When the nominations for the 91st Academy Awards are announced on Tuesday, at least one Oscars contender could make history: Disney and Marvel Studios' "Black Panther," directed by Ryan Coogler. It could be the first Best Picture nomination ever for the superhero movie genre.
For Marvel the Oscars have been an epic disaster. Marvel superheroes have racked up many triumphs, but Disney's blockbuster-maker has never won an Oscar. In a 10-year history that has raked in more than $7 billion at the U.S. box office and $17 billion globally, its total nominations — 10 — are barely more than Warner Bros'. "The Dark Knight" reached this number on its own in 2008. Even when Marvel has received an Oscars' nod, it predominantly has been in the visual-effects category.
"The Dark Knight" is the superhero reference that Oscar watchers have been invoking. The groundbreaking Christopher Nolan superhero film won two Oscars — including Heath Ledger's posthumous Best Supporting Actor award — and was nominated for eight, including several marquee categories, but was snubbed by Oscar voters in the Best Picture race.
Public backlash led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to expand the potential Best Picture nominee list to a maximum of 10 films in 2009. Even so, art-house flicks continue to dominate the Best Picture category. A "popular" film hasn't won Best Picture since Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" in 2003.
"The fact that the change to 10 possible Best Picture Oscar nominees was made to allow for a film like 'The Dark Knight' to have a shot at a nomination shows that at least there has been an acknowledgement of the importance of superhero films and the brilliance of the filmmaking that make them so appealing to audiences and critics alike," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore.
Disney hired Oscar strategist Cynthia Swartz to oversee "Black Panther's" Oscar campaign, according to the Los Angeles Times, and Marvel Studios' president Kevin Feige even backed an awards season budget for the first time, wanting director Ryan Coogler and the cast, including Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, to receive the recognition he feels they all deserve.
While superhero movies mostly have struck out at the Oscars, blockbusters have received a fair share of representation.
"Blockbusters have in the past often received awards," said Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst. He pointed to "Titanic," which won Best Picture and is No. 2 all-time at the box office. "Forrest Gump" in 1995 was a blockbuster, and in today's dollars it would have posted nearly a $700 million gross, according to Stone, and "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" in 2003 grossed more than $300 million, which Stone estimated at over $500 million in today's dollars.
The X-Men spinoff film "Logan" last year became the first superhero film to receive a nomination for best adapted screenplay, an attempt by the Academy to acknowledge not only blockbusters but the superhero genre.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not respond to a request for comment. Marvel also declined to comment.
The debate over a "Black Panther" Best Picture nomination is at the heart of that wider divide in Hollywood over treating popular films as Oscar-worthy. At a time when Oscars' ratings are declining as fast as Oscars' PR nightmares are increasing, a "Black Panther" Best Picture nod could be in the Academy Awards' best interest: Even if the comic book film has little chance of winning with Oscars voters' who have shown a clear preference for art films, a nomination might intrigue a new and broader audience in a television event that continues to lose viewers.
The Golden Globes nominated "Black Panther" for Best Original Song and Best Motion Picture Drama — despite its defeat to "A Star Is Born" and the Queen biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody"; 2019's Golden Globes is one of the only award shows as of late to not fall victim to double-digit viewership losses. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this year's show dropped from a little more than 19 million viewers to a little over 18 million but actually improved with the 18–49 demographic, with an average 5.2 rating score.
In mid-2018 the Academy made an aborted effort to embrace more popular films, proposing an Outstanding Popular Film category. But after considerable backlash from the public and players within the industry, the Academy scrapped the category, with Academy CEO Dawn Hudson saying in a release that the Academy will continue to "evolve" while respecting its nine-decade legacy.
Karie Bible, a box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, said even if ratings do go up due to a "Black Panther" Best Picture nod, it does not necessarily mean we will see more blockbusters nominated in future award seasons, as "art and commerce" do not have a history of mixing well in Hollywood awards season. Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com, said the strong opinions of an "exclusive club" of Oscar voters have consistently proved not to be swayed by popular movies that consumers want to see nominated.
Last year's Best Picture winner, "The Shape of Water" — a fantasy feature directed by Guillermo del Toro — had a domestic box-office total of just over $63 million. The 2016 winner, "Moonlight" — an indie film about African-American adolescence, directed by Barry Jenkins, grossed only $27 million domestically. At $200 million, the production budget for "Black Panther" was more than double those two films' domestic box-office grosses, and the film grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.
Dergarabedian said the new category for popular films was an interesting idea, but he said the best scenario for the Academy is to continue judging and rewarding "incredibly worthy films," and "Black Panther" deserves recognition for the "sheer perfection of its filmmaking."
"'Black Panther' is the highest-grossing [domestic] film of 2018 and has become a major cultural phenomenon," Bible said. "It will be talked about and remembered in the future, regardless of the awards outcome."