How the Oscars Were Reinvented in the 21st Century

Prior to The Dark Knight’s release, the Academy would occasionally acknowledge a major cultural achievement with at least nominations, even if it was in a genre they didn’t care for. For example, Fellowship of the Ring (2001) earned itself and Peter Jackson Best Picture and Best Director nominations, even if Jackson’s work wasn’t actually rewarded with statues until after three back-to-back global and critical tidal waves culminated in Return of the King (2003). So when the similarly popular, and artistically merited, The Dark Knight went snubbed for Best Picture and Best Director, it was a shock to many.

The Dark Knight had been nominated by the Producers and Directors guilds, and even had won a number of critics group prizes on top of its then-stunning $1 billion gross, but the Academy collectively sniffed at a Batman movie being worthy of its five nominated slots. Instead those nods went to Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk… and a surprise nominee, the Weinstein produced The Reader.

A mediocre slice of Oscar bait, The Reader is a Holocaust-related film that earned tepid critical reviews. But it had a hell of a Weinstein Oscar campaign, complete with whispers about superheroes being beneath the Academy. The fallout of placing now-forgotten bait over The Dark Knight, however, led to a major overhaul of the awards format: For the first time since 1944, there’d be 10 nominees for Best Picture instead of five. This was a naked attempt to appeal to television audiences who’d begun tuning out of the Oscar telecast in droves after movies like The Reader beat out The Dark Knight for major nominations. And while whining within the Academy led to a reversal again in 2011, with five to 10 nominees being eligible for nomination depending on voting popularity, the change has mostly stuck.

It had an immediate, if somewhat token, effect toward genre films like District 9 and Inception getting nominated for Best Picture in 2010 and 2011. More acutely though, it slowly allowed for a widening palate of taste for what is considered “Oscar worthy.” Notably as Weinstein’s influence declined in the 2010s, and younger voices were admitted to the Academy at the end of the decade due to social changes in the culture, the organization increasingly began accepting popular movies fairly regularly… even genre movies.

In 2016, Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning six of them. Admittedly, its wins were entirely on the technical side, but it was still nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. And in 2018, the ceiling seemingly cracked open when horror maestro and cult favorite, Guillermo del Toro, took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. His winner? The one about a mute woman making love to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Technically Doug Jones does not play the Gill-Man in The Shape of Water, but for all intents and purposes, he is the Universal Monster whom del Toro tried to get the rights to for years before making it completely his own. The end result is a horror movie in the Gothic sense, just as it is a love story in the Gothic sense, and a musical-comedy in the gonzo sense. It’s unlike any other Best Picture winner, pulling from a cinematic legacy always ignored by the Academy—it also did this in the same year that Logan became the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and a year before Black Panther was the first of that genre to get a Best Picture nod. Hence Joker getting nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay when The Dark Knight couldn’t get out of the Best Supporting Actor category.

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