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The new Oscars: In a climate of change, is Disney the real disrupter?

Michael B. Jordan, left, and Daniel Kaluuya as Killmonger and W'Kabi in Disney-Marvel's "Black Panther." The movie is nominated for best picture at the 91st Academy Awards (Marvel Studios) (Marvel Studios)
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At the Oscars this Sunday, a whole lot of entertainment-world drama will reach its conclusion. Some unusually wide-open races will be resolved, an especially brutal season of campaigning will end, and millions of Americans will learn whether an awards-show host is a vestigial structure.

But the story lines go beyond the ceremony. It has been a wild six months for the business of Hollywood — wilder, perhaps, than any other period in recent memory. For film-industry veterans who have long been observing this September-February period known as award season, in which working Hollywood members are wooed with screenings, meals and the lighted halo of celebrity, this has been a year of almost unfathomable change.

Old-time establishment players who haven’t won best picture in a long time (or ever) have been making resurgent bids. New players, from Netflix to Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, have been mounting a case that they’re the new establishment. Money has been spent at seemingly record levels, with numerous campaigns in the tens of millions of dollars. Studios like Warner Bros. (“A Star is Born”) and Universal Pictures (“Green Book”) have been spending like they were Netflix. Netflix has been spending like it’s a presidential candidate.

There’s a lot of talk about the way the television business has been upended by change in recent years. But the Oscars this year suggest that the film business — still in some ways rooted in the tradition of big-studio opening weekends and communal multiplex experiences — sits at its own transformative moment.

The Academy Awards ended this crazy chapter on Tuesday. Voting for Sunday’s show officially closed at 5 p.m. Pacific Time. Which means that if you’re in a major media market, particularly Los Angeles, you will no longer be bombarded with campaign ads — TV spots reminding you of movies you’ve been meaning to see, evoking a group whose purpose you’re not really sure of — at least until Emmy season rolls around this summer.

Some of these shifts happened because of inside-baseball factors: Traditional powerhouse Fox Searchlight, winner of best picture three of the past five years, sits only in the middle of the pack with “The Favourite,” while recently hot indie A24 (“Moonlight,” “Lady Bird”) is out of the running this year. Or the lingering effects of the demise of the Weinstein Company, which through 2017 had landed a best-picture slot eight of nine years.

Yet the shifts often have had far more to do with the individual companies and how they’re realigning themselves for a new world (and how the new world is realigning itself to them).

There’s more to say in coming days on these changes, and how they’ve created a fresh set of front-runners — even rules — at these new Oscars. Today it’s worth taking a look at one of them: Disney, holder of possibly the strangest claim in the entertainment business. The studio is among the most storied in Hollywood history. Yet it has never won best picture.

On a few occasions it has gotten into the field — “Mary Poppins” in 1965, and more recent animated films like “Up” and “Toy Story 3.” But it’s never sniffed victory.

That could all change this year. The studio’s megahit, “Black Panther,” is one of several contenders at the front of the crowded pack. How far front? “Panther” hasn’t won many of the predictive Hollywood guild awards in recent months. But several weeks ago it took the Screen Actors Guild prize for outstanding cast, which foreshadows Oscar best picture about half the time — 7 of 13 instances since 2006. Actors are the largest bloc of Oscar voters, so having them on your side goes a long way.

If Disney could break its drought, it wouldn’t be happenstance. It would be the result of twin sets of factors, involving both the studio’s actions and the actions of those around it. Basically, after years of mutual suspicion between a broad entertainment company and the world of prestige film, the two have slowly, carefully, finally inched closer together.

Disney would get over the hump not with its classic family fare, but with a superhero movie, a category it didn’t enter until relatively recently. (A decade ago it didn’t own Marvel.) And not just any superhero movie, but a slyly political superhero movie from a major filmmaker. Which it didn’t produce until really recently.

A few years ago, Disney-Marvel simply wasn’t investing in the kind of creative talent that would attract awards voters. Yet after a long period of essentially directorial work-for-hire, executives realized simply cranking out studio product with little filmmaker vision wasn’t going to keep viewers coming back. So they brought on filmmakers with more distinct points of view. Panther’s” Ryan Coogler (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”) exemplifies this decision.

Meanwhile, after years of earning a reputation that it didn’t wish to spend on awards, Disney has also opened up the coffers. Maybe not Netflix or Warner Bros. opened up. But it’s certainly and unquestionably taken some strategic swings.

It would be a mistake, though, to think Disney was just moving toward the prestige world. At the same time as all this was happening, the Oscar voting body began to get past its superhero-skepticism.

Or, maybe, past its superhero skeptics.

In recent years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made a deliberate push to get younger and more diverse: The group has grown by some 30 percent since 2016, much of it the result of younger voters and people of color. This includes 928 new members last year, its biggest gain in the modern era. Tastes can still vary, of course. But when your membership looks more and more like that, its choices are more likely to contain a “Black Panther.”

If Disney can pull off a win — experts say it’s in essentially a three-pony race with “Roma” and “Green Book,” and maybe a dark horse in “Bohemian Rhapsody” — this would have major implications.

The first is the lesson that a movie with complex racial themes can not only succeed with a new woke audience but with a group that rarely leads the social-change charge.

The second is that all the campaign money in the world can’t compete with Hollywood’s real dollar measures: box office. “Black Panther” grossed $700 million in the U.S., more than any movie in history besides “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Avatar.” All the Netflix-sponsored salads at Spago can’t compete with that kind of green.

The third is that Disney may be willing to play a bit more in the awards pool. It’s still hard to see the company ever going as all-out as other studios. But as it takes charge of Fox Searchlight, a company famous rational about its award spending, more money for these campaigns could follow. This is especially true if it wants to keep pace with Netflix.

But the biggest result of a “Black Panther” win may be the way it sets the stage for movies well outside of Disney.

This has been the age of franchise films everywhere — among parents and kids, teen girls and boys, in small American towns and big cities, across Asia, Europe and Latin America.

Everywhere, that is but at the Academy Awards. As die-hards will tell you, “Black Panther” would be the first superhero movie ever to win best picture. In fact, it’s the first superhero movie even nominated for the prize.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the last. As much as we tend to see these things as binary — nothing ever was nominated before, and now the feat has been achieved — the reality is much more of a continuum.

Disney is standing on the shoulders of predecessors. The best-picture snub for Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” a decade ago helped lead to a nomination for his “Inception” two years later (and prompted the academy to expand the best-picture field). Then a smart multiplex hit like “Inception” helped open some academy eyes to “Black Panther."

And a “Black Panther” win? It could help future commercial genres take the prize. It’s been nearly 30 years since a movie with a claim to the horror label, “The Silence of the Lambs,” won. And unless you count “The Shape of Water” (and you shouldn’t) a science-fiction film has never won best picture.

The previous time a franchise film has won best picture, was 15 years ago with “Lord Of The Rings: Return of the King.” “Black Panther” could further pry open those doors too.

Even as this piece was being readied, early notices were arriving about the quality and depth of another winter Marvel release, the Brie Larson-starring “Captain Marvel.” The film is the studio’s first with a lead female superhero, and also had unique voices behind the camera. Some of its early buzz is reminiscent of “Black Panther."

Disney, in this entertainment age of streamers and Silicon Valley, isn’t regarded as a disrupter. Yet when it comes to the movies that get to the Oscar podium — to new budgets and new genres — they may have a surprisingly game-changing effect. You could almost call it Netflixian.

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