In the wake of the changes to the Oscars telecast, the most controversial addition has been the new category “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film”.
Dubbed “The Popcorn Oscar”, it exists as a crass ploy for ratings that many fear will sacrifice the prestige of the award for the sake of (hopefully, maybe) more viewers.
To filmmakers, it will be seen as a “lesser than” designation, a back-handed way of saying your movie isn’t good enough to compete for the actual Best Picture prize so we’ll throw you this bone instead.
To serious cinephiles, it’s a strike at the integrity of what the award stands for, which is artistic merit regardless of box office.
But looking at potential nominees, they could include some of the best reviewed films of the year.
Here are the likely “Popular Film” nominee front-runners and their Rotten Tomatoes averages:
- Black Panther – 97%
- Mission: Impossible – Fallout – 97%
- A Quiet Place – 95%
- Avengers: Infinity War – 83%
- Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again – 80%
- Ready Player One – 73%
I’m excluding a film like Incredibles 2 (94%) as it will likely remain limited to the Best Animated Feature category, but as of now there’s nothing keeping it from a slot in the Popular Film race.
I’m also discounting movies like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Deadpool 2 and others because, while they’ll likely be eligible, my hunch is that voters won’t see them as Oscar-worthy even for this category.
There’s also year-end potentials like Mary Poppins Returns and Creed II that could mix crowd-pleasing results with critical acclaim, the fusion that the Academy is likely hoping for.
In addition, since specific criteria for the nomination have yet to be announced, there’s a possibility the award may be limited to three nominees, a pattern that has occurred on occasion in the Best Animated and Visual Effects categories. If that were the case, a Black Panther / Mission: Impossible – Fallout / A Quiet Place trifecta would be as critically respectable as any other category on Oscar night.
But since the motive for this new prize is to cite more films that people have actually seen, five is more likely. Either way, when you look at the critical average of the probable Popular Film nominees, they’ll almost certainly be equivalent to those vying for Best Picture.
Which brings us back to the eternal question: then why don’t they have a shot at being nominated for Best Picture?
Because, at the end of it all, Oscar voters want more than just good craftsmanship. They want movies that have thematic ambitions, too. Movies that are actually trying to say something, not merely as a thin layer in a genre piece but as a message that provokes actual discussion and debate.
Of the Popular Film hopefuls, Black Panther is really the only one that meets that high bar – which is why it would be a shame if this new Academy Award keeps Marvel’s game-changer from competing for the most prestigious one.