The Oscars aren't afraid of being popular anymore

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer

Joker” is leading the pack among 2020 Oscar nominees. Fresh off two Golden Globes wins, the controversial film is up for 11 Academy Awards. It’s also the first R-rated film to surpass $1 billion at the global box office. 

So often we question whether a film’s award eligibility has any correlation with commercial success. It’s particularly evident this year that the gap between box office hit and critical acclaim is narrowing.

Of the nine best picture nominees, five have already crossed the $100 million mark at the box office. In addition to “Joker,” “Parasite,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Little Women” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” all broke past the milestone.

The “Black Panther” effect

In many ways, 2019 proved to be a major inflection point for the changing nature of coveted awards. Marvel’s “Black Panther” (DIS) became the first comic book movie nominated for Best Picture. While it didn’t win for Best Picture, it took home three Oscars and opened up a new wave of opportunity for superhero movies to not only dominate the box office but also win illustrious awards. 

25th Critics Choice Awards - Show - Santa Monica, California, U.S., January 12, 2020 - Joaquin Phoenix accepts the Best Actor award for his role in "Joker." REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Still, there’s a segment of the veteran Hollywood elite that bemoans the fact that Marvel movies are uttered in the same breath as their own. In a now infamous interview, Martin Scorsese, when asked about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, said he does not consider them cinema, comparing the films to “theme parks.”

But it’s hard to imagine that opinion holding up for long, with a comic book film being nominated for Best Picture for the second year in a row. “Black Panther” can’t be seen as an anomaly. 

“Black Panther” also paved the way for “Parasite,” which made history, becoming the first South Korean movie to be on the Oscars shortlist for best picture and best international film. This is a rare moment of redemption given the overwhelmingly white nominee pool (2015’s #OscarsSoWhite trending once again). In fact, Cynthia Erivo of “Harriet” is the only acting award nominee of color. Still,“Parasite,” a film entirely in Korean with subtitles, proved that diverse — and even international stories — can resonate with global audiences and make bank at the box office. After “Black Panther” took center stage of the cultural zeitgeist, studios began recognizing the massive opportunity to continue investing in them.

Actor Cynthia Erivo attends the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala in Palm Springs, California, U.S., January 2, 2020. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni REFILE - CORRECTING DATE AND EVENT

It’s a startling contrast from a decade ago. Take 2010, for example, when Kathryn Bigelow’s war drama film “Hurt Locker” won Best Picture, after making a meager $17 million in theaters (and a total of $49.2 million even after the Oscars buzz). Bigelow beat out Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and her ex-husband James Cameron’s fantasy film “Avatar,” which took 10 years to make and went on to become the second highest grossing film of all time

WFH: watch from home

Scorsese, who directed Netflix’s (NFLX) “The Irishman,” which was nominated for 10 Oscars, is still reaping the benefits of being able to translate his legacy and expertise onto new platforms. 

The ability to watch (and rewatch) best picture nominees at home for a $13/month subscription has given average audiences access to quality films. 

Within one week of “The Irishman’s” debut on Netflix, the company tweeted that 26.4 million accounts had viewed the star-studded crime drama. 

If we take Netflix’s word, that means 16% of its 158 million subscribers around the world watched the film (potentially more as multiple Netflix subscribers could have watched the film together). Netflix defines a viewer as anyone who finishes 70% of a film. (In the case of “The Irishman” that’s still a solid 2-and-a-half hours). 

With these kinds of splashy and eye-popping disclosures — no matter how ginned up they are (and unvetted by third-party sources) — Netflix solidifies that high quality, Oscar-worthy films can be seen in the comfort of your own home. 

Actresses like Scarlett Johansson, who received two acting nominations (one for her lead role in “Marriage Story,” the other for supporting actress in “Jojo Rabbit,”) shared last year about how cinema itself is changing, opening up new opportunities for Hollywood talent — both on and off camera. 

“...I feel like there's sort of this shift in how people watch stuff and there's all these platforms for different kinds of [content]. Now there's movies and shows and art films and all kinds of stuff getting made that you can watch in all these different ways, and I just feel like it's changing. It doesn't mean it's going away,” she said during “The Hollywood Reporter’s” actress roundtable discussion.

Oscars clout

The cachet of being Oscar-nominated is perpetuated by the very people who get nominated. 

But in Joaquin Phoenix’s words, "I feel honored and humbled to have been nominated by my fellow actors. The Academy's encouragement helped ignite and sustain my career and I am incredibly grateful for that support. I'd like to also congratulate my fellow nominees for being recognized for their inspiring performances that have enriched our art form."

And legendary actor Robert De Niro perhaps put it best. DeNiro, who produced and stars in Netflix’s “The Irishman,” captured the great joy in being able to serve all audiences — commercially and critically. 

“Bringing ‘The Irishman’ to the screen was a twelve-year saga which I wanted to make with my friends and work again with Marty (Scorsese), Joe (Pesci) and Al (Pacino),” he said. “It’s great that the picture has been embraced by audiences and is now getting this recognition from the Academy.”

As long as nominees themselves regard the Oscars with the utmost prestige, the awards will continue to have a game-changing effect. And while the Academy Awards is still far from a popularity contest, the choices the thousands of voters are making are showing they aren’t allergic to popular opinion. 

Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s west coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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