Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Why the Oscars Still Matter

(originally written in 2009)

Another Oscar season has come and gone. The broadcast was good, although I must admit I was expecting more thrills and spills that would wow the TV audience in a slim 2 ½ hours, the kind the commercials suggested we were going to get (“The movie event of the year? That’s laying it on a bit strong,” I thought. “I’d better tune in to see what it’s all about.”).

The opening number was hysterical and the ceremony started out great. Hugh Jackman more than pulled his own weight - that guy really is talented. But then the show had to get down to business, and in doing so fell into its familiar pattern – announce category, present winner, repeat.

Tina Fey and Steve Martin were funny. Kate Winslet finally won (and it’s never a bad day when Kate Winslet gets the spotlight). A baffling mid-show dance number that tried to name-check every movie musical of the past 40 years didn’t quite hit the mark. By the time it was all over the show was no better or worse than the others. The running time was pretty much exactly the same too.

All in, all, I got what I wanted out the show – some nice additions to my NetFlix list, some good conversation about movies with friends, and another chance to look at Kate Winslet (that’s the last time I will mention her in this article). I think asking for much more is bound to end in disappointment. Producing that show really is Mission: Impossible. There is almost no way a producer can win because if they change too many things in the lineup people will throw accusations of not respecting history. If you go with a nice, normal awards show, other people accuse you of being boring.

And then there’s the people who seem to make it a point in their lives to let as many people know as possible how much they hate the Oscars, or American movies, or the Entertainment Industry in general. These are the same people who go out of their way to post replies to articles about Starbucks telling people how much they hate Starbucks and never go there, even though they are currently writing about how bad it is.

These people bug me. They should find something else to do with their lives the one day out of the year the Oscars is on, and perhaps stop reading the entertainment sections of the newspapers and Web sites their always reading despite the fact they hate Hollywood.

I think it would help everyone – the haters, the movie industry, the independent film industry, the punters in the office Oscar pool – to keep in mind why the Oscars exist. The Oscars, like the film production business, is a business first. The Academy is the Public Relations unit for the major studios that produce the big films. These studios don’t produce, hype, and broadcast the Academy Awards because they love movies (although most of them do). They do it because they have product to move, and for one night in late winter they get most of the media spotlight to themselves.

(By the way, did you hear that Hollywood just had its best box office summer since 1969, and their receipts for January and February are up 13% from last year? There might be some credibility to the theory that the movie industry, as an economic substitute for pricier forms of entertainment, is recession-proof.)

The Oscars are a source of publicity for the movie studios that laid out a lot of money to make the films they are honoring, some of which are still trying to recover their production costs. When you consider the show for what I think it basically is, the world’s flashiest industry convention, a lot of the hype and controversy and nitpicking becomes fairly inane.

This assessment might rub some people the wrong way, especially those who insist that the only reason to make moves is to express The Highest Calling, to reach into the soul and connect on a human level by building communities through the moving image, blah, blah, blah. It speaks to the power of motion pictures that proponents of “movies” (commerce), “film” (academia), and “cinema” (art) can all violently defend their interpretation of the medium’s purpose and all be right.

Like it or not (and I kind of like it), the Oscars are the pinnacle of acknowledgement of quality in all three perspectives, subjective to be sure, but about as good as we’re going to get. They also serve other practical purposes. The Oscars provide a level of credentialing that is unrivaled in any industry. Consider that films that win Oscars get free advertising for as long as movies exist, their names debated and discussed whenever anyone brings up the subject.

Not to say the Academy gets it right all the time – in fact, it often gets it wrong, and one of the best arguments film lovers can have is which Oscar decisions annoy them (my favorite peeve – Forest Gump beating Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, AND The Shawshank Redemption for Best Picture in 1994). Still, at any given moment someone somewhere is plowing through all the Best Picture winners in an effort to learn more about the medium or just for the heck of it. That’s attention and sales the films’ owners don’t have to pay for, a situation also known as Marketing Gold.

In terms of personal recognition and prestige, the Academy Awards rank with the Olympic gold medal and the Nobel prizes. That’s why they are invaluable professional credentials. Anyone who gets to put “Oscar-winning” or even “Oscar-nominated” in front of their job title gets a lifetime boost in their professional standing, not just with casual fans but industry people who actually pay attention to the end credits when other audience members are walking out of the theater. Cuba Gooding Jr. could make Snow Dogs 3: This Time It’s Personal and he would still be Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. and someone will want him for a project.

Winning the award also gives a platform for social causes. Megan Mylan, who won this year’s Best Documentary Short Film award for Smile Pinki has already received increased attention and financial support for efforts in combating cleft palate in impoverished countries. And Christian Conservatives wish they had a big a microphone Sean Penn had for his speech about Gay Rights after winning Best Actor for Milk.

That’s all great for Hollywood, but what about the film-goer, the one who’s hard-earned money is supporting this haven of creativity or onramp to the Apocalypse, depending on your point of view? The way I see it, in an environment where over 3,000 new movies are released every year, the Oscars provide a nice historical framework, a reference point one can use to start on a journey or get one’s bearings.

Currently, the only other big time movie award shows are the Golden Globes, the Peoples Choice Awards, and the MTV Movie awards. Which one of those shows have the combined popularity and historical weight of the Oscars? How many young people would even be aware there were films made before 1985 if not for the Oscars?

To sum up, I believe the Oscars are far more important for their historical impact than their role as snapshot of celebrity trends for any particular year. In the future, I hope the Oscars might consider going the other way with changes, scaling back a little bit and tamping down expectations. Maybe just have a big opening number, a few clever monologues, and then just tell everyone to check the Web site for the winners?

That way they can get everyone out in an hour, and devote the rest of the time to interviews with celebrities, film clips, and extended looks at the famous post-Oscar parties and what everybody’s wearing. That would satisfy both the TV audience and those of us whose attention is focused on the films and will make the extra effort to seek them out anyway.

1 comment:

  1. "In terms of personal recognition and prestige, the Academy Awards rank with the Olympic gold medal and the Nobel prizes."

    Exactly right. That's why they have a responsibility to get it right and why people get so upset when they choose not to. Here's someone who got upset about it.

    http://atomicgadfly.blogspot.com/2009/02/my-dear-john-letter-to-academy-of.html

    I don't agree with his going on and on about The Dark Knight, but I agree that they didn't try to pick the best movies this year.

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