The Oscars have just announced the most jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing, flop-sweaty move in their entire 90-year history. Remember when Sally Field proclaimed, “You like me! Right now, you like me!”? This is worse. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has been dumped by America, and now it’s drunk-dialing us at 3 a.m., saying, “Please take me back. Baby, I’ve changed.”
Like many a previous failing state, the Oscars are trying to inflate their way out of misery. Next year, for the first time ever, there will be three kinds of best movie: Best Animated Feature, Best Picture, and now Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. The word “popular” is regrettable. We already have a way of measuring popularity: It’s called money. It would be severely redundant for an industry that is already focused on money 364 days of the year to yield on the 365th day as well. AMPAS has spent 90 years trying to build its reputation for artistic discernment; this week it took a big step toward becoming the People’s Choice Awards.
What’s the point of a separate category for “popular” film? It’s bound to be seen, correctly, as a sop. It may also be seen as racist or sexist. Black Panther is at the moment the most popular picture of the year. If it wins the Oscar for “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” but not Best Picture, will AMPAS be accused of “marginalizing” black people? And does a film have to make a certain amount of money to qualify? Alternatively, does “popular” signal not big-ticket sales but rather genre filmmaking in such categories as horror, broad comedy, fantasy, sci-fi, or superhero?