When the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced on Aug. 8 that it was making major changes to the Oscars, social media naturally lit up in response. Among the changes — including a shorter ceremony and shifting some awards to be announced during commercial breaks — the creation of a brand new category honoring "achievement in popular film" appeared to be ironically the most unpopular decision.
Just a few examples: "The film business passed away today with the announcement of the 'popular' film Oscar," tweeted actor Rob Lowe. Actor Elijah Wood was more succinct, tweeting, "Best Popular Film? oof."
Director Edgar Wright tweeted a box office chart of the top-grossing movies of 2018 with the line, "Isn't this the award for Popular Movie?" And journalist Mark Harris tweeted his incredulity that the Academy would create a popular film award the same year that Black Panther became the most popular movie of the year: "It truly is something that in the year … a movie made just about entirely by and with black people, grosses $700 million, the Academy's reaction is, 'We need to invent something separate...but equal.'"
But the reaction has not been uniformly negative.
"This is a dialogue that will continue up until the show," producer Michael Shamberg (Erin Brockovich) told BuzzFeed News, referring to the social media uproar about the popular film category. "It will transform into 'what should win?' not 'should they do it or not?' And you're going to get a lot of people invested in one of those great internet conversations about what should win, and that internet conversation is going to attract the audience that the Academy wants to watch the show. So it's all for the good." (Shamberg is a consultant for BuzzFeed Studios.)
The Academy's decision to create the category was widely seen as an acknowledgment that the awards ceremony and the awards themselves have fallen out of step with popular tastes. Eight out of the last 10 Best Picture winners grossed less than $100 million at the domestic box office, and viewership for the most recent Oscar telecast was down 19% from the previous year. And the operating budget for the Academy largely depends on the fees paid by ABC for the rights to broadcast the Oscars.
"The reality is the Academy needed to do something," said Kevin O'Connell, who won Best Sound Mixing Oscar for the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge. "They rely too heavily on the revenue from the awards show for their own existence not [to] do anything. They need to do everything they can to keep the show relevant, give the audience an experience they can’t get any place else, and, most of all, get the ratings back up."
Whether the popular film category is the best route to that goal remains an open question. "The joke is, they have enough data to know that isn't going to improve the ratings," a film industry insider with knowledge of how the Academy operates told BuzzFeed News. "This is just a public relations ploy to make them look relevant to ABC. There's no way Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World and all these films that are popular [that would be nominated] are going to make people tune in to see which one wins, because at that point, who cares?"
The insider also pointed out that the bifurcation of the top prize for live-action filmmaking could end up damaging the chances of popular film nominees winning Best Picture.
"If you get a popular nomination, doesn't that pretty much mean you're toast to win Best Picture if you're also nominated for Best Picture?" the insider said. "You've just been labeled a popcorn movie."
A major film producer, who has backed a Best Picture nominee and several popular blockbuster popcorn movies, agreed that having two categories would dilute the prestige of the award.
"Now we're saying there should be two awards," the producer said. "One is the Rotten Tomato, and the other is the Box Office Mojo. That doesn't actually seem like a good idea at all."
Not so, said Shamberg.
"Look at all the nominations that Mad Max: Fury Road got, and won," he said of the 2015 blockbuster hit. "It didn't win Best Picture, but it sure got a lot of attention." (In fact, Fury Road won the most Oscars that year.)
Shamberg also argued that, if Academy members are forced to seriously consider popular movies for Oscar consideration, they may begin to see those movies in a different light and not be so ready to dismiss them as popcorn fluff.
"This is a way to get everybody to think differently about the show — the audience and the Academy voters," he said. "Maybe it will drive a lot of voters to see movies that they don't normally see. The artistry in Black Panther is undeniable. It's just undeniable."
Several people who spoke to BuzzFeed News also pointed to the Academy's recent efforts to substantively make its membership younger and more diverse as a positive and effective way to change which kinds of films get nominated.
"I think the need for another category will be less relevant in the future because of the changes the Academy is making to the membership," said Ben Grossman, who won a Best Visual Effects Oscar for Hugo in 2012. "As it gets younger and more diverse, the nominations will reflect an appetite for movies more in line with popular opinion."
Just what the word "popular" even means with regard to this category remains unclear — the Academy has only clarified that films nominated for the new category would also be eligible for Best Picture. That vacuum has spurred a great deal of the confusion and apprehension about the popular film category, as well as speculation that it may not ever come to pass.
"We'll see what happens," said the insider. "[The Academy] may just say, 'Ah, never mind, we're going to think this out a little more.' Because clearly, it's not well thought out."
Either way, the ability to please everyone is likely next to impossible.
"I have no idea how you're going to come up with any kind of criteria that is not going to just aggravate the hell out of people," the producer said.
He also noted that Netflix, which famously does not divulge viewership numbers for any of its films or TV shows, would run into serious problems getting its features nominated for the popular films category. Then he stopped short, and laughed.
"If this is some brilliant strategy that is designed to force Netflix to reveal their [audience] metrics," he said, "maybe I could get behind it."
Michael Blackmon and Krystie Yandoli contributed to this report.