The Oscars’ new ‘popular film’ category is baffling

The 2020 ceremony will also move forward by nearly a month – a welcome move

Few will argue with the decision to shorten awards season by a whole month

Few will argue with the decision to shorten awards season by a whole month


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced one of the most radical shakeups in the Oscars’ 90-year history. From next year (that’s the 2020 ceremony), there will be a new category for “outstanding achievement in popular film”.

The ceremony is to be trimmed to less than three hours with some categories being announced during commercial breaks in the live telecast.

The 2020 ceremony is also being shifted back several weeks to February 9th. That is nearly a month earlier than this year’s awards and two months earlier than some ceremonies in the 1980s.

“We have heard from many of you about improvements needed to keep the Oscars and our Academy relevant in a changing world,” John Bailey and Dawn Hudson, respectively Academy president and chief executive, said in a statement.

The changes are unquestionably a response to a slump in ratings that some have attributed to less commercially successful films dominating the awards. This year’s Oscar broadcast was the lowest rated in history.

In decades past films such as Gone With The Wind and Titanic – both of which became the highest grossing of all time – have taken best picture. This year’s winner, The Shape of Water, was a modest hit. The 2017 champion, Moonlight, performed very well for an independent drama, but it could not be considered any sort of blockbuster.

The Academy made an effort to capture the mainstream at the start of this decade when it increased the number of best picture nominees from five to a maximum of 10.

The voters continued to shun the noisier blockbusters. Mad Max: Fury Road was a nominee in 2015. Inception was there in 2010. But the Academy still largely honoured films with more select appeal. The invention of a “popular movie” category looks like a strategy to include well-reviewed superhero flicks such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther.

“We are committed to producing an entertaining show in three hours, delivering a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide,” the letter from Bailey and Hudson continued.

The world’s film community was left shaking its collective head in bafflement. How on earth could such an award function? Will it consider just the top 20 highest-grossing pictures? The top 50?

If the latter were applied this year then The Shape of Water would just have squeezed in. Isn’t box-office gold enough reward for popular cinema? Awards ceremonies will inevitably be somewhat elitist. That’s the point.

Pushing some awards into the commercial break of the live telecast seems unfair to those professionals who – unlike the movie stars grabbing the acting prizes – may lose one chance for worldwide exposure.

Would Ben Cleary, a recent Irish winner, have seen his 2016 triumph for best live-action short shuffled off to the “also honoured” package? That’s something else we don’t know.

Few will, however, argue with the decision to shorten awards season by a whole month. The conversation currently takes up about half the year. Jostling for the 2019 Oscars begins in a few weeks time with the Venice and Toronto film festivals, and will last until the crocuses are breaking ground.

We will give them credit for that.