Oscars could benefit from power of ‘Black Panther’

‘Black Panther’ is headed back to theaters and you can watch it for free
Marvel Studios via CNN

Can “Black Panther” and Lady Gaga help save the Oscars?

The build-up to the Oscars has been a mess, after a ratings decline in 2018 that left organizers scrambling for possible solutions. But Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members could help out their beleaguered producers Tuesday by nominating more high-profile films that might help attract a bigger audience.

The relationship between Academy Award nominees and ratings is hardly an exact science, but there’s at least some evidence that indicates recognizing more movies that viewers have actually seen is a boon — a dynamic that reached its high-water mark with “Titanic,” which drew a record 55 million viewers to the telecast in 1998.

By contrast, last year’s ratings sank to an all-time low of 26.5 million viewers, per Nielsen data — a drop of nearly 20% from the previous year, and way off from the more than 40 million the telecast attracted as recently as in 2013 and ’14.

Plenty has changed since then, including the sheer gravity of increased viewing options, a surplus of televised award shows, hostility toward Hollywood’s left-leaning politics (perhaps especially post-2001) and the realization that every big moment will be available online, reducing the imperative to tune in live.

Still, at least part of the problem from a ratings standpoint has been a shift away from more popular movies that combined big box office with prestige — like “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” crowned in 2004 — to more niche-oriented titles, including recent winners (going back in sequence) “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight,” “Spotlight” and “Birdman.”

The belief that the Oscars were becoming too narrow in their selections — especially in an age where studios increasingly rely on comic book and fantasy blockbusters — informed the proposal to introduce a “popular film” category.

The academy (and host network ABC, which has reportedly pushed for changes) faced an immediate backlash to the concept, but haven’t completely backed away from the need to add more inviting elements, without transforming the Oscars into the People’s Choice Awards.

Notably, the academy expanded the number of best-picture nominees for precisely this reason, after “The Dark Knight” failed to secure a best-picture nomination a decade ago. But that tweak — which resulted in nine films being nominated the past two years — hasn’t produced the desired results.

At this point, a major surge in ratings seems unlikely in a media environment where broadcasters like to say that remaining flat is the new up. Still, the heightened rooting interest that might come from seeing possible nominees “Black Panther” and the Lady Gaga showcase “A Star is Born” might at least help prevent further erosion, and perhaps even lure back some lost viewers.

“Black Panther,” in particular, would mark a breakthrough, not only for comic-book fare, but also in terms of movies that predominantly star people of color. Marvel parent Disney, for its part — which not incidentally also owns ABC — has mounted an aggressive award campaign to push the movie into contention.

A more popular roster of nominees would give ABC a promotable hook — especially in the absence of a big-name host — and likely quell the “popular film” chatter, if only temporarily.

That might not be a panacea for everything that ails the Oscars. The late Gil Cates — who produced the telecast 14 times — was fond of saying it’s the unplanned moments that people remember most, which only come courtesy of “the award-show gods.”

Yet even if the nominees can’t fix everything, in terms of boosting interest in the show, the Nielsen gods are more likely to help those who first help themselves.