Oscars to Add ‘Popular Film’ Category, Creating QuestionsLOS ANGELES — Alarmed by plunging television ratings for the Academy Awards, the organization behind the Oscars said on Wednesday it would add a category for blockbuster films and shorten the telecast by giving out some statuettes during commercial breaks.
Yet adding a category for “outstanding achievement in popular film,” as John Bailey, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, put it in a letter to members, could create new problems for the organization.
What if a movie many see as a legitimate best picture contender — the worldwide smash “Black Panther,” for instance — receives a nomination for the populist Oscar but not for best overall picture? Does that mean “Black Panther” and films like it are second-class citizens?
The letter did not say what would constitute a “popular” film or whether movies nominated in that category could also be nominated for best picture. The category will make its debut at the next Oscars ceremony, which will be held in late February.
“Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming,” read the letter, which was sent to members Wednesday morning.
The changes were immediately lambasted by some prominent film critics. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called the changes “stupid, insulting and pathetically desperate” on Twitter.
While some responses were favorable, the academy also drew mockery, with the social media universe suggesting other categories that might draw more viewers.
By approving changes to its telecast at a board meeting on Tuesday night, the academy acknowledged what has been obvious for years: The Oscars are increasingly out of touch. A record low of 26.5 million people watched this year’s telecast, a nearly 20 percent drop from a year earlier. As recently as four years ago, the Academy Awards had an audience of 43.7 million viewers.
“We have heard from many of you about improvements needed to keep the Oscars and our academy relevant in a changing world,” Mr. Bailey wrote. “The Board of Governors took this charge seriously.”
Reasons for the decline abound — the general fragmentation of the media landscape is one — but the central complaints have been about the Oscar telecast’s marathon length and increasing tendency to honor niche films that the majority of American moviegoers have not seen. Last year’s best picture winner, “The Shape of Water,” had sold about $60 million in tickets at the time after playing in theaters for 14 weeks.
“Black Panther,” by comparison, took in $202 million over its first three days in North American theaters alone.
The academy also voted to keep the telecast to three hours, which it described as an effort to deliver “a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide.” To trim the telecast — the last show, in March, stretched to three hours and 53 minutes — the academy said it would present “select categories” during commercial breaks, with the winning moments edited and aired later during the broadcast.
It did not say which categories could be edged aside. The most likely are the three Oscars presented for short films.