Peter Bart: Academy Pushed The Envelope Too Far, Scratches Oscar Popularity Contest


Having been a member of the Academy for several decades, I find myself suddenly embarrassed to admit it. The Academy made a grand, if puzzling, announcement last month, but now has decided to disavow it. Its board of governors, having watched Academy CEO Dawn Hudson crawl out on a limb, at this week’s board meeting decided to saw it off.

The issue, of course, focuses on the Academy’s decision to award a new Oscar to this year’s “most popular” film — this in addition to its regular Oscar winner. Upon reading this announcement, all of us quickly inquired about the criteria for “popular.” The Academy has an “awards” committee to make exactly those decisions.

Guess what: The committee forgot to do it. So did the governors.

This is doubly ironic in that, at the very first Oscar show in 1929, the award was divided between a popular movie, Wings, and an art movie, Sunrise. The governors apparently had figured it all out 90 years ago. This year seemed a natural moment to replicate that decision. Black Panther seems destined to win the Oscar; it’s also clearly the “most popular” movie. Since Academy members in recent years have been disposed to award the “regular” Oscar to stereotypical “indie” films like Moonlight or The Shape of Water, everything would seemingly have fallen into place.

But neither life, nor the movie business, is that simple. The 54 Academy governors went into panic mode this week. They had listened to the chorus of outrage that had greeted their earlier announcement and instructed Hudson to get off her limb. Hence the new announcement today that the situation will be re-studied.

To be sure, the Academy’s initial announcement had not been executed very gracefully. The first dispatch was a mess; not only was there no detail, but it was amateurishly written.

Black Panther

“Our first foray resulted in total confusion,” one member of the board of governors told me. “We never had a chance to think it through.” Another explained that the discussion of a “popular” award had been scheduled at the end of a five-hour meeting when many other pressing issues were debated, and exhaustion had set in. “No one was in a mood to examine details of the decision,” said one governor. Academy sources point out, on the other hand, that Hudson had organized several meetings over the past year to prepare the Academy and its board for decisions in this arena, and to study possible criteria for a new award structure.

Another governor lays some of the blame on John Bailey, the Academy’s president. “John is a distinguished cinematographer, but the Academy ideally should be run by a former studio chief or producer or someone who understands management,” he said.

Will the “most popular” issue ever be re-visited? “I doubt it,” said one governor. “There was too much backlash.”

Another governor disagrees. “There is too much support within the board for it to be banished,” he said. “And I am glad that the board pulled back this time. We were responsive to public and professional opinion.”

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