Daniel Goldstraw 25th February 2019
With this year’s Oscars post-party likely still raging, many involved were hoping that flagging interest for the Academy Awards would be boosted by the nomination of Marvel’s Black Panther for Best Picture. This is the first time a superhero film has ever been nominated for this award. Coverage of the 2019 nominations has generally focused on what this might mean for the Oscars in terms of ratings.
Just as important though is the question of whether, several months after the debate over a ‘popular film’ category (though it didn’t win — it was beaten by Green Book, a traditional albeit controversial choice) Black Panther’s nomination signals a change in how mainstream movies fare at the Oscars.
The perception that the Oscars rarely reflects the kinds of films most of us actually go see is not anything new. Whether you think it’s because of plain snobbery, or whether you think most blockbusters are genuinely just pretty generic and unremarkable, the fact remains that the average Oscar winner will be pretty different to the stuff getting bums in seats.
This isn’t to say that the films which tend to win aren’t usually deserving artistic achievements themselves, rather the films which have had the biggest impact on popular culture often tend to go overlooked in comparison. Almost all the big blockbusters which have helped shape today’s popular culture — which almost everyone ends up seeing — such as Star Wars or the Marvel franchise, have tended to get passed over in favour of films which have had much less impact on the popular consciousness.
The number of films which have gone down as classics of cinema which have been beaten by stuff your average cinema-goer has no recollection of is staggering. For example, the 1980 Oscars saw the likes of Apocalypse Now and Alien beaten by Kramer vs Kramer — a movie which I knew only as a title.
The following year saw Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, probably one of the most iconic films of the past forty years lose out to Ordinary People. Even movies that have been universally praised by critics often lose out to some comparatively bizarre and forgettable choices.
Stanley Kubrick, for example, was continually snubbed by the Oscars. The director of films like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Dr Strangelove, there’s barely anything he did that hasn’t been described by somebody as “iconic”. And yet, he never won a Best Picture or Best Director. The most he ever got in the way of awards was Best Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The same goes for Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, other legendary filmmakers who never got the award.
The Oscars has struggled to reflect an increasingly diverse audience, with most non-gender specific awards usually going to the same bunch of white men. The first ever female winner didn’t come along until 2010 with Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, and it wasn’t until 2014 that we had the first black winner with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave.
This perception that the Oscars rarely reflects the sorts of films anyone actually watches is usually credited as one of the reasons attention towards it has dropped in recent years. Last year, the ratings for the Oscars hit an all-time low of only 26.5 million viewers, making it the least-watched the ceremony in all of the Academy’s history. Viewership had been decreasing year-on-year since 2014, when 43.7 million people tuned in. We’ll have to wait and see if this year’s awards bucked the trend or continued it.
There could, of course, be numerous reasons for this, beyond just the films themselves. Some have blamed the politics surrounding the Oscars, with the 2018 ceremony being boycotted by many over its lack of diversity. Others have pointed out how, for even the most passionate film aficionado, a four-hour-long round of celebrities and filmmakers applauding and congratulating each other on how brilliant they all are isn’t exactly the most watchable thing in the world. However, it’s clear that the Academy has realised the disconnect between actual cinemagoers and the award ceremonies is a real issue.
Popular ≠ Good?
Back in August, the Academy announced it would be introducing it’s new “popular film” category in order to celebrate “outstanding achievement in popular film”. At first glance, this may seem like something that would give mainstream movies some recognition at awards ceremonies. However, the move attracted a massive amount of criticism, it correctly being pointed out that in practice, it would more probably have the effect of labelling nominees as “pop film” and rule them out of the running for the actual Best Picture award, resigning some filmmakers to the children’s table.
Whatever its actual intentions, the idea came off as something that would legitimise the perception that actually, “popular films” aren’t as worthy of the same praise as the other, more traditional Oscar winners. Rather than being a genuine effort to include more mainstream movies, most saw it simply as a desperate bid for ratings, and the category ended up being abandoned after a month.
The argument that the popular film category might well have become the runner-up prize for films that otherwise would get Best Picture nominations appeared to have been somewhat validated when Black Panther has received this nomination. As noted, it is the first superhero film to ever be nominated for such an award, despite the fact that superhero films have effectively owned the box office ever since the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dark Knight films over a decade ago.
The fact that there is finally a film within this genre that the Academy has chosen to recognise is incredibly significant considering how, due to this prominence, superhero films have probably been the easiest targets for cinema snobs to look down on. Whilst Nolan’s films achieved massive plaudits, Marvel’s films have often been criticised for being formulaic and lacking in depth. They’ve also contributed to the pattern of basically every other film property attempting their own cinematic universes while forgetting to ensure their individual films are watchable — that’s you DC/Warner.
On the face of it, this does seem like a huge step forward for the Oscars celebrating more mainstream movies. Indeed, between this and the nominations of other big hits like Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born, this is the first time the Oscar nominations have been quite so closely aligned with the biggest blockbusters of the year in almost a decade.
Black Panther did phenomenally well at the Box Office, earning more than $1 billion in 26 days, and if anything is likely to boost ratings in the Oscars and get people more interested in them again, it’s probably this. According to surveys, it was the film most cinemagoers wanted to see win. The critical reaction to Black Panther was also hugely positive. It earned widespread acclaim for its largely black cast, it’s African setting, a complex villain with genuinely compelling motives, and themes involving colonialism’s lasting impact, all of which helped separate it from the roster of other superhero movies.
However, there is still a strong chance that it is just these exceptional qualities that has made the difference and, despite Black Panther’s success, the massive disconnect between the movies most of us watch and the movies that go up for Oscars, probably isn’t going away instantly. It’s not the first time majorly popular blockbusters and the big Oscar winners have aligned after all.
Films like Titanic and The Return of the King famously won more awards than any other films in Oscar history, but this didn’t cause much change in the kinds of films seen as Oscar-worthy. Logan meanwhile, which was released in 2017, was another superhero film which stood apart from the rest of the genre, receiving widespread critical acclaim for its sombre themes, tone and gritty, realistic story. It didn’t win anything when it came to the Oscars though and was considered a huge snub.
Black Panther may well have helped boost interest for this years Oscars then, but there’s little sign this means we’re going to see the kinds of films the Oscars nominate become much more relevant to audience’s tastes in general. Even if they do though, it remains to be seen whether this alone is enough to recapture people’s interest in the Oscars. As already noted, it’s unlikely declining ratings are due to this disconnect alone, and it may be that most people are simply sick of ceremonies that have increasingly been seen as being overly long and self-congratulatory. Whether including more mainstream movies can actually solve this is still uncertain, but it is likely that if the Oscar’s are to appear relevant again, this will be an important first step.
Featured Image 📷 Davidlohr Bueso.
Daniel Goldstraw 25th February 2019