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Facing declining Oscars ratings, motion picture academy announces creation of new 'popular film' category

By JOSH ROTTENBERG | Los Angeles Times | Published: August 9, 2018

In a series of moves that could shake up the very nature of the Oscars, including the types of films nominated and the length of the telecast, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wednesday announced sweeping new changes that are among the most dramatic in the tradition-bound group's more than 90-year history.

Among the three changes -- which were approved by the 54-member board of governors and announced to the organization's members in a letter Wednesday morning -- the most consequential and potentially controversial one is a new category for "outstanding achievement in popular film" that would stand apart from the traditional best picture award.

The announcement comes as the academy struggles with declining ratings for its all-important Oscars telecast, which plummeted to an all-time low this year, and represent a clear effort to address perennial criticism, which has become a kind of annual social-media blood sport, that the show itself has grown too bloated, tedious and out of touch with the interests and tastes of many mainstream moviegoers.

Although the academy since its inception has proudly held itself up as the standard bearer for cinematic excellence regardless of box office performance, the new category clearly represents an effort to recognize the sort of broadly appealing commercial blockbusters -- including superhero movies like "The Dark Knight" and "Wonder Woman" -- that even with the expansion of the best picture category to include as many as 10 films, have often failed to make the cut.

Among many longtime Oscar watchers, the announcement of the new category sparked immediate criticism on social media, with many calling it an act of pandering in search of ratings that will water down the significance of the awards themselves.

"[A 'popular film award'] is a ghetto and will be perceived that way," film historian and commentator Mark Harris wrote on Twitter. "Imagine if they instituted it this year: 'Oh, It's lovely that the rabble went to 'Black Panther' -- here's a special fake Oscar it can win!' This is just a head-slapper on all counts."

While the new category will be introduced at next year's Oscars, the definition of what constitutes a "popular film" is at this point unclear. In its letter, the academy simply said that "eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming."

In an email to The Times, an academy representative clarified that a movie could be eligible for Oscars in both outstanding achievement in popular film and best picture, writing: "In creating this award, the Board of Governors supports broad-based consideration of excellence in all films."

While massive hits like "Titanic," "The Lord of the Rings" and "Get Out" have occasionally earned best picture nominations or wins, the race in recent years has often been dominated by smaller films such as "Moonlight" and "The Shape of Water," which took the top prize the last two years.

In a scathing letter announcing his resignation from the board of governors earlier this year, producer and former studio executive Bill Mechanic bemoaned this state of affairs. "[O]ver the past decade we have nominated so many smaller independent films that the Oscars feel like they should be handed out in a tent," he wrote. "Big is not inherently bad and small is not inherently good."

Responding to years of criticism that the telecast frequently runs too long – often pushing well past three hours – the academy also announced it will limit the show to three hours and move the presentation of certain awards to commercial breaks during the show. "The winning moments will then be edited and aired later in the broadcast," the academy noted, without specifying which categories this change would apply to.

Although many viewers have long complained about the number of less widely accessible awards in the show, including those for sound editing, sound mixing and short films, their inclusion has been important to members of the academy's below-the-line branches, who have resisted suggestions over the years that they be moved to a separate ceremony.

Lastly, the academy announced that it is moving up the date of the 92nd Oscars telecast by two weeks, from the previously announced Feb. 23, 2020, to Feb. 9, 2020. The move presumably represents an effort to address the awards fatigue that can set in over the course of a prolonged Oscar season, sapping audiences' interest in the Academy Awards.

The alterations to the show come against the backdrop of years of unprecedented change -- and frequent tumult -- at the academy, which after weathering two years of #OscarsSoWhite controversy has vastly swelled its membership in an effort to diversify its historically overwhelmingly white and male ranks. The academy is also in the midst of an ambitious and expensive effort to build a museum in the heart of Los Angeles that has placed new pressures on its finances.

For now, the changes raise as many or more questions than they answer. But the academy's leadership promises that more clarity will be forthcoming.

"We have heard from many of you about improvements needed to keep the Oscars and our Academy relevant in a changing world," the academy's newly re-elected President John Bailey and Chief Executive Dawn Hudson wrote in the letter. "We are excited about these steps, and look forward to sharing more details with you."

But for his part, Mechanic applauded the changes in an email to The Times on Wednesday.

"This is the first major change in the Oscar presentation in many years and represents a very positive step forward," he wrote. "There may be more work to be done, but the streamlining of the telecast will make it way better paced, the addition of a mainstream category gives more film fans a rooting interest, and the date change helps slightly to keep the process fresher given all the other award shows. I know how hard it is within the organization to create change, so I really applaud John, Dawn and the Governors for this step forward."

(c) 2018 Los Angeles Times

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