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The Oscars is the biggest event of the year for Hollywood – and the battles brewing and questions swirling about this year's show capture the tension and transformation underway in the entertainment industry.
Unlike most years, where a few front-runners are expected to nab the top awards, this year's awards are more of a toss-up. Best picture predictions have bounced between Hollywood favorite "A Star is Born," to the genre-defying superhero movie "Black Panther" from Disney's Marvel, to artsy "Roma" from digital disruptor Netflix, to throwback "The Green Book" from Universal.
With troubles at the box office and the rise of anytime-anywhere streaming services, this year's Oscars come at a crossroads for the movie industry. Here are some of the big questions hanging over this year's show.
This year's awards show — the year's biggest advertisement for movie-going — comes at a time when movie studios and theater chains could use a boost.
The box office is down 24 percent year-to-date on tough comparisons with last year's hits. Netflix's January report about the popularity of its movie "Birdbox" has fueled concern that streaming options are keeping consumers home, rather than out spending on movie tickets (not to mention popcorn or babysitting).
Last year's Oscar ratings declined 19 percent to an all-time low, putting pressure on the Academy and the show's broadcaster ABC to deliver a turnaround. But for months ahead of the telecast, the production has been rife with controversy. Host Kevin Hart dropped in December after revelations of homophobic tweets, leaving the show host less for the first time since 1989. The Academy then announced it would award four categories during commercial breaks rather than the live telecast, then reversed course after a barrage of criticism.
One thing working in the show's favor: "Black Panther." With a $700 million take at the US box office, it's the highest-grossing film to be nominated for best picture since "Avatar" in 2009. This is the first time since 2010 that three movies nominated for best picture each grossed more than $200 million at the U.S. box office. The more people watched the nominated movies, the more likely they are to tune into the show.
Netflix has invested billions of dollars on content, and has drawn big-name filmmakers and TV show-runners.
But this year, the streamer gained the highest Hollywood acclaim: a best picture nomination, for black-and-white, Spanish-language "Roma," which tells the story of a Mexico City family in the 1970s.
"Roma" has a total of ten nominations, tied for the most with Fox Searchlight's "The Favourite." To earn Academy members' votes, Netflix is spending a reported $25 million on its Oscar campaign. In addition to billboards sprinkled across Los Angeles, the studio has sent Academy voters glossy coffee table books and branded chocolates. That $25 dwarfs the $15 million the movie cost to produce, and may be a record for an Oscars campaign.
The Academy's attention is a particularly notable win for Netflix because content chief Ted Sarandos defied all the rules of theatrical movie distribution. Netflix rented theaters to release the film itself, with no transparency into its box office take, and made the film available for streaming just three weeks later, rather than the typical three-month window movie chains generally demand of theatrical releases. Theater chains have even boycotted Netflix in Oscar showcases.
Despite the lack of tangible evidence of a box office boost from nominations, Netflix clearly sees the value of this acclaim to draw top talent to its studio, and make the most of the $15 billion it's expected to spend on content next year.
Analysts are reluctant to put a number on the value to Netflix of nominations or an Oscar win, but RBC's Mark Mahaney says it would be a "modest positive" for the company. "It might add to new subscriber growth or improve subscriber retention," says Mahaney.
Piper Jaffrey issued a report last year looking ahead to this potential, saying "While the allure for many Netflix subs has been episodic (series) content, Oscar nominations for upcoming Netflix films would, no doubt, have a favorable impact on existing and potential subscribers' view of the content being made available to them."
It's no coincidence that two newcomers to the best picture race – Netflix and Disney —are facing off this year on the awards stage ahead of their coming digital battle. While Netflix pushes into the Hollywood establishment, Disney is on the precipice of making a major push into digital, with its streaming service Disney+ launching in the fall.
Disney's role at the Oscars has generally been limited to its animated films, but that's changing this year.
Fox drew the most nominations, 20, followed by Disney with 17. With Fox's Disney acquisition expected to close any day now, consider those awards combined, and they show the combined company's true scale.
The nomination of "Black Panther" for best picture, with a total of 7 nominations, is momentous for a number of reasons, including the fact that it's the first-ever superhero movie to be nominated for Hollywood's top award. With its $1.37 billion worldwide take, the film is a rare example of a studio's ability to win the box office, critical acclaim, and at the same time shape the social conversation with its almost entirely black cast. The film not only defied expectations, it also re-wrote the rules about what types of movies and stars "work" – both in the US and overseas. The Academy's consideration of this comic book character also validates Disney's ongoing investment in Marvel, with 5 movies in the works to launch this year.
Disney, unlike Warner Brothers and Universal, has said explicitly that it's not interested in shortening the window between theatrical and at-home releases. It doesn't seem to have any need to, as evidenced by its 26 percent domestic box office market share last year and 22 percent the year before. One industry insider pointed to the fact that Disney has moved some movies originally designed for theatrical release — such as a "Lady and the Tramp" remake — to Disney+. Because of Disney's ever growing size and the power of its franchises, it doesn't need to shorten windows -- like Netflix, it can make the windows entirely disappear and bring theatrical content straight to consumers.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of both CNBC and Universal Pictures.