The Popular Oscar was the first strike. For roughly three weeks this past summer, the internet — or, anyone who cares about the Oscars and/or the future of cinema — collectively lost their minds when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a new Oscars category for "outstanding achievement in popular film." The backlash was swift, and the idea was reportedly scrapped (for now). But it was a sign of things to come.
The Kevin Hart hosting debacle — strike two — has cast a major shadow over this year's ceremony. And the frustrating back-and-forth between the Academy, Hart, and, weirdly, Ellen DeGeneres left a bad taste in the mouths of even the most passionate Academy Award viewers. But that hasn't stopped the Academy from reportedly scrambling to assemble the star-studded cast of the Avengers at the February 24 telecast. In an homage to past ceremonies, or a desperate Hail Mary, the telecast is reportedly calling upon the Avengers to co-host the 91st Academy Awards together, a decision that's currently falling apart at the seams. This is strike three.
The Academy Awards have been in the middle of an identity crisis for a while, but this year, we've finally reached Dante's Inferno: The 2019 Oscars are Jackson Maine peeing onstage at the Grammys in the middle of a drunken stupor, messily forging ahead aimless and hostless anyway. So it's time for an intervention.
As ratings continue to decline — last year's telecast was the least-watched in Oscars history, down 20 percent from the year prior — the Academy increasingly look for ways to remain relevant. On paper, honoring the year's most popular film sounds like an easy (read: lazy) way to appeal to the masses, but it undermines the sanctity of the ceremony and, even worse, disregards its core audience, the people who treat the annual Academy Awards like their Super Bowl — who carefully analyze the playing field for the thrill of winning their Oscars pool, and who religiously tune in for the yearly pomp and circumstance, waiting for the Hollywood elite to anoint the very best in cinema.
So no matter how many hypothetical nominations the Academy gives Deadpool, 13-year-old boys aren't going to tune in to watch the Merc with a Mouth accept a statuette in a suit. They'll watch the speech on YouTube later.
When the Academy expanded the Best Picture race back to 10 nominees in 2009, they did so with a promise to cast a wider net. In the wake of The Dark Knight's Best Picture snub, this was a way for the Oscars to move out of their comfort zone and to nominate the kinds of blockbuster genre films that resonate with both critics and audiences. A compelling Best Picture race needs a diverse pool of nominees; to separate the two ruins the fun and delineates one category as more important than the other.
Lupita Nyong'o (left) and Letitia Wright (right) in Marvel's Black Panther
With that in mind, the Popular Oscar just seemed like a shameless way to get movie stars on stage and to guarantee nominations for billion-dollar Marvel franchises. But the Academy doesn't need to pander to Marvel and its legions of fans; Black Panther deserves to be in the Oscars conversation because it has earned it. Not only was it the highest-grossing domestic film of 2018, but it was also one of the best-reviewed — and it's run a relatively smooth awards season campaign. And nominations for Black Panther could score major ratings for ABC. According to IndieWire, there's a direct correlation between Oscar nominee diversity in major categories and viewership. And who wouldn't want to watch Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, and director Ryan Coogler represent Wakanda at the Oscars?
So where does the show go from here? Coincidentally, the answer may lie in a much-maligned bit from the equally-maligned 1989 Oscars. Thirty years ago, the Academy Awards were hostless (sound familiar?) and looking for a change. So they hired veteran producer Allan Carr to put on a spectacle, and the result was a bizarre, campy opening number starring Snow White and Rob Lowe. But in hindsight, it's another musical sequence, which brought together 19 of 1989's rising young stars and future Oscar hopefuls to belt out "I Wanna Be an Oscar Winner," that actually might be onto something.
If the Oscars truly want to connect with younger audiences, then perhaps it's time to start recognizing their talented peers: the striking depth of Timothée Chalamet; the winsome enthusiasm of Elsie Fisher; and the onscreen magic of Letitia Wright, who delivered the year's most luminous performance in Black Panther. Should there be a category for breakthrough performances? The Ringer's Sean Fennessey argues that it's the perfect way to revitalize the archaic nature of the telecast without demeaning its history. And given the fervent fandom around these younger scene-steelers, it also guarantees meme-able content without making it so obvious. The internet's boyfriend accidentally dropping an f-bomb on live TV? Charming!
2019's Stars of Tomorrow: Elsie Fisher (left), Letitia Wright (center), and Timothée Chalamet (right)
With so many exciting achievements in film this year — the success of Black Panther, the Hollywood rebirth of Lady Gaga, Netflix's first Best Picture frontrunner, and "Shallow"'s internet dominance, to name a few — the Academy is not lacking in opportunities to celebrate the industry's younger, more diverse stars right now. Because that's what the Oscars should be: a celebration — not an obligation — both of its artists and increasingly disparate membership.
And if not, and we have to suffer through Green Book winning Best Picture, well then at least they'll be a glorious train wreck.