The First Academy Awards Had Its Own Version of the “Popular” Oscar

The ceremony itself was rooted in union-busting, laying the basis for the art vs. mass acclaim debate we see play out today

Causing trouble from the get-go Matthew Horwood / Alamy Stock Photo

Editor's note, September 7, 2018: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that it will not move forward with the “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film" category for the 91st Academy Awards in February 2019. Academy CEO Dawn Hudson tells the Hollywood Reporter: “There has been a wide range of reactions to the introduction of a new award, and we recognize the need for further discussion with our members." Read about the history of the first "popular" Oscar category below:

It would be hard not to take a cynical view of the “Popcorn Oscar,” as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ newest category for “outstanding achievement in popular film” is already being called.

The introduction of a “popular” category seems to be a bid to get more eyeballs on the Academy’s biggest night. The decision rides the coattails of a record-low 26.5 million tune-in to this year's Oscars, which was a decidedly uneven, almost four-hour-long affair. (In the same announcement, the Academy promised that future telecasts will, somehow, be limited to three hours.)

The reason behind the Oscars’ drop-off in viewership isn’t necessarily a reflection on the award show itself. Across the board, whether it's top-rated dramas, sporting events or other awards shows, network ratings are down. And while the Best Picture nominees for 2018 may have been critical darlings, they were not commercial powerhouses. (Notably the Academy Awards’ rating zenith occurred in 1998, when 57 million people tuned in to watch Titanic clean up shop.)

The change in tradition comes almost a decade since the Academy’s last major tweak to the Oscars formula, when it expanded the Best Picture category from five to ten possible nominees in 2009. That move occurred in the wake of backlash that the highly regarded—and highly lucrative—Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight failed to receive a nomination. The larger pool of candidates has largely been seen as a success, opening up the category to more independent films while also finding room for the occasional blockbuster like Mad Max: Fury Road. Meanwhile, the Nielsen ratings for the ceremony continued to steadily drop. It doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to see why the Academy board of directors put their heads together to come up with this solution that caters to the tentpoles of our time.

Though the Academy has yet to define the parameters for how the Academy Award for Best Popular Picture (or whatever name they settle on) will be quantified, the premise is already drawing criticism, specifically in a year where Black Panther, another film carrying blockbuster sales and critical praise, may now be relegated to the blockbuster category instead of getting to be considered in the Best Picture category. As critic Mark Harris put it starkly on Twitter, “It truly is something that in the year Black Panther, a movie made just about entirely by and with black people, grosses $700 million, the Academy's reaction is, ‘We need to invent something separate...but equal.’”

Precedence exists for the “Popcorn Oscar,” like the 2002 creation of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. While that change gave a platform to work that was long overlooked by the Academy, the separate category may have had the unintended side effect of boxing animated films out of the Best Picture conversation. “[These] movies are essentially ghettoized from winning ‘the real award,’” tweeted critic Todd VanDerWerff in response to the news.

An exploration of Oscar history shows this is not the first time the Academy has experimented with a popular category; as it happens, before the Oscars were even the Oscars (the name was officially Academy approved in 1939), the awards show actually played this card in its first iteration, but arguably with very different motives in mind.

The very first Academy Awards was a relatively private affair. Less than 300 guests attended the tony industry event at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room on May 16, 1929. No suspense hung in the air that night as attendees dined on broiled chicken on toast, string beans and ice cream—the Los Angeles Times had already announced the winners a full three months ahead of time.

The ceremony was as removed as you could get from the modern Oscars. There was no red carpet (that only showed up in 1961) and no broadcast (radio coverage began in 1930; Bob Hope MC’d the first televised viewing of “Hollywood’s most exciting giveaway show” in 1953). The actual ceremony lasted about as long as it took Douglas Fairbanks and co-host William C. deMille to dole out the gold-plated statuettes recognizing cinematic achievements for 1927 and 1928.

This was the dawn of Hollywood; the Academy itself had only just been founded in March 1927. Its board of governors had gotten together to create the ceremony in part because, “[t]hey felt there was not enough concern for movies as an art rather than a business,” according to one New York Times retrospective published in 1945.

Except, even in its earliest iteration, the ceremony wasn’t completely about the art. Studio mogul Louis B. Mayer first came up with the idea for an Academy in 1926 as an attempt to quash independent unionization efforts. Outwardly, he sold the body as a space to promote the “arts and sciences,” standardize the industry and handle labor complaints. Privately, he was giving studios a way to maintain control over their employees.

The notion of an annual awards ceremony was an afterthought that played into that idea. “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created,” he later said, according to Scott Eyman in Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. Of course, the free promotional opportunities and ability to help legitimize Hollywood didn’t hurt, either. According to The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, “The Academy Awards began as a way to promote the new film industry, then seeking to displace staged vaudeville as the predominant form of theatrical entertainment in the United States.”

But in Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American, Peter Decherney digs deeper into the apparent union-busting underpinnings behind the awards. “[T]he award ceremony resembled nothing so much as a well-publicized annual meeting of a professional organization, complete with a chicken or fish dinner in the years before it became an unabashed performance,” Decherney writes.

This, he argues, was to further establish the idea that the Academy members were artists not laborers.

The award categories in that first ceremony reinforced this idea. Rather than award one Best Picture, the show recognized best “Unique and Artistic Picture” and “Outstanding Picture,” (now known as Best Picture). The idea, writes Decherney, was to subtly separate “commercial fare,” in this case Wings (1927), the popular World War I drama, from “prestige,” represented by German expressionist F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1928), which Roger Ebert later reflected “conquered time and gravity with a freedom that was startling to its first audiences. To see it today is to be astonished by the boldness of its visual experimentation.”

The distinction might feel minor, but on a larger scale, Decherney writes, the award shows categories (including recognizing actors and actresses for a body of work rather than for a specific performance) separated “‘below the line’ workers from artists who wrote, directed, and acted in films, effectively distinguishing the unionized laborers from the artists.”

Sunrise, therefore, was recognized by the Academy as "the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude." Whereas Wings, which the critic John Andrew Gallagher once said had the impact on popular culture “comparable to that of George Lucas's Star Wars trilogy," won for being “the most outstanding motion picture considering all the elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness.”

The twin best picture categories lasted just a year. By the second Academy Awards, held at the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel, The Broadway Melody (1929), Hollywood’s first musical talkie, was the only film to receive highest honors. (Tragically, another of the original awards, “Best Comedy Direction,” was also cut after the first year's ceremony.)

So there you have it. Today's debate about the Academy trying to reconcile art and commercialism has existed as long as there have been the Academy Awards. As communications professor Alison Trope sums up in her book Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood, Hollywood has always straddled “the great divide between art and entertainment, culture and commerce, and elusive myths and tangible industrial goals and profits.”

All of this, however, is a distraction from the still-to-come debate over the Academy’s other announcement this week—to bump the 92nd Academy Award telecast in 2020 to an earlier date in February—leading some to ask a perhaps even more fraught question: “What the new Oscars date could mean for fashion”?

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