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The Oscars are killing the new “popular film” category — for now

The Academy says the idea “merits further study.” But a different, possibly more damaging change is moving forward.

The Oscars won’t be winning any popularity contests!!!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The nebulously defined, controversial Oscar for achievement in “Popular Film” is dead — at least for the 2018 awards cycle. So noted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a press release sent out Thursday, September 6.

“The Academy recognized that implementing any new award nine months into the year creates challenges for films that have already been released,” reads the press release, entitled “Academy determines new Oscars category merits further study.” It continues: “The Board of Governors continues to be actively engaged in discussions, and will examine and seek additional input regarding this category.”

“There has been a wide range of reactions to the introduction of a new award, and we recognize the need for further discussion with our members,” Academy CEO Dawn Hudson said in the release. “We have made changes to the Oscars over the years — including this year — and we will continue to evolve while also respecting the incredible legacy of the last 90 years.”

The popular film category was first announced in early August, largely out of nowhere, and prompted extensive criticism from film writers and Oscar fans. For one thing, the Academy did not suggest how, exactly, it would define the term “popular film,” which led to confusion over whether the new category was meant specifically for blockbusters or could also honor Oscar-friendly movies that break out at the box office. (Think La La Land or Dunkirk.)

For another, it seemed a rather strange decision to make in a year when the Best Picture nominees could well include the $1-billion-plus grossing Black Panther, to say nothing of expected hits First Man (a Neil Armstrong biopic from La La Land director Damien Chazelle) and A Star Is Born (the latest remake of the venerable story about a relationship between two people whose careers are moving in very different directions — this version stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga).

In short, the Academy’s choice to implement a new category, with poor definition, largely out of nowhere, seemed doubly weird in a year when the Best Picture lineup is likely to include a bunch of honest-to-goodness hits.

But the popular film brouhaha has obscured an arguably even more damaging change to the Oscars’ status quo. As announced when the popular film category was first floated, the presentation of several awards will be moved out of the live telecast in order to keep the show to a tight three hours. Those awards will almost certainly be the ones honoring short films and some of the more obscure technical disciplines (like the two sound categories).

The popular film category might have attracted more attention in the wake of its initial announcement because it involved big blockbusters and the Academy’s possible attempt to invent a Venn diagram intersection with the People’s Choice Awards. But the award had some potential, nevertheless. The question of what makes a movie “popular” was so poorly defined that it might have led to something interesting.

But actually moving categories out of the televised awards — reducing them to brief snippets of acceptance speeches played when the broadcast returns from commercial breaks — arguably does more to damage the Academy’s mission of educating the public about what goes into making movies. And what’s more, the tech categories are often where the big blockbusters that the popular film category seems designed to promote win awards. It’s a curious choice from an organization unable to decide how to compete with an era of shrinking TV ratings.