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Will the Oscars finally give some love to blockbuster sequels?

Here's why breakout hits like Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way Of Water could actually be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards

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Clockwise from bottom left: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Marvel Studios), Avatar: The Way Of Water (Courtesy of 20th Century Studios), Top Gun: Maverick (Courtesy Paramount Pictures), Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (John Wilson/Netflix © 2022)
Clockwise from bottom left: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Marvel Studios), Avatar: The Way Of Water (Courtesy of 20th Century Studios), Top Gun: Maverick (Courtesy Paramount Pictures), Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (John Wilson/Netflix © 2022)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

It’s a bit of a running joke in Hollywood that movie sequels get the shaft during awards season, especially when it comes to the Best Picture race—or whatever that category is called by the various voting factions. But last week the Producers Guild of America shocked pretty much everyone everywhere all at once by nominating four blockbuster sequels for Best Picture, or, as the category is officially referred to, the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures. Four! And they are Avatar: The Way Of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Is the PGA passive-aggressively trying to turn the Oscar ship around by nominating popular films and sequels for Best Picture? Is it time to admit that awards like the PGAs, Oscars, and Golden Globes aren’t diminished by nominating sequels for the top prize? Is this the moment to acknowledge that these follow-ups are objectively just as worthy as the gemlike festival pickups that normally get nominated despite audience indifference? The answers, in order, are yes, yes, and yes.

Here’s the thing: This should have happened a long time ago. Make no mistake here. Two major factors are playing into it. First, every awards show has expanded its best picture list from five titles to 10, meaning there’s more room to include superhero movies and sequels that otherwise might not have made the cut. But this development isn’t new—or news. What is news is that the PGA is actually now including sequels in the category. A look at the previous three years of nominees reveals exactly one sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Second, superhero movies and sequels—including, of course, superhero sequels—as well as horror films, have been pretty much the only Hollywood product driving moviegoers to theaters during the COVID-19 era.

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Bottom line, the industry simply must acknowledge what’s keeping the popcorn popping. Shiny arthouse films are great, but even with people venturing out again, many moviegoers seem perfectly happy to watch smaller pictures at home. Everything Everywhere All At Once, which is also up for a PGA Best Picture award, is most definitely an outlier as an indie blockbuster, but it’s also a movie-movie, one that benefits from being watched on the biggest screen possible. Other 2023 nominees, including The Whale, Tár, and The Banshees Of Inisherin, while gorgeously shot, play just fine in hi-def on a 70-inch screen.

The PGA nominations will likely serve as bellwethers for the Oscars. The choice to embrace marquee films at the PGA Awards will surely translate to more viewers tuning in when Academy Awards are handed out. It’s just smart business. Are there purists out there who will decry the situation and complain that Maverick is no Tár? Of course. But there’s a growing chorus of voices making it abundantly clear that great entertainment is the equal of a great movie. Maverick is masterful commercial filmmaking that presses all the right buttons. It gave us exciting new actors, stunningly realized action sequences, an engaging romance, lump-in-the-throat throwbacks, and Tom Cruise still at the top of his game. It was exactly what the world needed this summer. Wakanda Forever pulled off a most unenviable task moving on from late star Chadwick Boseman, and it did so honorably, with a story far more emotional and solemn than anyone expected.

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Glass Onion is the wildcard in the bunch. Moviegoers seem split between those who think it’s great and an improvement over the original and others who consider it a bloated bore. But all credit to Rian Johnson and Daniel Craig for not resting on their laurels, and delivering a totally different story with an entirely new main cast and a slew of awesome cameos. And then there’s The Way Of Water. If anyone in Hollywood somehow missed the message before, it’s that you should never bet against James Cameron. The Avatar sequel is not only tremendous entertainment, it’s a tremendous movie brimming with powerful performances, cutting-edge visuals, remarkable sound, a stirring score, mind-melding action, and a universal pro-environmental message.

It’s also important to remember this: a nomination doesn’t mean a win. A nomination is more than symbolic, and far from a participation trophy, but it’s not a win. It would require a tsunami of change for any of the four sequels to win the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures or, for that matter, an Oscar. Pundits agree the odds are that The Fabelmans or Everything Everywhere All At Once—a mainstream Hollywood production directed by industry favorite Steven Spielberg as a deeply personal labor of love, and a buzzy, daring indie film that came out of nowhere—will claim Best Picture or its equivalent on the various awards nights. But it’s a step in the right direction that Avatar: The Way Of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever are all in the conversation.