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Oscars Chase Ratings at Expense of Integrity

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced the addition of a “popular film” category that will honor a movie audiences love but doesn’t (presumably) look like an “Oscar film.” Academy President John Bailey and CEO Dawn Hudson announced other changes as well, including shortening the ceremony to three hours by airing some of the technical awards off-camera, and moving the 2020 ceremony (for films released in 2019) up to the beginning of February, instead of the end of February or early March, when it’s aired for the past decade, but it’s the “popular film” category that has earned them the ire of film lovers all over the internet.

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Since the omission of “The Dark Knight” from the Best Picture nominees in 2008, the Academy has openly worried about the lack of nominations for higher-grossing, "popular" movies and the impact it has on their ratings. Although that year’s ceremony got very good ratings, they mistakenly decided to up the playing field from five Best Picture nominees to 10, in the hope that more popular movies would be nominated. At first, it seemed like an effective move. That first group of 10 nominees were a diverse slate, the juggernaut “Avatar” lost to “The Hurt Locker,” an independent film which never cracked the weekend box office top ten. The ceremony still got high ratings, leading them to continue nominating multiple films in the hope that more people would watch, and one of them might even win. However, the blockbusters that have come out in the last few years have not been the kinds of films the Academy favors. Sure, they’ll nominate big hits like “Arrival,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “Dunkirk” and “Get Out,” but what about “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Deadpool,” “The Avengers,” or “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”? Wouldn’t nominating, or even awarding, a franchise movie bring more eyeballs to the ceremony?

This year, however, there is a superhero movie that both critics and audiences love: “Black Panther.” Currently, it stands as the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time, and critics have called it one of the best films of 2018. There’s little doubt that it’s a contender not just in the technical categories, where superhero and genre movies receive most of their nominations, but for Best Picture as well. If it got nominated, it would be the first superhero movie ever to do so, and it would deserve it. But the Academy is so afraid of another “Dark Knight”-style omission that they have decided to pre-emptively cordon off “Black Panther” in a category all its own.

This creates numerous problems. For one, by separating “Black Panther” from its competitors, they will kill its chances to be a Best Picture nominee by (for lack of a better word) ghettoizing it in a category that amounts to a glorified participation trophy. For another, since there’s little question “Black Panther” would win this award, it creates another problem: what’s its competition? “Avengers: Infinity War”? “Ant Man and the Wasp”? “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”? Granted, some of these are good movies, but there’s the danger that this category will become another Best Song, where they have to fill out the roster with four other nominees from films that don’t deserve them. 

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Equally damaging is the assumption that the movies nominated for Best Picture are not “popular enough” to appeal to those tuning in to the show. Despite the fact that the last five films to win the Oscar—“12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” and “The Shape of Water”—earned excellent reviews, won numerous critics’ awards, and tackled diverse, culturally relevant subject matter, none of them cracked $100 million at the domestic box office. Added together, their collective gross was $235.8 million—almost as much as “The Force Awakens”’ $247.8 domestic haul in its first weekend. However, “The Force Awakens” was also a multiple Oscar nominee. At their best, the Oscars can level a playing a field by putting mega-hits and films like recent Best Picture winners under the same umbrella of “Oscar Nominee.” Adding the category “most popular film” in the hope that more people will tune in denigrates the movies nominated for Best Picture. To quote Willy Loman, it says that “they’re liked, but not well-liked.”

But perhaps the biggest problem is the Academy’s dated idea of what constitutes “big ratings.” Yes, the Academy’s ratings are down from what they used to be—last year’s ceremony was the lowest-rated in history, with only 26.5 million viewers. Guess what? Everything else is suffering too. NFL ratings dipped 10% last season, and may dip even more if fans angry at the penalties for protestors don’t tune in. This year’s Super Bowl slipped from the last one by 3%. NASCAR ratings are steadily declining every year. Even the NBA finals dipped a little from 2017. 

John Bailey may be old enough to remember when 78 million Americans tuned in to the finale of “The Fugitive,” but those days are long gone. In an era with more than 1,000 channels and an increasing amount of the population who don’t watch live television, obsessing over ratings is an anachronism. The Academy Awards are still second to the Super Bowl in terms of annual broadcast ratings. It may be a very distant second, but it’s nothing to scoff at either.

And it misunderstands the audience who watches the Oscars. As the slate of nominated films leans more independent, the people who tune in each year will be those who genuinely love movies. The ceremony should reflect the tastes of its constituents who are loyal to the brand, even when it drives them crazy. If the Academy wanted more people to watch, why don’t they do more to promote their nominees so that more people will see them before the ceremony? Why don’t they dedicate their evening more to the craft of filmmaking and film history, not in the form of clip packages, but in bringing the honorary awards back, and airing every technical category on camera?

Creating a “popular film” category is a shameless ratings ploy, one so nakedly transparent I can’t imagine it not backfiring. The Academy’s ratings may be declining, but rather than work overtime to solve the problem, they should accept it and find other ways to make the ceremony itself better. Otherwise, they are consigning themselves to becoming an even more overblown version of the MTV Movie Awards.

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