The reactions to the announcement by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences it would be adding a “Most Popular” category to its annual Oscars awards ceremony were as pointed as they were swift. Many pointed out that the category was at best ill-defined and seemed to be an overt attempt to halt, if not reverse, years of declining broadcast ratings.
One of the more pervasive themes of the commentary was that if those ratings reflect the popularity/appeal of the nominated films they also reflect the changes that have impacted every aspect of the media world in the last decade. Television viewership is down across the board as it competes against streaming/on-demand video providers, video games, esports and more. To use the popular vernacular, the industry audience has fragmented.
Let’s move past how relegating movies voters would have otherwise dismissed as not being serious enough for consideration in anything more than a few technical categories is more than a little condescending. Instead, let’s look at how what’s “popular” is often determined by, not a result of, access to marketing and distribution resources
Marketing For Opening Weekend
It’s no recent development that studio films live or die according to opening weekend. The entire marketing operation for movies like Black Panther, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Jurassic World and others are aimed at turning out audiences for that opening frame.
That’s preceded by not only extensive TV and other advertising but also red carpet premieres featuring cars provided by promotional partners, at least one or two cover stories in mass market entertainment media, set visit reports by film writers, a full week of appearances by the cast on “Kimmel” and more. It’s almost impossible to escape these movies, the campaigns for which generate high levels of awareness and create a sense of urgency. If you don’t see it opening weekend, audiences are told, you’ll miss out on the conversations and run the risk of reading a spoiler on Twitter.
Those resources, though, are only available to the biggest studios. Disney could put the Black Panther cast on every magazine cover and TV show in addition to plastering the internet with ads because it’s Disney and has that kind of money. It also knows that media organizations understand there’s more interest in movies like this that are based on known properties and is going to be more than happy to give it whatever time and space might be available.
Bleecker Street couldn’t do the same for Leave No Trace, which saw more press activity after opening weekend than it did prior to release. The one TV spot for that movie has 772,000 YouTube views compared to the “Rise” commercial for Black Panther, which logged 3.5 million views to date.
Distribution’s Thumb On the Scale
Theaters have added more and more screens in recent years involving some combination of IMAX, Dolby, 3D and other premium formats to better present the effects-laden franchise installments studios prefer because of their overseas box-office potential. That’s pushed out or limited the availability of smaller movies, including the kind of $20-40 million budgeted adult dramas that used to make up much of a studio’s release slate.
Consider that Leave No Trace played on just nine screens its first week and topped out at 361 a month after opening, helped along to that point by strong word of mouth and almost universally positive reviews. Black Panther opened on over 4,000 screens and onl dipped below 300 in June, over three months after opening.
That kind of system guarantees a select few films will be immensely popular while others will fade into obscurity despite critical acclaim.
It needs to be asked – and many are doing so – if distribution that insures few people will have access to a movie makes sense in the age of streaming. That the answer is often “no” is why prestige films like last year’s Mudbound and the upcoming Roma are being picked up or produced by Netflix, which allows for instantaneous mass reach independent of proximity to specific theater.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Netflix?
The issue, then, is that AMPAS has backed itself into a corner.
- It has to keep supporting the theatrical distribution industry.
- It also wants to keep recognizing “quality” films, having long ago decided sci-fi/fantasy, comedy and other genres didn’t rise to that level.
- Those prestige films are either getting limited theatrical releases accompanied by limited marketing campaigns that can’t compete with the paid, owned and earned media carpet-bombing for the next Marvel Cinematic Universe release, or they’re going to Netflix.
- It’s can’t acknowledge those movies because Point #1.
In a very real way, this is AMPAS and its friends in NATO daring Netflix to either A) break its own model and give its original films a significant theatrical release or B) break precedent and release viewership numbers, something it has not done to date.
It’s worth noting that Netflix does not give its original movies significant marketing pushes. Trailers often arrive just a couple weeks before the movie is available and there’s little to no online support outside of a few ads and maybe a couple posts to the corporate Twitter account. Instead it mostly relies on its internal recommendations and promotions to drive awareness
There are, of course, exceptions to that. Mudbound, Bright and a few others received more extensive campaigns. Set It Up and Like Father have both had earned media efforts featuring the stars and filmmakers. But those are very much the exceptions.
So The Academy wants to throw the masses a bone and say “OK, we’ll grudgingly admit you all liked X even though Y was the true Best Picture” even while it refuses to acknowledge that popularity can no longer be solely measured by box office revenue or ticket sales. Doing so does acknowledge that the serious films often receiving awards have restrictor plates placed on their reach by a system that rewards those with the deepest pockets and the most recognizable IP.
It’s not likely to work, of course. People don’t want to be told that what they like is only worthy of second-tier status. And they will wonder why something like Set It Up isn’t being included. TV ratings likely won’t rebound and the whole operation will continue clinging to diminished relevance because it refuses to take popularity seriously.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.
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