The Oscars New Award for Popular Film: Now Superheroes Can Win Too

“And the award for Best Picture goes to… Black Panther!”

If your response to that sentence was ‘fat chance’, then you wouldn’t be alone. A lot of people  have been feeling unrepresented by Oscar nominations for a while. To demonstrate my point, I’m going to ask you few questions:

Can you name any of this year’s nine nominees for Best Picture?

Can you tell me who won?

Let me ask you one more question: did you even watch the Oscars?

If your answer to those questions was ‘no’, don’t worry, you’re in the vast majority. The viewership for the Academy Awards has been on a steady decline for a while now. Between 2014 and 2018, the Academy Awards managed to lose a quarter of their viewers. That kind of drop is enough to get TV shows cancelled.  Watching the Academy Awards was once a family ritual – but increasing numbers of people are opting to change the channel.

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The Academy is aware of this fact. That’s why on Wednesday the 8th of August, in a bid to “to keep the Oscars and our Academy relevant in a changing world,” they announced a new category: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.

The impression this creates is that a divide between films exists: they are either ‘popular’ or ‘prestigious’. If you look at recent nominations you would be inclined to believe that this is the case –  but it was not always so. Jaws was nominated for Best Picture at the 1976 Academy Awards . Keep in mind that most film critics and historians now consider Jaws to have been the first ever blockbuster. Jaws defined popular films as we know them today, and yet it was still nominated for Best Picture.

Jaws isn’t an isolated case. A year later Rocky won Best Picture. Star Wars was nominated the year after that . 1992 saw Silence of the Lambs win Best Picture, with the original Beauty and the Beast also was nominated. Braveheart won Best Picture in 1996 .

In 1998 Titanic won Best Picture. It is the second highest grossing movie of all time, and that’s unadjusted for inflation. Titanic is inarguably popular. It is also inarguably prestigious.

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This doesn’t mean that the academy used to exclusively favour popular films, either. Star Wars still lost to Annie Hall after all. Rather it was understood that the Best Picture of the year could also be the most popular.

So, what happened? The rise of Oscar bait.

For the uninitiated, ‘Oscar bait’ is a term for prestigious films that are designed to win awards. The idea is that if the film gains enough attention at award ceremonies, the general viewing public will pay to see it. It’s a way of making low-budget prestige films insanely profitable.

Over time this trend became more popular. By the early 2000’s, Best Picture nominees were almost exclusively Oscar Bait. There are exceptions, such as Inglorious Barstards or Avatar. However, for each exception you see twenty films like The Artist, Letters from Iwo Jima, Milk, The Reader, Nebraska, and Beasts of the Southern Wild .

What even is the Academy and why do only small movies appeal to them?

Put simply, the Academy is made up of past Oscar nominees. Every person nominated for an Oscar becomes eligible to join the Academy, and thus earn voting powers.

The problem is that the Academy is not the most diverse group .

Historically, Hollywood has not been an industry known for being particularly kind to women or people of colour. In 2016 it was reported that the Academy was 91% white and 76% male.

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For Oscar bait to work, it must appeal to the  Academy and its lack of diversity.

Have you ever wondered why the Best Picture nominations are overwhelmingly dialogue-driven dramas featuring ensembles of famous white actors? It’s because actors like to pick movies that showcase the craft of acting, portrayed by people like themselves.

The issue is that this same rule is applied to how diversity is portrayed at the Academy Awards. Oscar bait films about racial minorities almost always feature those minorities as slaves, servants, or in crippling poverty. Oscar bait films about women tend to take place in the 60s and 70s rather than the modern day, meaning the modern struggles of women are scarcely represented in Oscar-winning films .

If every ‘diverse’ film is effectively the same, then they are not diverse. Diversity isn’t just about who is in the movie, but how they are portrayed as well.

This means Best Picture nominations featuring minorities still reflect the views and values of white male voters. The world is changing – but the Academy is not.

It gets even worse when you look at recent winner and nominees. In the ninety year history of the Academy Awards only twelve women have received nominations for Best Picture, and only one of those women was African-American. Meanwhile, only five African-American directors in total have ever received nominations for Best Picture.

That means that out of 546 films nominated for Best Picture only 16 were not directed by a white man.

The numbers are bad and the Achievement in Popular Film Oscar is not going make them better.

Why? Because, mainstream movies are becoming more diverse.

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In the last five years alone there has been an incredible growth in representation in popular filmmaking. Consider Wonder Woman, the highest grossing film that both stars, and was directed by, a woman. There’s A Wrinkle in Time, the first film with a budget of over a $100 million to be both directed by an African-American woman and feature an interracial family. There’s Fast and Furious 7, with an Asian director and featuring  an incredibly diverse cast. The recent Star Wars films have also been opting for more diversity. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has seven main characters and only two are white, although only one is a woman. The Last Jedi, meanwhile, has an almost even split of male and female characters.

Studios have realised that audiences like and support diverse films and are (slowly) creating more as a result.

However, these movies, the most diverse movies in Hollywood right now, will also get relegated to the new Achievement in Popular Film category. They will be forever locked out of the category that allows them to create the most change, Best Picture. This wasn’t the intention of the Academy when they created the Achievement in Popular Film category, but it’s the result nevertheless.

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Movies showcasing diversity don’t receive much attention from the Oscars (Source)

So  don’t be surprised if in February next year you see Black Panther nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film rather than Best Picture. It may be the first film with a black director to make over a billion dollars in revenue. It may be critically acclaimed. It may a great superhero movie and a stunning analysis of the legacy of colonialism and the destruction of culture. Many of us feel that it’s more than deserving of a nomination for Best Picture – but we are unlikely to see that happen.

In their haste to keep themselves ‘in touch’ the Academy has proven that they are more out of touch than ever.