There are those who insist that the Academy Awards don’t matter. Those people could not be more unfortunately wrong.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
What was your big complaint this year’s pool of Oscar nominations? Gone Girl being near-shut-out along with Selma? American Sniper inexplicably receiving six nominations? The extreme white maleness of the awards themselves after a 12-month period where the issue of diversity, rightly, just wouldn’t go away? The Lego Movie not even receiving a nomination for Best Animated Feature? The fact that they’re happening at all?
Yes, as traditional as the Oscar nominations and complaining about the Oscar nominations, it’s that time of the year for certain people to come out of the woodwork and openly announce their disdain for the entire process. Not that I completely disagree with the general principle, mind. We human beings are our own individual persons who each have our own tastes and personal favourite films, so the process of getting together a giant committee of diverse people, getting them to pick their favourite films and such of the past year, and then using those to come up with, essentially, a compromised set of choices is rather redundant and unindicative of the personal experiences that cinema can impart on its viewers – the “why” is more important than the “what” and that’s a thing that gets lost in general group sampling.
However, the phrase in this complaining that irks me – in equal parts because of the high horse snobbery it is typically used like by those who invoke it, and because it reminds me of the worst parts of this current industry – is that “The Oscars don’t matter.” Again, I get where they are coming from when they use this phrase, their reasoning is that entire prior paragraph plus the fact that the voting body for the Academy is overwhelmingly white, overwhelming male, and overwhelmingly old which typically leads to safe conservative nominations and races that reflect just how out of touch the people who get to decide it are from the public and modern culture – obligatory reminder that The f*cking Artist is a Best Picture winner. So, in a way, The Oscars don’t matter. Unfortunately, that’s really only true on a smaller, more micro level – for us, the moviegoers, the ones who care about the art.
The sad truth is that the movies are also an industry, have been for a very, very long time, and the process of moviemaking is driven just as much by the business side as it is the creative side. When a studio makes and releases a film, they’re looking to make money from its business because, you know, that’s how Capitalism works – losing money on a venture looks real bad. That’s why you don’t see 20th Century Fox turning around tomorrow and releasing an experimental avant-garde sci-fi drama about the nature of humanity that cost them $110 million to make; it’s financial suicide. You stick with safer bets, try and please everybody, in the hopes that you’ll make your money back; hence why nearly every goddamn blockbuster nowadays is a sequel, remake, adaptation, or budding franchise because apparently nobody is going to the cinema otherwise.
The Oscars have a reputation for snubbing mainstream successful films in favour of more specialist “Prestige Picture” fare, but that doesn’t mean the studios are making and releasing these films purely for specialist audiences. “The Oscar Bump” – where the films that are nominated for Best Picture receive a box office or home media boost as people go out of their way to see them – is a thing that exists and near-guarantees future income for the studio. A film like Birdman was never going to do particularly well on its first run, but its studio, Fox Searchlight, were likely banking on the Academy coming a-calling and giving less specialist people a sense of obligation to see it. (Note: if Birdman doesn’t do so well this weekend, then mentally replace its name with whatever film does do well. Point stands.)
Because, again, Hollywood is a business and awards season is one of the biggest business sessions for the film industry. The prestige, the allure, the weight, the worth that even a nomination carries is too much to pass up. Admit it, how many times have you gone to see a film you wouldn’t normally have gone for if it weren’t up for some kind of award? Plus, the buzz. Awards season itself is confined to the last three months of the year – due to the, seemingly often right, stigma that Academy voters have short memories – but the buzz is damn-near year-long. We press, especially we Internet press, are more than guilty of talking way too much way too early about this stuff and, eventually, we end up doing the influencing. Boyhood – although I called it from frame one – would never normally be a Best Picture frontrunner, but now it’s all but guaranteed the prize because we haven’t stopped yammering on about how it will win for the last seven months.
Now, normally, all of this wouldn’t be so much of a major problem because film as a whole would be nice and diverse. Sure, you’d have your big blockbusters and your awards bait, but you’d also have low-to-mid budget curiosities and experiments. Some would be trifles, some would be crowdpleasers, others would give David Cronenberg $15 million to go and make eXistenZ, but we’d get something different. We’d get unlikely stars, women like Penelope Spheeris would actually be given studio backing to make their films, and studios would personally fund films like Boyz n The Hood. Now was this period perfect, or anywhere near as diverse and layered as it sounds like I’m making it out to be? F*ck no, I’m not deluded, these are just examples and not indicative of an industry I wasn’t around to experience as a whole. But there was something, some risk, some difference.
Unfortunately, people have stopped going to the movies. There are statistics to prove it. So that mid-range fare is mostly gone. Now it’s All, Awards, or Nothing – blockbusters, awards bait, next-to-nothing. The studios have reacted to our gradual disappearance from cinemas by getting more insular, sticking more to formula, and trying to give the people what they think they want. The blockbuster crowd seemingly want heroic white men, preferably in spandex, saving the world from unknown horrors, preferably as part of some kind of franchise so that there’s brand awareness, so that’s what we’re getting, and it’s why they just won’t stop pushing Jai Courtney on us instead of making somebody like Chiwetel Ejiofer a proper goddamn movie star by now. Meanwhile, the Academy is comprised of old white conservative men, so the awards bait will be about troubled yet gifted white men overcoming some sort of adversity, because that’s what gets their attention.
That’s why people are so angry about the diversity problem in this year’s nominations pool. Because the fact of the matter is this: The Oscars have power. They have a large influence over what films get greenlit, who stars in them, who directs them, writes them, scores them, photographs, produces, supports. Before, they could be balanced out because the industry was doing well enough that they could take risks. Now, though, The Academy power is scarily and, from a business side of things, justifiably large. If they say that the best films of last year were predominately about and made by white men, that’s what the studios are going to make, because that’s what many of us are going to feel obligated to see.
Now more than ever, the film industry has become a closed, self-perpetuating circle, terrified of trying to deviate from what it deems to be The Formula for fear that we, the audience, won’t turn up. So it sticks closer to that formula, limits our options, makes the default stories about white men because it believes that’s what we want to see, writes off films with black leads or female leads as anomalies and uses any failure as an excuse to put the kibosh on future projects with those things. It hires white and male because it thinks that we, the movie-going audience, are scared of non-white and non-male.
And it knows that the Academy don’t go for non-white and non-male so it rarely makes any awards bait films with those in mind. Well, unless the film is about something exclusively linked to race or gender, has a surrogate for them to latch onto, or is made by a white man – incidentally, I haven’t seen Selma yet, but when Morten Tyldum is nominated for Best Director for The f*cking Imitation Game over Ava DuVernay you’re gonna have to forgive me for assuming that racism of some kind is at play here. So what we end up getting is this constant cycle of negative re-enforcement because Hollywood has now doubled down on All, Awards, or Nothing and, although it can do something about the blockbuster part if it damn well wanted to, it can’t do anything about the Academy who will remain old, white, male, and conservative, and that means that we can’t do anything about it, because this damn industry won’t let us.
This all seems very nihilistic for what is on the surface an extended period of time where the industry pats itself on the back for a job well done, but that’s sadly how it is. The Academy is diversifying to an extent, but it’s not happening fast enough and it’s going to continue to look out-of-touch until the day it finally does so. Until then, the current guard wields a disappointing amount of power in the modern American film landscape, and nothing short of every human being on Earth waking up one day and simultaneously deciding to stop giving a shit about The Oscars – which is a pipe dream and we all know it – is going to change this fact:
Unfortunately, The Oscars do matter.