When the Academy Awards were held the first weekend of March, “Black Panther” was dominating both the box office and cultural conversation in its third week in theaters. The Marvel movie loomed large at the Oscars as well — cast members were greeted with cheers on the red carpet and host Jimmy Kimmel mentioned it twice during his opening monologue. (“Imagine a country with a black leader. Wouldn’t that be swell?”)
“Black Panther” wouldn’t be eligible for the Oscars for another year, but many in Hollywood already believed it could capitalize on that remarkable reception to become the first superhero movie ever nominated for best picture.
The title became a prime “get” for awards consultants. Disney ended up hiring veteran Oscar strategist Cynthia Swartz to orchestrate a campaign, with Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige backing the move with a significant awards season budget, a commitment Marvel has never before made.
Since then, the motion picture academy has complicated matters, adding a new Oscar for best popular film earlier this month. The academy has yet to reveal any details about the criteria for the category, but, safe to say, it appears designed to reward blockbusters like “Black Panther,” which became the third highest grossing movie ever in the U.S. and brought in $1.35 billion worldwide.
If the bonus popular film category ends up being awarded in 2019, “Black Panther” could find itself nominated for two types of best picture Oscars — or none at all.
“Right now, I think [academy Chief Executive] Dawn Hudson would crawl in a hole if ‘Black Panther’ gets snubbed for best picture and winds up landing in the popular film category,” notes one Oscar consultant. “The funny thing is that Dawn would be way more disappointed than anyone at Marvel.”
But the surprise addition of a new Oscar category has not changed Disney’s best picture plans for “Black Panther” in any way, a studio spokesperson confirmed to The Times.
The Oscar campaign strategy, as illuminated by Feige in an interview, remains focused on the film’s creative accomplishments and the global impact it made.
“I would like to see the hard work and the effort and the vision and the belief of the talented filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who sat across the table from us a few years ago and said, ‘I have been wrestling with questions about my past and my heritage and I think I really want to tell a story within this movie,’ ” Feige said. “And that he did it so unbelievably well and with so much impact … seeing that potentially being recognized is what excites me the most.”
Feige mentioned the “personal” nature of Coogler’s work as a director and co-writer for “Black Panther” again later in the conversation and also reiterated a pride in “seeing the work of a young filmmaker whose third film has had this kind of impact around the world.”
Therein likely lies the blueprint for “Black Panther’s” best picture campaign — communicate to Oscar voters that this is an auteur-driven superhero movie possessing a deep significance both to its director and to people historically underrepresented in Hollywood films.
“The response to the movie, the energy, the level of thought in the reactions … that was intense, just on another level than anything I’ve ever experienced,” cast member Michael B. Jordan told The Times earlier this year. “Do I think it merits a best picture nomination? That’s not for me to say. But I’m OK listening to others saying it.”
Swartz declined to comment for this story, but several other awards consultants, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of conflicts with other clients, believe there are multiple ways for “Black Panther” to win favor with Oscar voters.
In telling the story of T’Challa, the heir to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African nation, “Black Panther” was a superhero movie that put black women and men at the center of the story, portraying dynamic, intelligent characters with agency — leaders, scientists, spies — residing in a dream homeland, prosperous, advanced, independent and free.
Opening in theaters in mid-February, the film won rave reviews, attracting moviegoers from every demographic. But its celebration of black culture resonated particularly deeply with African American audiences. Screenings became cultural events with moviegoers reveling in the spirit of Wakanda by donning traditional African-inspired dashikis and colorful prints as well as daring, custom-made designs that paid tribute to the movie’s Afrofuturism.
“You want to remind voters that this wasn’t just a movie, it was a phenomenon,” one veteran Oscar campaigner says. “The depth of that impact, what it meant to people, what it stood for — if academy members didn’t get it then, they need to understand it now.”
“People in the academy want to reward good movies,” adds another consultant, “and they also want to reward movies that say something significant and make the industry look good. ‘Black Panther’ ticks off those boxes.”
Another path “Black Panther” could take toward a best picture nomination, consultants say, is to court various crafts branches, piling up nominations that would boost the movie’s best picture base. Ten years ago, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” earned eight nominations, ultimately winning two Oscars, including a posthumous honor for actor Heath Ledger.
Its omission in the best picture category is widely considered the impetus for the academy to expand the category from the traditional five nominees, theoretically opening the door for “popcorn” movies. (Though, in practice, the academy has generally nominated even more art house and prestige titles, with a few crowd-pleasers — “The Blind Side,” “Toy Story 3,” “Hidden Figures” — occasionally in the mix.)
Like “The Dark Knight,” “Black Panther” possesses standout, across-the-board work that has earned high praise from critics. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who became the first woman to earn an Oscar nomination in the category this year for “Mudbound,” could repeat for her dazzling visualization of Wakanda. Nods for production designer Hannah Beachler, Ruth E. Carter's costume design and Camille Friend and Joel Harlow's specific, terrific hair and makeup seem likely. The prospect of Kendrick Lamar and SZA performing the closing credits song "All the Stars" on the telecast (or Lamar and the Weeknd offering the punchy “Pray for Me”) might also prod the music branch into action.
“Those are the kinds of nominations that pave the way to a best picture nomination,” says one campaigner. “ ‘Wonder Woman’ didn’t have them last year. ‘Black Panther’ has a stronger case.”
The wild card in all this remains the fledgling popular film Oscar. After announcing its creation earlier this month, the academy weathered an immediate backlash, with critics deriding the new award as an act of cynical pandering that creates a needless division between “popular” filmmaking and artistic achievement. Several academy members say they wouldn’t be surprised if the academy backtracks and delays presenting the award this year or scraps it altogether.
Academy leadership has been largely silent on the issue, although one governor told The Times in a message that the group’s intentions have been “radically misunderstood.”
Nevertheless, when it comes to best picture, Marvel’s Feige remains hopeful.
“I think it would be wonderful,” he says of a potential nomination in the Oscars’ top category. “The people behind the camera, the people on screen that acted in the movie, any of them being recognized would bring us great joy because they did tremendous work. And it’s always nice when tremendous work is recognized.”