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The Oscars are adding a category for “popular films”

It’s part of several big (and vague) changes voted in by the Academy.

Oscar Statuettes For The 76th Academy Awards Displayed In Hollywood
There are changes afoot for the Oscars.
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Over the Oscars’ 90 years there have been many changes — and now some more are en route for the biggest night in film.

On August 8, the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the organization that awards the Oscars — announced that they’d voted to adopt three changes:

A longer letter from the Academy to its members, shared by the Hollywood Reporter, repeats the three points, without much context added:

  • A “new category for outstanding achievement in popular film” is being created, with “eligibility requirements and other key details” forthcoming. What this means is unclear, and it is also not clear whether this takes effect for the 2019 Oscars, though it seems likely given the timing of the announcement.
  • The Oscars telecast, which typically lasts between three and four hours, will be kept to a stricter three hours. How will the Academy accomplish this? By presenting “select categories live” in the theater during commercial breaks. “The winning moments will then be edited and aired later in the broadcast.”
  • Beginning in 2020, the Oscars will be held about two weeks earlier than usual. The 2019 ceremony is still scheduled for February 24; the 2020 ceremony will be held on February 9. This effectively shortens the time between when the nominees are announced (typically mid-January) and the broadcast itself, contracting the voting period.

The latter two changes seem straightforward, but the first is less clear, and in many ways most concerning for those who watch the Oscars.

After the 2008 film The Dark Knight failed to be nominated for Best Picture, the Academy expanded the number of potential Best Picture nominees from five to 10 (which had been the policy earlier in the Oscars’ history). The idea was to make space for both popular films (which often open on more screens and sell more tickets) and more specialized movies in the category.

Without knowing what the “outstanding achievement in popular film” category actually will entail, it’s hard to say why the Academy’s board of governors has made this decision, or what it means for the current Best Picture category, not to mention the many technical categories (sound, editing, makeup, costuming, etc.) where blockbuster films frequently land.

But when combined with the announcement about a shorter ceremony runtime, it seems clear that the Academy is hoping for a more broadly watched Oscars telecast, which in turn means higher ad revenue for the ceremony. Whether that turns out to be a good thing for the nominated films, and film more generally, is sure to be a topic of ongoing discussion and argument in the months ahead.