Graham: Why ‘Black Panther’ may already be Best Picture

March 10, 2018

Too early to talk next year’s Oscars? No, and voters should consider the superhero smash (if they want to stay relevant)

Here’s a prediction: “Black Panther” will be nominated for Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. Here’s an even bolder prediction: “Black Panther” will win Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. And if it doesn’t win, it should.

Sure, the Academy Awards are still a year away. The dust has barely settled from this year’s ceremony. And we have no idea what the year’s crop of awards season films will look like (although mouths are already watering for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci).

But we know the Academy Awards are in trouble. And if “Black Panther” can’t save them, perhaps nothing can.

Ratings for last weekend’s Oscars, which saw “The Shape of Water” triumph in the Best Picture field, slipped to their lowest numbers ever. Total viewership hit 26.5 million viewers, off from 32.9 a year ago, and down a staggering 39 percent from the 43.6 million viewers who tuned in five years ago.

The erosion mirrors TV viewing habits, which are down across the board; even this year’s Super Bowl was down 7 percent from last year. With more cord-cutting and streaming options abounding, ratings for awards shows and other traditional Big TV Events will continue to dwindle.

But Hollywood also needs to look at itself. “The Shape of Water,” while cinematically accomplished and critically adored, was no one’s idea of a blockbuster. To date, it has earned $58 million at the domestic box office, solid for a genre-mashing ode to Old Hollywood about a mute woman who falls in love with a fish monster, but nothing the majority of the moviegoing public ran out to see. In terms of last year’s box office, there were 47 theatrically released films that were more popular, including “A Bad Mom’s Christmas,” “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” and “Daddy’s Home 2.” (That number will change after its Oscar win — we’ll see how dramatically.)

In terms of box office, “The Shape of Water” falls in line with other recent Best Picture winners such as “Moonlight” ($27 million), “Spotlight” ($45 million), “Birdman” ($42 million) and “12 Years a Slave” ($56 million). You have to dial back to 2012 to find a Best Picture winner, “Argo,” that made more than $100 million; the last nine years have given us five of the six least-grossing Best Picture winners of the modern box office era.

It wasn’t always this way. From 1988 to 2008, 16 Best Picture winners grossed more than $100 million, including monoliths like “Titanic” ($600 million), “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” ($377 million) and “Forrest Gump” ($329 million). During these years, the Oscars were more aligned with the public’s tastes. And when those two lined up, it was reflected in Oscar viewership: A record 55.2 million viewers tuned in to 1998′s ceremony when “Titanic” won 11 Oscars.

Those years coincided with the rise of independent film, which changed the way Hollywood makes prestige pictures. But when “The Dark Knight” didn’t manage a Best Picture nod in 2008, the Academy opened up the Best Picture field from five to up to 10 nominees, which was supposed to make room for more popular films. That hasn’t happened.

Not that Best Picture should become a popularity contest, but popularity should be considered, especially if you want to stay relevant.

Donald Trump cast his own theory about why this year’s Oscar viewership was so low. “Lowest rated Oscars in HISTORY,” the president thumbed on Tuesday. “Problem is, we don’t have Stars anymore — except your President (just kidding, of course)!”

Trump’s not wrong. This year’s acting winners were Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney, none of whom are going to make you drop your coffee and beg for a selfie if you see them in line at Starbucks. We’re in an era where movies are bigger than the stars: “Spider-Man” and “Wonder Woman” are stars, the actors that play them, not so much. (Although a Gal Gadot sighting might make you drop your coffee.) And say what you will about Trump, he’s a bigger star than all of them combined.

The Grammy Awards don’t have a star power problem, they’ve figured out a way to bestow their Album of the Year award on megastars such as Bruno Mars, Adele and Taylor Swift, to name the last three winners. And the Grammy show moves at a much slicker pace than the Oscars: the awards no one cares about are handed out before the show, with only the biggies making it to the telecast. (No disrespect to Hollywood’s sound mixers, but if that award was handed out off the air, no one would complain — not even the sound mixers themselves.)

This year’s Oscar show ran three hours and 49 minutes, longer than the combined length of both “Daddy’s Home” movies. Who has that kind of time? Ditch the technical awards, cut the montages and give us the meat: There’s no reason the Oscar show can’t come in at a lean two hours.

But who cares if the films aren’t ones the public has seen? That’s where “Black Panther” comes in. A massive smash, it has grossed $516 million in just three weeks of release, outpacing all expectations. It’s already the ninth-highest grossing film of all time on the domestic box office list, and it will move up to No. 7 this weekend, putting it ahead of “The Dark Knight.” After that, it’s anyone’s guess how high it will climb.

It’s a film that has touched people and won fans from across the cultural spectrum. Critics have lavished it with praise; it currently sits at 97 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It has become event viewing. If that’s not Best Picture material, it might be time to change the definition of what Best Picture means.


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