The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not what you would call an open group. Overwhelming old, white, and stuck in their ways they have tastes very specific to people of that type and persuasion. The difference between them and other insular groups is they give out awards for one of the most culturally important activities activities in the world: film making. Also due to the age of the award the Oscars have acquired a cultural and financial importance that far outweighs the Academy itself.
As such many eyes still fall on the Academy and its choices yearly as a proxy for what is the best of the medium. Over time however the Academy’s prestige has begun to falter as it is quite clear the Academy may not be the best choice to actually pick “Best Picture” as their picks tends towards a certain type of movie. Namely movies that are created and star people that look like them.
Fans of genre television - namely Sci Fi and Fantasy - have long known our favorite films never win Oscars they’re just not the kind of films that do. Even those that do tend to require something of a herculean effort to win the award such as Lord of the Rings: Return of the King winning for being the capstone of one of the most ambitious and spectacular film series ever. Even genre director Guillermo Del Toro’s win last year for The Shape of Water feels more like an apology Oscar for the Academy snubbing his far superior Pan’s Labyrinth.
Then there is the list of legendary filmmakers who have never been awarded the prestigious honour despite decades of achievements in the craft. Ridley Scott, Orson Wells, Spike Lee, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and most egregiously (in my humble opinion) Akira Kurosawa a Director other Directors point towards as the best. Even Directors who produce works that straddle the line between artistically grand and popular such as Christopher Nolan have only recently got nominated for Dunkirk, his most Oscar styled film yet.
What this points towards is while the Academy has a reputation for having a discerning eye, it seems to have a glaring blind spot when it comes to films and filmmakers that make their mark on popular culture. A perfect example of this is Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens two films that are taught today as the pinnacle of their respective genres and continue to inspire Directors and Filmmakers the world over. Another in Jaws comes to mind, a film that created the summer blockbuster and even forty years later still has people mimicking it. However all these films and film makers were ignored until they made Oscar styled films.
Interestingly, the Academy is acutely aware of this blind spot and has taken steps to correct it. After the egregious snub of Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Academy opened nominations for Best Picture from five to ten. While that has allowed worthy contenders to be nominated such as 2015's masterpiece Mad Fax: Fury Road these films still seem no closer to actually winning. Especially if going up against a film about Hollywood or Hollywood adjacent professions.
This week it was announced the Oscars would be handing out a new award: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. Which seems to be a direct response to all the above noted complaints that boil down to the fact films people actually watch and care about do not win Oscars. While on the surface it is a neat idea, it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of what the Oscars are and the problems facing them in the eyes of the public.
One of the most glaring issues with this decision is how transparently condescending it is. Effectively saying popular films (and therefore the people who watch them) can not sit with proper Oscar films. With this in place last year a film like Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking horror entry Get Out almost certainly would have been nominated there instead of where it belonged: Best Picture which it did manage to snag a nomination for.
This is because in many ways the presence of a secondary category segregates these films. It gives people like the Academy voter who stated Get Out “isn’t an Oscar movie” an out to continue to ignore truly deserving achievements in film making and culture. In short it will be a live action version of Best Animated Feature.
An award that is so ignored by the Academy its jokingly referred to as “The Pixar Award”, due to Pixar’s domination of the category. In fact the only time a Disney film (Disney owns Pixar) has not won the category this decade was in 2011 where they failed to release a film. The categories first decade of existence was more competitive with Dreamworks putting up a fight but that time has since passed.
This award has been especially egregious for anime films which have grown in leaps and bounds as a medium. As anime has managed to secure only a single win for Hayao Miyazaki Spirited Away in 2002 powered once more by its Disney distribution. Despite its growing influence in both the culture and the medium of animated film making.
With this lack of respect and attention from Academy Voters comes a heightened importance of For your Consideration Campaigns. Whereby deep pocketed distribution companies push for their films to win the Gold due to the financial boost being an Oscar winner entails. Effectively as we have seen with Best Animated Feature Disney with its deep pockets could easily choose the winners of the new category.
More fundamental though this change betrays a deep misunderstanding from the Academy Board of Governors of what is wrong with the Oscars. People who care about film and its place in popular culture do not just want to see more golden statues handed out, that merely devalues the impact of the award as well as being highly patronizing to its eventual winners.
People want to see genuinely good, important, and artistically significant films recognized for the achievements in film making they are. While a film will be eligible for both awards the odds of that actually happening are slim. Art and culture has a way of changing and evolving but the Academy Awards seem entirely stuck in their ways.
They have accepted they need to change and evolve but by doing it in this way all it does is cheapen the awards they claim to so care about. The key to making the Oscars a relevant cultural moment again is diversification of the Academy itself. By opening the doors and radically expanding the voting pool will dilute the power of the Hollywood elite that currently makes the choices but that is what needs to happen.
As we have established the Academy of Motion Pictures is very good at picking the best films that are tailored to their unique tastes and not much else. However, culture and people have moved away from them. Giving out an award to placate the plebs of the vox populi will not fix the problem. It makes it worse as it a patronizing reminder they see our films as something lesser. If the Academy wishes to remain a culturally resonant entity it much change and grow, anything less will continue to fall short.
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