It wasn’t a snafu quite on the level of last year’s announcement of the wrong best picture winner on the Oscars telecast, but it was arguably in the same ballpark.
Facing a backlash over its creation of a new category for “outstanding achievement in popular film,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences abruptly reversed itself on Thursday and said that it will not include the new award in the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony and will “seek additional input” on whether to move forward with it at all.
The decision, which was reached by a majority of the organization’s 54-member board of governors, came less than a month after the board announced the new category, without specifics of how films might qualify — a move that caught the film industry by surprise.
The idea of a “best popular film” award was criticized by many as an act of pandering in reaction to declining ratings for the Oscars, with some fearing a category focused exclusively on blockbuster movies would water down the significance of the awards as a whole.
In a statement, the academy said it remained “committed to celebrating a wide spectrum of movies” but that “implementing any new award nine months into the year creates challenges for films that have already been released.” The academy said the board would remain “actively engaged in discussions” regarding the category.
In an interview with The Times following the announcement, academy President John Bailey defended the original thinking behind the new award, saying it reflected a need to address a broader shift in the film industry that has seen the major studios largely back away from the kinds of intimate, adult-oriented movies that tend to be celebrated during awards season in favor of superhero franchises and other tentpole fare.
“There was a time — you look at the new American cinema of the ’70s, for example — when there were films that were both adult and were popular films,” Bailey said. “The sad thing is that I think there’s been an unfortunate bifurcation at the extremes.
“One of the issues that seems to have been relevant to the declining ratings of the Oscar telecast is that the movies that are being nominated are fine, really wonderful movies that deserve to be nominated but they’re not being seen by wide audiences,” he continued. “So this new award was meant to create a category of really excellent filmmaking that would essentially address and create interest in the awards for the kind of movies that people really go to see in large numbers.”
Laura Karpman, who serves on the academy’s board of governors representing the music branch, said the group’s leadership had decided to “hit the pause button” on the new category.
“It’s a hard thing to figure out,” Karpman said. “It’s not about ‘popular.’ We’re looking at ways to specifically reward comedies, science fiction and action films, among other types of movies… We don’t want to do it fast. So we’ll reset, give it some serious thought and see where it goes.”
With Oscar ratings plummeting to an all-time low this year, some within the group’s leadership have argued that the academy should work harder to recognize critically acclaimed commercial blockbusters.
In a letter announcing his resignation from the board of governors earlier this year, producer and former studio executive Bill Mechanic wrote, “[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.”
But the creation of the nebulous new category sparked an immediate negative reaction on social media. Some observers pointed out it could serve as a kind of consolation prize for a critically lauded hit like this year’s “Black Panther” if the Marvel blockbuster doesn’t win — or isn’t even nominated for — best picture.
“The film business passed away today with the announcement of the ‘popular’ film Oscar,” longtime academy member Rob Lowe wrote on Twitter. “It had been in poor health for a number of years. It is survived by sequels, tent-poles, and vertical integration.”
Some members said they simply didn’t know what to make of the category. “It seems very vague and strange,” actor Oscar Isaac, who has starred in both adult-oriented arthouse fare and blockbusters like the “Star Wars” films, said in a recent interview with The Times. “But you know what? Awards are vague and strange and the reasons why something gets one thing and not the other are already a total mystery.”
Asked his feelings about the new award at the recent Telluride Film Festival, screenwriter Josh Singer — who won an original screenplay Oscar with Tom McCarthy for the 2015 “Spotlight” and has written the upcoming Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” — laughed and simply said, “Pass.”
Bailey said that he was surprised by the degree of hostility to the new category, arguing it reflected a fundamental misconception about the Academy Awards.
“I think a lot of the negative reaction was ill-founded, to be honest,” Bailey said, noting that he had heard privately from many members who supported the idea. “People seem to think there’s some sort of sacrosanct structure to the Academy Awards, and there’s not. In the entire history of the awards, there have been some awards that have been folded in and others that have been dropped completely. It’s an ever-changing process.”
That said, even within the academy’s leadership, Bailey conceded, there has been division over the new category.
“I’m not afraid to say this: If it had been my decision as president, this award would have been in place for the 2019 Oscar telecast,” he said. “[On the board] you’ve got 54 alpha-type people that are highly creative, highly motivated — it would be absurd to say it was unanimous. But clearly there was a majority and we honor that. It’s a democratic process.”
This isn’t the first time the academy has reversed itself on a decision regarding the show. In 1992, the board of governors voted to remove the live-action short film and documentary short-film categories from the telecast. Prominent academy members like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Robert Redford balked at the idea, and it was never put into effect.
Some regard the rollout of the new category as just the latest in a string of public embarrassments — the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, delays and cost overruns with the academy’s museum project and last year’s “envelope-gate” — that indicate a lack of direction and clarity of vision for the film industry’s leading organization.
“I think the general criticism that I made when I resigned — that the academy is reactive rather than strategically run — is in full evidence since that moment in time,” Mechanic told The Times on Thursday. “The academy announced admitting nearly a thousand new members, voted out two members [Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski] without following the [standards of conduct] procedures enacted last year and now announced a new award and then retracted it.”
Bailey pushed back strongly against that idea. The academy, he said, “is trying to be egalitarian and listening to the voices of our members…. We are just trying to address what we see as an existential problem that ... is not going to go away in terms of where films seem to be headed.”
In an effort to address the perennial criticism that the Oscars show has grown too bloated and tedious, the academy further announced Thursday that six to eight of the 24 award categories will be presented during commercial breaks at the next telecast.
Winning moments from those categories, which have not yet been determined and will be rotated each year, will then be edited to air later in the broadcast — a means of streamlining the show that the Tony Awards also employs, Bailey pointed out.
“We are committed to a three-hour show,” Bailey said. “It’s necessary. I feel we have a responsibility to the people who watch that show in the Eastern time zone, which is a huge market, to have that show ended by 11 o’clock.”
Bailey paused, then added wryly, “Nobody that I know of has protested about that.”
Times staff writer Glenn Whipp contributed to this report.