When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began handing out its achievement award in the 1920s, it was a biannual affair despite the staggering number of films produced and released in a given year at the time. Quickly, the award presentation became an annual event. Over the course of the subsequent 90 years, the Academy has altered its categories to reflect changes in culture and the industry. For a time, the cinematography category was split to honor achievements in color and black & white lighting until the later fell away completely. After Beauty and the Beast was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, the Academy introduced a Best Animated film category; in part to segregate the medium, but also to put a spotlight on animation itself.
And now, after years of the Academy’s Best Picture nominees lists wildly diverging from trends in popular culture, the Academy is finally prepared to recognize “outstanding achievement in popular film” as its own category. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this is one of several changes the Academy outlined after Tuesday evening meeting of the Academy’s Board of Governors, which include moving some categories into an acceptance speech montage and rededicating itself to producing a three-hour awards telecast.
All of the changes, including moving the 2020 awards presentation to February 9th of that year, acknowledge the loss of the Academy’s importance based on the failing ratings of the broadcast; which continues to fall despite other attempts to make the show more appealing to viewers less concerned with the Sound and Sound Effects Editing awards.
While some are already calling the “popular film” category a lazy attempt to appeal to the viewers, it does answer a long-standing issue with the Academy’s acknowledgement of genre filmmaking. Though The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Shape of Water both won Best Picture, the Academy has not been known to offer genre films a lot of recognition over the decades. The exclusion of The Dark Knight in 2008 became one of the key turning points in the divergence between the Academy and at-home viewers of the Oscar telecast. In an attempt to redress the situation, the Academy opened the Best Picture category to ten nominees the following year.
Of course, it remains to be seen how the category will actually work. More details will be revealed later, but it seems films like Avengers: Infinity War and Mission: Impossible Fallout will have a fairer shake in receiving recognition beyond the technical categories no doubt being dropped from the telecast and added to the acceptance montage. Then again, like Best Animated Picture, the category may also turn out to be a way to cordon off blockbusters and comic book movies away from the seemingly prestigious films with smaller releases. Considering the Academy will not recognize stunt performances or motion capture work with their own awards, it is entirely possible the new “popular film” category is nothing but a reach.