Black Panther was released a year ago, on Feb. 16, 2018. Soon after, on March 4, 2018, the Marvel blockbuster was a key focal point of the 90th Annual Academy Awards, with cast members ruling on the red carpet and the film receiving numerous mentions during the broadcast. On Sunday, it will compete with seven other movies for Best Picture at the 91st Annual Academy Awards.
Fifty-three weeks, one day and an entire previous Oscars ceremony — and we're still talking about Black Panther in the context of its awards season prospects. Who knew Wakanda forever was meant so literally?
For decades, the Oscars broadcast aired as late as April (:skull emoji:) and frequently into March, like last year. This year, winners will be crowned on Feb. 24, which is maybe the only positive thing about the 2019 show: at least it'll be over by next week.
Not that people necessarily care. Viewership for last year's ceremony hit a historic low, dropping below 30 million viewers for the first time ever. That kind of erosion is scary for Oscars producers and it certainly feels like fear has played a role in the boneheaded decisions made by Academy leadership and executives at ABC, which broadcasts the show, in the months since. How else to explain something like announcing an Oscar for popular film — a move so derided, the Academy backed down and punted the concept to an undisclosed future? What other motivation could there have been behind relegating a quartet of smaller categories into the broadcast's commercial breaks — a move even more derided than the popular film Oscar, and one reversed last week after being condemned across Hollywood and social media? The Oscars are in the midst of an identity crisis, and the people trying to navigate this new terrain are handling it about as well as Steve Buscemi walking into a high school.
"We were hired to deliver a shortened show," embattled Oscars producer Donna Gigliotti told the New York Times shortly after the show's latest boondoggle, the commercial break awards, was reversed. "How do we do that so you're not seeing award, award, commercial, award, commercial, award? So boring."
That's saying the quiet part loud — why would people want to see Oscars handed out during the Oscars, anyway? — but Gigliotti isn't necessarily wrong about the boring thing. By the time the Academy Awards are given out on Sunday night, the results will seem pretty dull. But shortening the show's length won't help. The powers that be need to condense the calendar.
When Mahershala Ali wins Best Supporting Actor this weekend for Green Book, he will proceed to give his fifth televised acceptance speech in eight weeks, following wins at the Golden Globes on Jan. 6, the Critics' Choice Awards on Jan. 13, the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 27 and the EE British Academy Film Awards (otherwise known as the BAFTAs) on Feb. 10. Ali isn't an outlier either. If Rami Malek and Glenn Close win their expected Oscars, for Best Actor and Actress, respectively, it will mark the fourth speech each has given during awards season. Ditto Best Director favorite Alfonso Cuarón, who has won so much during the last two months that it's almost hard to keep up (Cuarón is expected to win at least three Oscars this year for Roma, including for Best Cinematography, an award that was earmarked for the commercial breaks before the uproar).
Precursors have existed for years — and on television. When Titanic swept through the Oscars in 1998 more than 55 million people watched, a high-water mark for the Academy Awards. The show aired on March 23 and came months after the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards rewarded many of the same movies the Oscars did that very night. But a lot has happened in 21 years. Social media, obviously, but also a savvier viewer. The kids who watched the Titanic Oscars have grown up in a world where "awards season" is an actual season, where the term "precursors" doesn't need an explanation and campaigning for an Oscar is understood as easily as it is in the political realm. In the past, the Oscars were the biggest voice in the room; now, it's just another voice in another room. The perceived exclusivity of the broadcast has all but disappeared. (Try this thought experiment: Would the Super Bowl be the year's biggest ratings draw if, in the weeks before the championship, the same two teams played each other four other times in games televised around the country?)
Now, imagine a world where the Oscars took place on Jan. 6, like this year's Golden Globes ceremony. At that point, discussion of the prior year's best movies still feels fresh and, outside of critics' prizes, major awards results haven't been announced. Wouldn't there be more interest in an Oscars ceremony closer to the year it was celebrating — and with winners that didn't feel etched in stone?
Here's where the logistics police would probably like a word for why this hasn't happened (and potentially won't change in the future). For starters, it's already a rush to get contending movies in front of Oscar voters, either via screeners or screenings, especially when some of the films aren't even finished until November. There's also the awards season industrial complex, which survives on the backs of those precursor ceremonies. But changing the date of the Oscars would likely have a cascade effect that benefits everyone. Instead of backloading all of the so-called awards contenders into the last six weeks of the release calendar, the "prestige movies" would be forced to push earlier into the year — maybe even to January and early February, traditionally slow times for quality films. Oscar voters, then, would have more time to consider the year's best films, while ticket buyers would have better options available to view throughout the year. Permanently moving the Oscars into January would be a radical, industry-quaking gambit, the kind that could not only save an entire institution but potentially push other shows, like the Golden Globes, into irrelevance. For the Oscars, it would be, in no uncertain terms, a true flex.
And maybe one the Academy has already considered. Included in last year's announcement of the popular film award and the move to shorten the broadcast by shifting category results to commercial breaks was a note that the 2020 ceremony, originally set for the end of February, would shift to Feb. 9. So far, it's the only planned change that hasn't been reversed. Next stop, January?
How to watch: The 2019 Oscars will air live on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 8/7c on ABC. That channel is available for live-streaming at ABC's website as well as Hulu's Live TV service.