Can a blockbuster still win big at the Oscars?

Nobody was talking much about Oscars when Spider-Man: No Way Home was released in cinemas last month, but it was easy enough to see that they soon would be. The film swung onto screens as a pre-ordained saviour of cinema, the hopes of an industry pinned on its well-worn spandex bodysuit. As soon as the film delivered the gargantuan box-office receipts that were fully expected of it, its handlers could go about requesting a non-financial reward for their efforts.

By the end of December, the film’s formal Oscar campaign for best picture had been launched, while a feature in trade outlet the Hollywood Reporter gave the producers a generous platform to insist on their worthiness. Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, made his case on populist grounds, stating his hope that the Academy “will think about the artistry that goes into storytelling that connects with a wide range of people on a very emotional level”, and adding that the public’s stand-and-cheer response to the film is “the sort of thing the Academy was founded, back in the day, to recognize”. Sony Pictures’ chair, Tom Rothman, meanwhile, argued for No Way Home as the model of “quality commerciality” that “the Academy needs to stay connected to”. His self-pitying clincher: “We have to overcome, weirdly, the prejudice against the fact that it’s a big hit.”

Ah, the poor little rich film! No Way Home has, at this point, grossed over $1.6bn worldwide, but as this campaign would have it, what it’s missing is the love and respect of the industry that it’s saving. The shape of an Oscar behemoth has changed over the years: lately, voters have largely favoured independent and arthouse features that rake in modest sums relative to the average Marvel blockbuster’s total – as exemplified by last year’s win for Chloe Zhao’s quiet, meditative cross-country docufiction Nomadland, a film that shares a medium with Spider-Man in much the same sense that Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger shared DNA in Twins. (Meanwhile, Zhao’s own Marvel film Eternals, hailed by Feige prior to its release as a game-changing stunner, isn’t getting a whisper of awards talk from its studio: it only made a quarter of what No Way Home’s current gross, after all.)

Lately, tumbling year-on-year TV ratings for the Oscar telecast have bolstered the narrative that Feige and Rothman are now pushing to their advantage: that the Oscars have lost their popular touch, spurning the public to align with the sensibilities of “elitist” critics and tastemakers. (Note that e-word, trickling down from the public-versus-media discourse of current conservative politics.) It’s the same complaint that, a few years ago, caused a desperate Academy to moot a “best popular film” Oscar, only to swiftly can the idea when it became clear they had no idea what the criteria for such a prize would be. (Most money or most respectable money? Who’s to say?)

Building a best picture campaign on that same basis is both canny and disingenuous. The Academy has never had a prejudice against commercial success in itself, or indeed against the blockbuster form: in the last 10 years, supposedly the Oscars’ era of arthouse surrender, best picture nominations (and multiple prizes) have gone to such big, brash popular entertainments as Joker, Gravity, Get Out, Ford v Ferrari and Bohemian Rhapsody. No Way Home wouldn’t be the first Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure to land in the premier race: Black Panther netted Feige an Oscar nomination only three years ago. It wouldn’t even be the first sequel in a long-running action franchise to succeed where its predecessors failed: Mad Max: Fury Road scooped half a dozen Oscars in 2016.

As it stands, No Way Home currently looks like an outside bet for a best picture nomination: a potential lower-ranking beneficiary of the Academy’s decision to permanently expand the best picture category to a fixed 10 slots, but hardly a frontrunner. Its awards hopes recently hit a speed bump when Bafta disqualified it in all categories after it failed to surface on the British Academy’s digital viewing platform in time. (British blockbuster hopes instead rest on No Time to Die, which featured prominently in Bafta’s longlists unveiled last week, though its likeliest Oscar shot is for Billie Eilish’s brooding theme song.)

A rung down from the brand recognition of Spider-Man and James Bond, blockbuster cinema is all but assured a place in the Oscar race in the form of Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous sci-fi spectacular Dune, which has hit all the required precursors thus far on the awards trail, and has made nearly $400m worldwide. That’s small change compared to No Way Home, certainly, but handily more than any best picture winner since The King’s Speech. (Tom Hooper’s royalty-corn drama may only be 11 years old, but it’s a distant-seeming artefact of an era when a small-scale, adult-skewing drama could make even moderate superhero numbers in cinemas.) Is Dune not an example of “quality commerciality”, in Rothman’s words? Or is it a billion dollars shy of that status? Is the Academy only prejudiced against big hits of a certain bigness?

The more nebulous truth that Spider-Man’s campaigners don’t want to articulate, perhaps, is that it doesn’t feel like an Oscar contender in the way that most blockbusters crossing the best picture threshold do. Dune, by virtue of its genre alone, would be relatively outré as a best picture winner, but it is solemn, literary and visually and sonically lustrous. Villeneuve has conceived it as art even as it has to function as product, in much the same way that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Oscar-garlanded despite landing outside the Academy’s genre wheelhouse, did 20 years ago. Even Black Panther, the closest precedent for a No Way Home nomination, made its case to the Academy on the basis of political resonance and innovative design: it was rewarded as a cultural milestone, not merely a pop phenomenon.

No Way Home, by contrast, has a harder time presenting itself to Academy voters as anything but a commercial flashlight in Covid-era industry darkness. Novelty was never likely to be a virtue of the ninth Spider-Man film in 20 years, but little about the storytelling or formal construction of No Way Home rises above business-as-usual proficiency: even the multiverse twist that serves as its most distinctive narrative feature was more freshly and inventively treated in 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. That film won a deserved Oscar in the animated category, but didn’t get a peep of best picture buzz. It’s noticeable that No Way Home’s Oscar campaign is laser-focused on best picture, with minimal effort made to big up its performances, direction, script or even the technical components that will inevitably lose to Dune across the board. As such, the campaign is promoting the film as bigger than the sum of its parts, with money making up the deficit.

Perhaps, for some invested parties in an anxious industry, that’s enough. It wouldn’t be the first time. In the 1952 race, the Academy horrified some onlookers by handing best picture to Cecil B DeMille’s big, gaudy, extravagantly dumb and highly lucrative circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth, over future-classic western High Noon and John Ford’s The Quiet Man. That DeMille’s film won only one other prize (for “best original story”, a dubious claim) was telling. Nobody could say with a straight face that art had been served by the decision, but the year’s highest-grossing film by a wide margin had been acknowledged. It was, surely not coincidentally, the first Oscar broadcast ever to be televised: an ironic concession to a medium at that point seen as an ominous threat to cinema’s future. With the public watching, the Academy chose to celebrate the people’s choice – which just happened to be the kind of grand Technicolor spectacle that TV then couldn’t provide.

It was neither the first nor the last time that the Academy bowed down to a popular phenomenon, though voters have tended to gravitate toward blockbusters that at least notionally match their ideas of prestige fare: sweeping historical romance in Gone With the Wind (or Titanic, decades later), anti-Nazi politicking in The Sound of Music, the morally burdened underworld saga of The Godfather films, the treacly American Dream ideology of Forrest Gump. Those blockbusters, however, don’t exist in a commercial landscape ruled by comic book fantasy, animation and all-important IP; gone, too, is the world where a modest, adult-targeted and borderline televisual character drama like 1988’s best picture winner Rain Man could also be the year’s highest-grossing film.

Even as recent outlying winners like Moonlight and Parasite have pointed to a surge of younger, more adventurous voters in their ranks, the Academy’s taste hasn’t radically changed over the years: a film like 2018’s best picture winner Green Book could well have won the prize at any point in the last half-century, though in previous decades, it might have made blockbuster money. (As it is, Peter Farrelly’s aggressively middlebrow race-relations fable racked up over $300m worldwide – hardly evidence of voters’ turn for the esoteric.)

All of which is to say the Academy hasn’t turned away from blockbusters so much as blockbusters have turned away from them, while the nice grown-up dramas that have always been their sweet spot have now been rebranded as art films. You couldn’t ask for a more on-the-nose example of this paradigm shift than the limp commercial fate of Steven Spielberg’s much-vaunted West Side Story remake last month. The 1961 original cleaned up at the box office and swept the Oscars too; its successor is now seen as a niche critics’ pet, though its Oscar hopes remain high.

Is there anything to be gained from the Oscars re-embracing blockbuster cinema on its current terms, beyond a boost to Kevin Feige’s ego? The telecast ratings might get a bump from a No Way Home nomination, of course, but too many pundits overestimate Zoomers’ interest in watching a three-hour prize-giving ceremony – with ads – where their favourite film of the year may or may not get a gong. (If it does, they’ll surely watch it on YouTube the next day, along with Billie Eilish’s performance.) If that’s the uncertain clout the Academy wants to chase, then they may as well grit their teeth and make No Way Home this year’s The Greatest Show on Earth – in its time, a different kind of victory flag for a commercially imperilled form, further validated with gold. But it’ll age about as well.




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