We’ve all had a lot of fun this past week dunking on the Oscars’ new “Best Popular Film” category, a.k.a. the “Okay you unwashed heathens, here’s a prize for your big shiny moron movies” award. But according to one Academy board member, there’s a different motive for it—and it’s Harvey Weinstein’s fault.
Despite a report yesterday saying Disney-ABC Television Group’s desire for corporate synergy was behind the changes to AMPAS rules, a new interview in Vanity Fair with an anonymous member of the Academy board suggests this was a long-planned addition, with far more high-minded goals behind it than, “Ratings are down, let’s give the shitty popcorn movies an award to make people watch the ceremony.” The board member insists the impetus behind the change was to push studios to return to making quality adult-oriented cinema of the kind they used to produce. They locate the turning point as 1999, when the Weinstein-produced Shakespeare In Love beat the commercial smash (and clearly superior film, hindsight being 20/20) Saving Private Ryan—a moment for which you can blame Harvey Weinstein and his glad-handing, big-money politics-style Oscar campaigns, making it item #236 on the list of horrible shit he’s done:
I think that [Weinstein] not only built an incredible business for himself, but then every other studio said, “O.K., let’s do that. Instead of attempting [to make big great movies], we’ll just create these little art movies, or else we’ll just buy one at Sundance or Telluride—and then devote all of our resources to making big popcorn movies.” Studios that used to make movies like The Godfather and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and they don’t do that anymore, and that’s bad for the ecology of cinema...The Godfather was the best movie of the year and the most popular movie of the year...How do we motivate studios to go back to that grand era of cinema? This is the Academy trying.
Pointing out that Hollywood studios don’t make ’em like they used to isn’t exactly a new argument, and it seems a little silly to think that adding a “Good Movie That Made Lots Of Money” category at the Oscars is going to do much to change the data-crunching business decisions behind the “all blockbuster reboots and sequels all the time” strategy studios pursue like a group of little kids chasing a soccer ball around a field with single-minded zeal. But at least this reasoning has some noble aspirations behind it. “Look at a movie like The Matrix, which wasn’t even nominated for best picture...but it was the best picture,” the board member continues. “Go back to 1983: Gandhi wins best picture. But what if it was Gandhi and E.T.?...If you go back any year and look at the probable nominee in this popular-film category, you’ll think, ‘Well shit, that’s a worthy film.’ In fact, it could be more worthy in the measure of time than the so-called consensus best picture.”
By that logic, this is just the Academy responding to necessary shifts in the cultural landscape to address industry problems, like how it tackled diversity following the #OscarsSoWhite protest. “This is a great example of the Academy stepping up, and that leadership leads to Moonlight getting best picture, and more black actors getting nominations, and Get Out getting nominated.” Of course, this being just two years after Moonlight won Best Picture, it’s a bit of a muddled argument to also claim, “When you look at the best-picture nominees [now], they are all a bunch of movies that no one saw...this goes back to one of the many things that is the legacy of Harvey Weinstein...He created a type of movie which is not a well-known film by the general public, but gerrymanders the different voting blocks perfectly so they would win the Oscar for many years.” So, a bit of talking out of both ends of their mouth seems to be happening—it doesn’t really work to badmouth the progress of a film like Moonlight (deservedly) winning Best Picture by saying you need a new category because no one watches movies like Moonlight.
At the very least, the board member also admits this is just a gamble to try and help fix the issue of Hollywood studios no longer making very ambitious cinema. “This is really being misunderstood. It is an experiment. It could go wrong...It may take a couple of years to fine-tune it, like healthcare or something. It’s better to have some version of it than nothing.” Meanwhile, Vin Diesel rubs his hands together, and in a low rumble, mutters, “My time has finally come.”