Dear Academy: Lose ‘Popular Film’ for ‘Best Sequel’
When news broke last week that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was adding a new award, Achievement in Popular Film, this was my first reaction:
Does this mean Best Picture is now Best Unpopular Picture? #Oscars— Erik Lundegaard (@ErikLundegaard) August 8, 2018
OK, so my first reaction was probably to roll my eyes and think something along the lines of: “I guess expanding the best picture category to 10 pictures back in 2009, and then up to 10 a few years later, didn't work out so well.” Which I already knew. After nominating five top 10 box office hits in the first two years after the change, we‘ve had just three since: “Gravity,” “American Sniper” and “The Martian.” More people have been tuning out the broadcast. Last year had record low ratings. I wrote about all that last March and in the end threw up my hands. I didn’t know how to fix the problem.
This new category, by the way, is not a way to fix the problem.
To the Academy, and ABC-TV, which demanded the change, the problem is ratings and relevancy. To me it's deeper. The problem is that art and commerce used to mesh in our most popular storytelling form. Popular but hardly profound films like “Love Story” and “Airport” used to get nominated for best picture, while tough, profound films like “Five Easy Pieces” and “M*A*S*H” used to rake in the bucks at the box office. Now, rarely the twain meet. It comes closest with smart adventure films like “Lord or the Rings” and “Avatar,” or smart animated movies like “Toy Story 3” and “Up,” or rightwing movies that get Hollywood-hating conservatives off the couch like “American Sniper.” But otherwise, not much.
Recent box office hits that maybe should have gotten more consideration include “Beauty and the Beast” and some of the better superhero movies that now rule Hollywood. If the Academy could nominate “Airport,” why not “The Avengers”?
But of course it's more than the genre. Sequels rarely get nominated, too. In the entire history of the Academy, it's just been these:
- The Bells of St. Mary's
- The Godfather Part II *
- The Godfather Part III
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King *
- Toy Story 3
* Won best picture
But sequels, prequels and continuing-universe movies are what we go see now. Last year, the only original film in the top 10 was “It.” In 2016, it was “Deadpool” and three animated movies. In 2015, just “The Martian,” “Cinderella” and “Inside Out.”
In fact, rather than create a new category for “popular” film, which can lead to a host of problems—the least of which is the definition of “popular”—maybe the Academy should go with what I‘ve outlined above: Best sequel, prequel or continuing-universe movie.
Hey, is that the answer?
Look: The real problem with “Popular Film” is its mushiness. All 24 of Oscar’s current categories are definite; you don't have to wait and see if your movie will fit into one of them. Is it a feature-length film released in an American movie theater in 2018? OK, it can be considered. As can that actor, that actress, and that adapted screenplay. Your editor, production designer, sound editing and sound mixing, we know where they fit once the movie is done and released. “Popular Film” would be the only Oscar category where we'd have to wait and see which movies could even be considered. And that's after the parameters are figured out. Should it be the $100 million domestic threshold? Should it be top 10 or 20 or 30 for the year? And is the 30th-biggest hit of the year truly “popular”?
“Popular” is a constantly moving target. When Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper” was nominated for best picture in January 2015, it was sitting on about $3 million after a limited release. That's not popular by any parameters we can imagine. Then the movie went wide and raked in the bucks. It did so well it wound up as the No. 1 box office hit of 2014. Get that? If the No. 1 movie of 2014 wouldn't have qualified—by any sane measure—as “popular” in time for the Oscars, what good is the category?
But sequel, prequel or continuing-universe movie? It‘s specific.
I’m trying to figure out the downside of going this route and I can‘t. I’m also trying to figure out why the Academy didn't go this way in the first place. If you go sequel, you‘re going to get popular, since unpopular films rarely get sequels. Indeed, part of me is beginning to wonder if the Academy floated “Popular Film” to set the stage for “Best Sequel.” Float the horrendous idea to allow easier passage of the vaguely unpalatable one.
What might an “Achievement in Sequel, Prequel or Continuing Universe” look like? Here are films from 2018 that would fit that bill, along with their current box-office ranking:
|2||Avengers: Infinity War|
|4||Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom|
|6||Solo: A Star Wars Story|
|7||Ant-Man and the Wasp|
|9||Mission: Impossible - Fallout|
|10||Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation|
|15||Fifty Shades Freed|
|16||Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again|
|18||The Equalizer 2|
|22||The First Purge|
|23||Insidious: The Last Key|
|26||Pacific Rim Uprising|
|27||Maze Runner: The Death Cure|
|32||Sicario: Day of the Soldado|
|52||Super Troopers 2|
|84||God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness|
Is the Academy, and ABC/Disney, worried that more prestigious sequels like “Sicario” could upset or upend the Marvel/Disney blockbusters like “Avengers” and “Incredibles 2”? Well, that's a risk. You can't have a rigged game, ABC/Disney. People get a vote.
The bigger roll of the dice is the idea that “Best Sequel” or “Popular Film” will get people to watch. I assume either one will be seen as a secondary award, like animated film, and dismissed as such, and might not draw much of a crowd on Oscar night. It's sad. The Academy keeps doing what Major League Baseball does: It's trying to appeal to people who don't much like their product while ignoring the people who do. Time to stop that shit.
That said, if something needs to be done, “Sequel” is better than “Popular Film,” for all the reasons listed above.