winners is less than $100 million and the telecast audience has dropped. There is a direct correlation between the recognizable nature of the films nominated and the television audience turning in to cheer on their favorite films.

If the Oscars want to continue to be a part of the larger public discourse they need to refine their image and (try not to freak out) approve the creation of a new category for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.

It comes down to the simple fact that people no longer care about the Oscars because all they seem to do is award films that the general public has never seen, let alone heard of. Popular films for the most part are kept out of the main categories and delegated to technical categories—Black Panther and A Star is Born are excellent examples of this. Both tapped into the mood of the nation, moved audiences, generated a sizable profit, were nominated for the highest prize but got nothing more than a proverbial pat on the back.

The Popular Film category was suggested by the Academy hierarchy and television executives but was met with finger wagging and tantrums from Hollywood, who thought it would degrade the ceremony and the caliber of the award itself. Many criticized it as an attempt to pander to mainstream audiences and that the award would diminish the chances of receiving a Best Picture nomination. These fears are both unfounded and misplaced.

An Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film would make the award ceremony more inclusive—a word that Hollywood loves to tout around these days. It would welcome into its fold those who have been artistically ostracized from Oscar glory for two decades now. Filmmakers, like Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler, would get the praise they deserve for creating mainstream films that serve as both commentary and entertainment in equal measure.

While it may be the more traditional view to say that a popular film could win the Best Picture prize if good enough, there can be no doubt that the makeup of the Academy has changed to such a degree that the blockbuster will never again be the darling of the Academy Awards as it was in the twentieth century. There are far too many films made, both intimate and extravagant, to give a blockbuster a legitimate shot at Oscar glory. For every blockbuster embraced by millions across the world, there are two or more independent arthouse films that were released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles and seen by hundreds of voting members of guilds and the Academy. The popular film category would give big-studios and their filmmakers an opportunity to be recognized for their hard work and would encourage them to take greater artistic risks while never forgetting the audience. In a way, the category encourages filmmakers to be more aware of the American mind and do more to tap into the zeitgeist, therefore creating even more compelling and riveting cinema.

Popular films are popular for a reason. A category recognizing the merits of films that are able to appeal to the people in ways that independent films simply cannot engages more people in the discourse surrounding the Oscars and, therefore, helps it stay relevant.

While it is not an uncommon trend to see award ceremonies ridiculed nowadays, they nonetheless serve as an important vessel designed to seek out the best of the best and to celebrate films that captivate us, move us, and (if done well) speak on what it means to be human. Popular films do this too, albeit with varying degrees of success. That alone shouldn’t stop the Academy from recognizing those that actually speak to the human condition in a manner worthy of the Academy’s esteem and affection. Although it is not a perfect solution, the creation of a Popular Film category would help the Academy find the balance between celebrating cinema at its best and making people around the world want to celebrate with them.