On Wednesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it will introduce a new awards category for “outstanding achievement in popular film.” Film journalists immediately condemned the move as pandering to studio blockbusters and tent-pole pictures — films such as “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office but leave critics cold. On social media, film fans either mocked the new category by suggesting that massive opening weekends are their own award or mocked the Academy for pandering to commercial pressures — as if the Academy had ever done anything but pander to those pressures.
Indeed, the Academy and its Oscars were invented to pander, to sell more tickets to more Hollywood films. This new category isn’t a change to its agenda; it was the agenda all along. The ceremony’s function has always been rhetorical: It’s designed to convince us that film is a quintessential American art form and, hence, worthy of our patronage. Art doesn’t make as much money as pop, but by dramatizing the artiness of some films, the Academy sought to legitimize the medium as a whole. You’ve heard the expression, “When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money”? The Oscars have never been about film art or objective judgments of merit. It’s about bolstering the U.S. film industry, and lately it has been failing at that job. In explicitly trying to incorporate “popular” cinema into its identity, the Academy is creating a distinction without a difference. As always, the real goal isn’t to argue about what is and isn’t art, but simply to increase revenue.
As Emanuel Levy notes in his book “All About Oscar,” the Academy Awards arose out of an attempt to shore up profits for the Hollywood studios and protect them from unionization, which would have cost them more money. MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer came up with the idea of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927 to control union negotiations and shore up Hollywood’s reputation, which was suffering from salacious scandals. Academy membership would be an honor, and members would affirm film’s power to enrich people’s lives with good stories and good values. The awards show was an afterthought, but it proved critical to the Academy’s goal of boosting Hollywood’s reputation. From coast to coast, local governments and civic groups were decrying the corrupting influence of sex and violence in motion pictures. What better way to assert the value of motion pictures than to start handing out an “award of merit for distinctive achievement”? The Academy began televising its awards show as early as 1953, so everyone could see Hollywood at its “Best.”
Like the lights and crystals we see onstage every year, the Oscars’ reputation as an arbiter of excellence is little more than Tinseltown chicanery. We believe that the Oscars are different from, maybe even better than, other awards shows because it tells us it is, and even the ceremony’s dullest elements contribute to that illusion. For example, the Academy still emphasizes categories that few viewers care about, such as Best Foreign Language Film or Best Documentary Short Subject, precisely because these relatively obscure awards affirm Hollywood’s commitment to film as an art form, not just as a commercial enterprise.
This is, of course, sleight of hand, since the Oscars do exist to affirm film as a commercial enterprise. For young filmmakers, an Oscar can be the gateway to new professional opportunities — think Jeremy Renner, who implausibly went on to become a blockbuster star after he received a best actor nomination for “The Hurt Locker.” For little-known films, an Oscar nomination can lead to a theatrical rerelease and a boost in streaming rentals, meaning more profits for the industry. Many folks make it an annual goal to see all the films nominated for the best picture award, even when they aren’t interested in the films themselves. That’s arguably why the Academy increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to up to 10 in 2010. It’s not that more movies were being made or that quality had gone up across the board, but more nominations means more attention means more viewers means more profits. And the Academy was founded in the name of profit.
The trouble is that movie magic isn’t what it used to be — at least, not at the Oscars. The ceremony’s 2018 telecast garnered the lowest viewership numbers since it began broadcasting. Some folks blamed the host, but the problem wasn’t Jimmy Kimmel so much as “The Walking Dead.” Younger audiences prefer television serials to feature films, and they aren’t watching awards shows the way their predecessors did, either. Adding a new awards category for “popular film” isn’t going to change that. Popular films already receive Oscar nominations and often win their categories. “Get Out” — which grossed an impressive $176 million domestically — was nominated for best picture this year. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won Best Picture in 2004. In fact, it won 11 Academy Awards, giving it the record as the most celebrated film in Oscar history.
The telecast did see a slight bump that year, but not because the Academy made an exception to policy by nominating a popular film. Hollywood film has always been both art and commerce, a market reality we support by buying movie tickets, downloading rentals, and, yes, watching awards shows. (ABC made approximately $115 million on ad sales for the Oscar telecast in 2016.) That’s true whether the film in question is “Lady Bird” or “The Spy Who Dumped Me.” And let’s not forget that “Lady Bird” grossed almost $49 million in theaters alone. “Popular” is relative term here.
But then the Academy is desperate. The Oscars have been rocked by accusations of racism, sexism and, worst of all, tedium. It needs to get its ratings back and restore its reputation to have the market-boosting effect it once had. The Academy is inventing the distinction between popular cinema and prestige cinema to stir up controversy, and to play into the culture wars that are rocking this country. Ultimately, though, it’s still about selling us on the value of cinema as such, just as it always has been.
Caetlin Benson-Allott teaches at Georgetown University.