Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar 2, Wakanda Forever... why box office hits are making a comeback at the Oscars 2023

The Academy Awards seem to be heeding to the need of the hour

By Yasser Usman

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Published: Thu 9 Mar 2023, 5:27 PM

Enough! Let’s wrap up the guessing games predicting the Oscar winners. The potential winners and the notable snubs of this year have been discussed everywhere. But for me, the most distinguished feature about this year’s Academy Awards nominations is the ‘comeback of mainstream blockbusters’ in the Oscar race. To be more specific, the 'sequel blockbusters’.

The legendary Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg recently credited superstar Tom Cruise’s mammoth blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick for saving the ‘entire theatrical industry’. The video clip went viral, where Spielberg clutched onto Cruise at an Academy Awards nominees luncheon and said: "You saved Hollywood’s a**, and you might have saved theatrical distribution." This is a crucial comment by the legend at a time when the entire movie business is fighting for survival in a post-Covid world. It’s clear the theatres need blockbusters and, more importantly, this year’s nominations prove that Oscars need them too.

While it's true that the sci-fi comedy Everything Everywhere All At Once leads the way with a total of 11 nominations and, in all probability, will win the Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But before that happens, let’s have a look at the nominations one more time. Traditionally, the Academy has been particularly averse to the sequels and franchise movies. But the Best Picture line-up prominently includes not one but two big-budget blockbuster sequels – Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick and James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way Of Water. Together, these two films have earned $3.5 billion at the global box office. Another sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, has also been nominated for five Oscars. Ironically, Spielberg’s unsuccessful film The Fabelmans is also in the race in the Best Film category. Incidentally, the action-packed sequel franchise movies have created new success records at the box office in the last few years.

In particular, such franchise movies were almost taboo at the Oscars, except The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King way back in 2004. Since 2004, the Best Film winners reflected a difference in taste between the average moviegoer and the professional deciding the awards. So, it can be said that 2023 is the year when the Academy finally lost its reluctance towards the big ‘mainstream’ franchise hits.

Going back in time, it’s interesting to note that such mainstream money-spinners used to be majorly celebrated at the Academy Awards decades ago. Crowdpleasers like E.T. (1982), Forrest Gump (1994), Titanic (1997) or Gladiator (2000) earned multiple nominations and even trophies, including the Best Film awards. But then new trends evolved — in cinema as well as in the awards nominations. The blockbuster cinema took a backseat, critically-acclaimed good films, even if they were not mighty successful at the box office, started becoming frontrunners.

The Academy seemed to be veering away from blockbusters and tilted in favour of ‘underdog’ films. Remember how a modest-budget film The Hurt Locker (2009) won Best Picture, snubbing that year’s biggest global blockbuster Avatar. Similarly, in 2015, a small budget film Spotlight won the Best Picture trophy, ignoring the enormously successful Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Best Film winners of the last five years —Moonlight (2017), The Shape of Water (2018), Green Book (2019), Parasite (2020) and CODA (2021) follow the same drift.

It has also got to do with the fact that most of the theatrical money spinners in the last few years are mostly superhero movies, star-backed action franchises and the sequels of sequels, like Avengers, Avatar, Spiderman or the Jurassic Park movies. They follow a template based on their I.P (Intellectual Property) and are not really the ‘original’ films that the voters or the jury of the Academy are particularly interested in. These films are in stark contrast of the blockbusters of yesteryears like Titanic or E.T. or Forrest Gump, which stood apart for their original subject and epic storytelling.

Coming from this baggage, the presence of mainstream sequels Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the most dramatic and significant change in this year’s Oscars.

While you may feel that the voters at Oscars wish to respect the feelings of the masses, there could be one more reason for this change of heart. The viewership of the Oscar Awards night since the last two years (2021 and 2022) has been the worst of all time. The April 25, 2021, Academy Awards had a disturbing 2.2 rating with 10.5 million total viewers. It improved slightly the next year (2022) with a rating of 3.8 but it was still the second-worst rating of all time despite the infamous ‘slapgate’ where Will Smith stormed the stage and slapped Chris Rock.

Perhaps by involving hit movies in many nominations, they want to give TV viewers a reason to tune in. The motivation behind this could be the fact that the best TV rating Academy Awards came in the year 1998 when the giant blockbuster Titanic won the Best Picture award. The previous most-watched Oscar night was in 1995 when Forrest Gump won the Best Film award. You get the hint, right!

Having said that, I feel it’s unlikely that Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water or even Elvis will win the Best Picture trophy. There are some smaller-scale or critically acclaimed movies like Everything Everywhere All At Once, Tar, The Banshees of Inisherin, which stand a better chance. But then I won’t regret being proven wrong. Whatever happens, even the nominations of these popular franchise blockbusters in the Oscars is a significant comeback. Though my vote still goes to Everything Everywhere All At Once.

And all you drama-craving viewers! Do not expect a slapgate-like drama this year. A "crisis team" has been formed at this year's Oscars to handle any real-time incidents. So focus on the movies, folks!

Yasser is a film commentator and author based in London

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