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Ever since the Oscar category for best picture was expanded to include 10 potential nominees (a response to the outcry when commercial and critical hits The Dark Knight and Wall-E failed to claim one of the category’s five slots in 2008), the Academy has attempted to balance its top category with typical awards season fare and crowd-pleasing box office successes.
For the second pandemic-era Oscars, however, the latter category is still limited given that newly reopened theaters across the country saw hesitant audiences make slow returns to the multiplexes. While this year’s race, like 2021, is dominated by streaming titles, the distributors who did land their features on the big screen are hoping their box office gambles will pay off when the Oscar nominations are announced Feb. 8. The PGA Award nominations, to be revealed Jan. 27, may give a first look at the prospective best picture lineup.
The Producers Guild counts among its members some of the Hollywood players most concerned about box office returns, and the guild has recognized popular fare among its 10 nominees for best theatrical motion picture more often than the Academy has for its top prize. While PGA winners historically earn Oscar noms for best picture (and are typically frontrunners for the award), a nomination doesn’t guarantee the Academy’s notice. Take, for example, films like 2019’s Knives Out, 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, 2017’s Wonder Woman, 2016’s Deadpool and 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. Each of these titles cleared the $100 million mark and earned critical acclaim and numerous accolades. But despite their PGA nominations, they failed to land an Oscar nom for best picture.
This year, however, could be a completely different ballgame. As the theatrical experience was upended by the pandemic, the return of the blockbuster was a welcome event, even if box office totals paled in comparison to pre-pandemic numbers. Three tentpole releases opened to both critical acclaim and eager audiences, and a PGA nom could give each a boost in its Oscar chances.
Warner Bros.’ Dune, which opened to $41 million at the domestic box office Oct. 22 with a simultaneous release on HBO Max and has since grossed $107 million, is a strong contender for best picture as well as in various crafts categories. Director Denis Villeneuve (who produced alongside Mary Parent, Cale Boyter and Joe Caracciolo Jr.) was an Oscar nominee for 2016’s Arrival, which also earned a best picture nom. The sci-fi epic is a mature, prestige genre film in the vein of best picture nominees Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Gravity (all of which also earned PGA noms).
MGM/UA’s No Time to Die (produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson) could make history as the first James Bond film to earn a best picture Oscar nomination. The long-delayed film, pushed back from its original 2020 release date, has earned $160.7 million domestically. A PGA nom wouldn’t be shocking; Skyfall was one of the guild’s 10 nominees in 2013.
And then there’s the biggest box office behemoth of the year: Sony/Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige), the third entry in the latest Spider-Man series that has earned over $600 million domestically since its Dec. 15 release. Sony and Marvel have embarked on a best picture campaign, and a nomination would not be Marvel’s first — Black Panther earned a nod in 2019 (as well as a PGA nom). If Academy voters hope to see more populist films in the best picture race, Spider-Man may have a great chance — and a PGA nomination would bolster the argument that a blockbuster of its kind deserves just as much notice from the Academy as a critically acclaimed drama.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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