It was only a month after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declared a new category in the Oscar race last summer that it declared that category dead. The very idea of a separate prize for “most popular movie” sparked criticism and protest on the social networks, where it was seen as little more than a clumsy attempt to appease fans of “Black Panther,” who see it as a leading Best Picture contender.
After the dust settled, the academy’s president, John Bailey, admitted that the move had been prompted by the faltering ratings of the televised Oscar awards ceremony, which have hit an unprecedented low. “There’s desire to expand the award to millennials,” Variety reported Bailey as saying, at an event in Poland.
In fact this year’s Academy Awards competition, which culminates with the ceremony on February 24, is generating renewed interest in several categories, in light of the large representation of women, minorities and foreigners, but also due to the range of genres that received surprising nominations.
This year, the Best Picture category, traditionally dominated by dramas, contains a larger variety of genres than usual, including a musical, a comedy, an action movie and a first nomination for a superheroes film. Equally significant is the international representation. With 10 nominations, “Roma” has matched the peak for a non-English-speaking film, and for the first time since 1976 there are two foreign nominations in the Best Director category: Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”) and Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”).
But the best evidence of the change the academy is undergoing is the Best Picture nominations of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Vice.” According to the Rotten Tomatoes site, those two films received the lowest average scores ever given by critics to Best Picture-nominated films.
When we add to this “Black Panther,” which has already made history among superhero films by being nominated for the top prize, there’s no doubt that this is a pivotal year for the Oscars — and not by chance. This month’s ceremony will reflect a prolonged effort by the academy to bridge the ever-widening gap between the movies that Hollywood likes to praise and the ones people actually go to movie theaters to see.
A comparison of box-office success and Oscar awards reveals exactly when the turning point occurred. Since the inception of the awards, in 1929, there had been a pretty clear parity between ticket sales and the awarding of the gilded statuette. “Gone with the Wind” and “The Sound of Music” are two of the most profitable pictures in cinema history, and also two of the films that won the largest number of Oscars.
According to The New York Times, the first cracks began to appear in the 1980s, when fewer and fewer blockbuster movies won the prestigious Oscars. For example, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” — which in 1982 was the most profitable film up until that time, and has since been considered a pillar of popular culture — lost out to the biopic “Gandhi.” Richard Attenborough, who garnered both the Best Picture and Best Director awards for the winning film, admitted himself that he had been surprised by the academy’s conservatism, saying, “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.”
Two peoples for one state
What began as a gradual distancing between audiences and the academy became a full-fledged disconnect during the past 15 years. It was only with the final part of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy that director Peter Jackson was able to conquer both the box office and members of the academy.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was the most profitable film of 2003 and won a record 11 Oscars — the last film to achieve that double feat. According to the news website Quartz, only eight of the 106 Best Picture nominees since then have grossed more than $200 million in the United States, the box-office figure that’s considered the watershed for major blockbusters. None of the eight won the award. The three most recent winners — “Spotlight,” “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water” — didn’t even gross $200 million between them. Few people saw them.
For the academy, which conceived the Oscar awards ceremony as the showcase for the film industry, the abyss that looms between the ceremony and moviegoers is an existential threat that requires a solution. The ratings of the televised ceremony have been on a steady decline. But that’s only a symptom of a deeper problem. After all, the Oscars, in contrast to film festivals, are intended to bolster commercial cinema. However, in recent years, the big prizes have gone to movies that few viewers wanted to see. Last year, for example, the nine candidates for Best Picture grossed $568 million in the United States between them – whereas “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” took in $620 million by itself.
The attempt to invent a new “most popular picture” category was rightly perceived as a kind of consolation prize, though of a type that had worked in the past. A similar case occurred with regard to animation, when rising numbers of adult viewers demanded recognition of deserving movies in that genre. “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), the first full-length animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and “Toy Story” (1995), the first computer-animated film, which received three Oscar nominations, were turning points. In 2001, the new category of Best Animated Feature was introduced.
Seven years later, a new protest erupted when “The Dark Knight” didn’t make it into the list of Best Picture nominees. That protest, according to The New York Times, was what led the academy to enlarge the list of nominees, from five to eight.
What worked for animation and superheroes in the previous decade has not been sufficient during the era of social networks. Four years ago, #OscarsSoWhite appeared on Twitter and gained momentum the following year — and that was just the beginning. Fans of “Wonder Woman” (2017), which was both a commercial and, for the most part, critical success, were outraged that the movie — and its director, Patty Jenkins — were passed over in the nominations.
The new protests that have cropped up since then have heightened the demand for greater representation of women and minorities in terms of both movies and awards. They draw largely on statistics uncovered by The Los Angeles Times in a painstaking investigation in 2012. Reporters tracked down the vast majority of the 5,000 members of the academy at the time and created a profile of the body of Oscar voters: 94 percent whites, 77 percent men, 86 percent above age 50.
The solution adopted by the academy, whose thousands of members constitute the Oscar electorate, would probably delight many politicians, too: replace the voters. In 2016, the then-president of the academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, announced a decision to oust members who were no longer active, accompanied by an initiative to double the number of women and minority-group members by 2020.
This led to a massive increase of voters, with the emphasis on diversity. If in 2015 only 322 new members were added, in the most recent round, last June, 928 new names joined the list. Since the onset of the reform, the number of academy members has increased by about 30 percent. White Americans still have plenty of clout, but it’s diminishing rapidly.
The transformation isn’t necessarily welcomed by the institution’s longtime members. The producer Bill Mechanic, former CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, expressed the resistance to change when he resigned from the academy’s board of governors last April. “We have settled on numeric answers to the problem of inclusion, barely recognizing that this is the Industry’s problem far, far more than it is the academy’s,” he wrote in his letter of resignation, which was obtained by Variety. “Instead we react to pressure. One governor even went as far as suggesting we don’t admit a single white male to the academy, regardless of merit!”
A view to 2020
This year’s ceremony will already reflect, in large measure, the shake-up of the voter roster. Even a glance at the nominees in the various categories shows that the members of the academy have taken another step in the direction of the viewing audience. The nomination of such blockbusters as “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born” could induce more viewers, many of them young, to watch the awards ceremony. The body of voters has become more diversified in gender, ethnic, national and generational terms, but it’s still not clear whether the accelerated change that’s reflected in the nominees will actually generate surprising awards.
In any event, although the ceremony will be an important turning point for the academy, the process is not yet complete. The number of members is due to increase further in an effort to reach the goal in 2020. That’s also the year in which “Wonder Woman 1984” is due for release, and already fans are pinning their hopes on its winning prizes, as compensation for the previous film being ignored.
At the time, when a protest movement arose on the social networks, Gal Gadot, the Israeli-born star of the first movie, responded. “I was very moved and touched by the feedback of all the people that were disappointed that ‘Wonder Woman’ wasn’t nominated,” she told Entertainment Tonight, adding, “And we’re going to have another movie, so who knows? Maybe the next one!” Gadot — young, non-American, female — joined the academy a year and a half ago. Now she can vote, too.