The Academy is introducing a Best Popular Film Oscar, but what exactly defines a popular film? The recent changes to the Academy Awards in a bid to increase ratings have proven rather controversial, with the new Oscar particularly bemoaned - not least because it doesn't really make sense.
While it's clearly meant to open the field up to blockbusters that, despite dependably being some of the best-reviewed films of the year are often ignored by non-technical Oscar categories, the word "popular" is confusing. Is it based on budget? Box office? Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score? All of these are flawed metrics that conflate art and business, and that says nothing of what it means for popular Oscar contenders like La La Land, The Revenant and Gravity (which made over $1.5 billion between them).
The Academy is yet to announce the rules for the new category, but from how comparable Oscars are gifted, we can figure out what the likely fit will be.
A Film Can Contend For Both Best Popular Film And Best Picture
The one thing that the Academy has clarified is that (unsurprisingly) Best Popular Film is an adjunct Oscar, not a parallel one. A film can be in contention and indeed win both Popular Film and the regular Best Picture. This is the same situation as with Best Foreign Language Feature and Best Animated Feature, where films that qualify for the respective awards are also eligible for the big prize (although no film from either descriptive has ever won).
The Academy's Classification For "Popular Film" Will Likely Be Very Broad
Comparing the new category to Foreign Language and Animated awards makes the most sense, as they are both intended to honor typically underrepresented films (whether blockbusters can count as "underrepresented" anywhere other than the Oscars is up for debate). It's likely the Best Popular Film Oscar will operate in a similar manner.
Both awards have a set of guidelines (rather obviously, linked to primarily spoken language and animated content) that qualify a film for nomination. The Academy will surely likewise set a loose number of parameters that cast a wide net: number of screens, budget, and box office are all possibilities, with the entry-level slightly-above-mid-range. However, they won't just pick the contenders from these limits - it will then be up to the distributor to actually put up the movie.
The Decision On What's A Popular Movie Rests On The Distributor
And that's the big thing that much of the confusion of the award logistics are missing. Plainly, a movie's classification and presence at the Oscars is not down to the Academy: voters don't pick any film out at random. Movies are put forward by their distributor "for your consideration". This is how movies like Transformers end up in the discussion and means, ultimately, whether a movie runs in the Popular Film Oscar category is down to the people who made it.
You see the impact of this choice best with Lead and Supporting acting awards, where the category an actor appears in is often related more to their chances of a nomination or win rather than screentime or importance to the narrative, but it's also happened in these tiered-film categories: The Jungle Book won Best Visual Effects but, had Disney pushed it, could have been a Best Animated Feature contender (well over the required 75% was animated via CGI).
How this would work in practice depends on how voting is perceived - will being in a high-profile Best Popular Film Oscar race hurt a financially successful prestige movie's hopes for Best Picture? - and the specifics of the category, but this is how we expect to see it pan out. The Oscars basically offer studios the opportunity to run a good but not-typically-Oscar film, with the parameters made to give as much leeway to films like Get Out or Mad Max: Fury Road.
Of course, none of this explains the decision to have a "Best Popular Film" category in the first place...