In Search of Ratings, Oscars Become More of a Popularity Contest

August 9, 2018

By Max Godnick

And the Oscar goes to ー change.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will introduce a new category ー Achievement in Popular Film ー that will recognize blockbusters. It's one of a series of planned changes to the Oscars ceremony in an effort to garner a younger audience and stem the depressing slide in viewership for Hollywood's biggest night.

The Academy did not release details about what constitutes "popularity" in film, or say if the new award will be handed out at next year's ceremony.

The Academy also announced it will cap the Oscars broadcast at three hours.That means some of the least buzz-worthy awards (think Best Sound Editing and Best Documentary Short) will be handed out during commercial breaks.

Including commercially successful films in a shorter ceremony could serve as a much-needed ratings boost. This year's Academy Awards attracted 26.5 million viewers, the worst audience numbers to date. Reserving a spot in the Oscar field for blockbusters such as "Black Panther" and "Mission: Impossible ー Fallout," could entice passionate fans of those movies to tune in to ABC's broadcast.

But segregating movies based on box-office popularity may be an unnecessary and artificial distinction.

"Good movies can be popular, popular movies can be good," said Jessica Derschowitz, senior digital news editor at Entertainment Weekly. "Delineating just puts a bigger divide between these things."

Commercially successful movies have seen winning moments at the Oscars for decades. "Titanic," the second highest-grossing movie of all time, helped deliver the best Oscars ratings ever when it won 10 trophies in 1998. "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," "Silence of the Lambs," and "La La Land" also earned box-office cash and Oscars gold.

"It muddies the waters a lot," Derschowitz said of the new category.

It's been a transformative year for the Academy. In June, the governing body of the Oscars inducted a record 928 new members in an effort to increase diversity. Derschowitz said the new voters and added category could help make the ceremony more relevant.

"When the demographics of the Academy aren't as old and as white and as male, and reflect more of the movie-going population of the country and the world, then the movies that those people think are the best movies of the year will reflect that," she said.

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