Column: Why the Academy Awards’ ‘Popular’ Oscar was an unpopular move

Jimmy Kimmel is shown hosting the 2018 Academy Awards broadcast, which saw the ratings drop by 20 percent compared with ratings for the 2017 show.
Jimmy Kimmel is shown hosting the 2018 Academy Awards broadcast, which saw the ratings drop by 20 percent compared with ratings for the 2017 show.
(Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

And the winner for the Best Hollywood Do-Over Award is …


Less than one month after announcing the creation of a new award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences listened to reason — and a lot of booing — and canceled the new category for the near future.

The award recognizing films that manage to wow critics and conquer at the box office was supposed to make its debut during the 2019 Oscar broadcast. But when the academy rolled out the idea last month, it wowed pretty much no one. The backlash was fast and furious, including a “Thanks, but no thanks” from actor Chadwick Boseman of “Black Panther,” which is exactly the kind of box-office champ the new award was designed to celebrate.

“What I can say is that there’s no campaign (that we are mounting) for popular film,” Boseman told the Hollywood Reporter. “Like, if there’s a campaign, it’s for best picture, and that’s all there is to it.”

So it is back to the drawing board for the academy’s 54-member board of governors, and not a moment too soon. Because the award raised all kinds of thorny questions that the organization was not prepared to answer.

Questions like, “What do you mean by ‘popular’?” And, “If a movie is outstanding, shouldn’t it be nominated for Best Picture?” And the always-appropriate, “What were you thinking?”

In fact, we know what the academy members were thinking. And that thought probably sounded something like, “Help!”

Like most other awards-show broadcasts, the Oscar show has been losing eyeballs for years now. And with ratings for the 2018 Oscars down by 20 percent over 2017, the academy came up with the idea for a new category. The hope was that an award honoring films that audiences loved but the Oscar nominations ignored — films like “Wonder Woman,” “The Avengers” and movies from the “Star Wars” franchise — might bring in more viewers. Some of whom might even be under the age of 50.

You can see where the academy folks were going with this. They were going to a place where audiences of all ages from all parts of the nation — and the world — gather by the many millions to watch a television show. At the same time. On an actual television set.

That place is better known as Yesterdayworld, and even if the Academy nominated “Black Panther” in every single category including Best Documentary Short Film, there is no going back to Yesterdayworld because it doesn’t exist anymore.

The Oscars don’t have a movie problem so much as they have a television problem. Awards shows are still better at uniting a fragmented audience than anything that isn’t the Super Bowl or other big-ticket sporting event. But the reality is, people do not gather around the TV hearth the way they used to. Even the mighty Super Bowl doesn’t get the numbers it used to.

In Todayworld, viewers follow the Oscars on Twitter while binge-watching “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix. They tape the Grammys and watch them later, so they can fast-forward through the speeches and go straight to the performances. Or they are too busy playing “Monster Hunter: World” to know that any of these awards shows are on at all. Golden Globes? What Golden Globes?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can’t do much about TV viewing habits (or the lack thereof), so it needs to concentrate on doing right by the movies and letting the viewership chips fall where they may. And creating a “Best Popular Movie” award doesn’t do right by the movies or the people who love them.

If a popular movie has artistic merit, if it moves us, makes us think, makes us laugh until we cry or cry until we use up all our napkins, then it deserves a Best Picture nomination. Like “Gravity.” Or “The Martian.” Or “American Sniper.” If it does does not meet those standards, then it doesn’t deserve an Oscar of any kind, no matter how much money it has made.

And people who care about movies enough to tune in to the Academy Awards broadcast deserve better than a category that says, “Here’s the ones you liked. Too bad they weren’t as good as the ones we liked.”

In fact, there is already an awards show where the winners are chosen based on what the people like. It is called “The People’s Choice Awards,” and in 2017, ratings for audiences 18-to-49 hit an all-time low. Total viewership for the 2017 “People’s Choice Awards” was 6.6 million. Total viewership for the 2018 Oscars? That would be 26.5 million.

So forget about giving the people what they already know they like, Oscar. Just do a great job of honoring the movies they deserve to see.

Twitter: @karla_peterson