The Awardist: ‘Popular’ films lead the race for Oscars best picture

It’s a brand new year, which means it’s time for a brand new awards season in Hollywood, as the journey to Feb. 24’s Oscars ceremony ramps up this week with the first high-profile pit-stop for contenders: Sunday’s Golden Globes Awards.

Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born continues to be the one to beat in the Best Picture race, with five total Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture (Drama). But A Star Is Born also leads a pack not often seen competing for Best Picture in recent years — popular films.

Oscar voters can nominate up to 10 films for Best Picture (although they’ve only nominated the full 10 twice, in 2010 and 2011), and typically bigger blockbuster fare fails to crack the race. This leaves a disconnect between Hollywood’s top-grossing movies, which audiences can see easily, and the independent and prestige studio films that have smaller theatrical releases but tend to be favored by critics and voters.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences attempted to rectify this (and sagging Oscar telecast ratings) last August by announcing a best “Popular Film” category for the 2019 ceremony. But with no criteria specified for the new award — and instant backlash from critics for undermining the legitimacy of popular films in the awards race — the category was quickly scrapped. While the Academy has struggled to bridge the gap between box office hits and acclaimed smaller films (such as Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping drama Roma), the awards leading up to the Oscars are including their share of blockbusters.

Marvel Studios’ superhero spectacle Black Panther, the top-grossing domestic film of 2018 ($700 million), nabbed a Best Motion Picture (Drama) nomination at the Golden Globes and a best ensemble nod from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and it was named one of the American Film Institute’s top 10 films of 2018. The $200 million-grossing A Star Is Born landed the same nominations, while the vibrant rom-com Crazy Rich Asians was nominated for best ensemble at the SAG Awards and Best Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy) at the Golden Globes. And then there’s Disney’s big, heartwarming Mary Poppins Returns, which has grossed $119 million domestically so far and has four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy), and was named in AFI’s 2018 top films of the year.

That’s not to say smaller films won’t get their due: Other strong contenders this year include Cuarón’s Roma; Yorgos Lanthimos’ twisted period drama The Favourite; Peter Farrelly’s dramedy Green Book, and Adam McKay’s satire Vice, the Dick Cheney biopic that has critics wildly divided.

For networks struggling with declining ratings for their awards-show telecasts, popular films should provide a much-needed boost. Last year’s awards shows — which championed smaller films such as The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Lady Bird (total gross: about $167 million) — all suffered from low ratings: the Golden Globes, for instance, drew 19 million viewers, a 5 percent drop from the previous year, and the Oscars telecast faced its lowest ratings ever in 2018 with 26.5 million viewers.

But if this year’s front-runners are any indication, viewership for 2019 is looking promising: After all, who wouldn’t want to see what happens when Wakanda’s superheroes, a pair of star-crossed music lovers, a witty British nanny, and an impossibly chic bunch of Asians walk into the Oscars together?

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