No (live-action) superhero movie has ever been nominated in the major categories — with two exceptions: a screenplay nomination for Logan last year and Heath Ledger’s nomination (and win) for The Dark Knight.
No Netflix movie has ever been nominated in the major categories — with the sole exceptions of screenplay and supporting actress nominations for Mudbound, also last year.
Spike Lee has never been nominated for Best Director.
Paul Schrader has never been nominated for an Oscar.
No black director has ever won Best Director, despite both Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture.
Can any female make it into the Best Director race?
Parsing change in the film industry is difficult because tastes ebb and flow. What we all like today might not be what we all like tomorrow, and who is “we” anyway? The newly Woketown of White Woke Twitter insists upon the important things in the Oscar race being just that: how is history being made for people of color, women, women of color? What message is Hollywood sending to the world at large with its choices? This appears to be the most important driver of the critics awards this year. We know this because on the flip side of the coin with general audiences, there is (at least so far) a love of films that weren’t acceptable, like Bohemian Rhapsody or Green Book or even A Star Is Born (which seems to do okay because Lady Gaga herself is such a strong activist).
But really, the Oscars are only partly about allowing those previously marginalized to sit at the table (which is, no doubt, important). They are also about how Hollywood wishes to see itself defined. As a famous director once told me, the big studios don’t really care much about winning Oscars. They want to keep making massive tentpoles, rake in the billions worldwide — but they also don’t want to lose their art cred. They still want to appear as though they care about making “cinema.” Enter the Oscars. When it was announced the Academy might introduce a popular film category, the film community was shocked, SHOCKED that anyone would state out loud what has been plainly obvious for a few years now. What wins the Oscars appears to be, with a little bit of crossover, like what walks down the runway in Milan or Paris. No regular person is ever getting a crack at those threads. But sooner or later the color, of one important piece makes its way to some “tragic Casual Corner,” decided for the people by “the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”
Well, okay, so maybe it isn’t that. What it really has become is a custom meal for a certain group of people, while the rest of the people on the plane eat a different meal. Catering to the cultivated class is, perhaps, another way to say it. But if you step outside that bubble and you walk into a multiplex and you watch, say, Aquaman, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, Wonder Woman, or Black Panther, you experience a whole different cultural phenomenon. These are the movies people are paying to see. Actual real live audience members who are excited enough about a certain franchise to shell out a lot of money for an experience like that.
The critics want everyone to drink from their rarefied goblet, and as such, they continue to pretend that their reviews of these films actually matter. Of course they don’t. Their reviews do, however, continue to shape this world — the Oscar world — where we can create our diorama of a world lost to corporatism, where art and cinema still reign. We stand for this, we believe in this!
The Oscars have a choice now. Two choices, actually. Adapt or die. That adaptation can take them in one direction or it can take them in another direction. Black Panther offers a choice. It ticks off enough boxes to make people feel okay about themselves supporting it (all-black cast, black filmmakers, highest grossing film of 2018). To award a Marvel movie in the era of Marvel overtaking and consuming Hollywood is a statement, to be sure.
The other path is pure cinema: to reward the artistic achievement of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. That says a lot about them too. It says that they’re now saying okay to the hybrid cinema future of streaming + theatrical, with theatrical not all that necessary except to keep people from getting too angry at the change that is all around us and happening whether we like it or not. It would say “Okay Netflix. You win. Let’s do this. Let’s give artists a better model for exploration, achievement, and success without having to worry about opening weekend numbers, the growing mass of film critics whose score can make or break a small movie struggling to make some money. Measuring a film’s worth by how many people show up to the theater is no way to measure a film’s worth.”
These two choices are very clear. The industry will have to decide one way or the other how it wants to handle them. Will Black Panther land a Best Directing nomination? Writing nomination? Acting? Will Roma become the first major contender in all categories as a Netflix release? Wow, right? When I first started this site in 1999 there weren’t even blogs, people. There was barely an internet. What a difference 20 years makes.
By the same token, the industry might say “Wait a second. We’re not ready for big change. We want to hold steady, keep our ship steering in the direction we’re used to, the one we know works. Theatrical release, well-known director, a message, important and entertaining but still within the wheelhouse of the traditional studio system.” With Green Book, BlacKkKlansman, A Star Is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody, they have these choices as well.
We can’t know what will happen on Tuesday, but one thing we know for sure? The Producers Guild will be handing out their winner on Saturday night, well before the Oscar nominations are announced. If a film wins that and then underperforms on Oscar nomination morning? Yet more unpredictability from an already unpredictable race.
Either way you slice it, though, Tuesday’s nomination announcement will be mind-blowing in illustrating just how much and how dramatically things have changed.