Don’t Trust the Academy

On March 2nd, 2014, Ellen Degeneres will host the 86th Annual Academy Awards, capping off this year’s awards season. Last year, 40.3 million people watched the telecast – nearly 4 times the number of viewers for the series finale of Breaking Bad. The goal of the Oscars, like the numerous awards shows that have been going on since December, is to recognize the best achievements in film for the previous calendar year. And we shouldn’t take them very seriously.

The fact of the matter is that the awards season is all a business. If you want people to watch your show, or care about the results, you need to have films that people will recognize. All of the films that have been nominated for a major category have a reasonably sized advertising budget. You don’t find too many indies vying for the top prize. Sure, The Weinstein Company usually has a top competitor, but calling The Weinstein Company an independent studio is like calling Taylor Swift a Country musician – technically true, but also pretty ridiculous. These smaller films aren’t necessarily worse than the large Hollywood films, they just don’t have as many resources to reach out to voters. This year, controversy struck when the song “Alone Yet Not Alone” was nominated for Best Original Song. How could this have been possible? Nobody saw that movie! Well, the song has been eliminated from the competition now. It just so happens that the composer of the song was a former governor and current music branch executive committee member. He emailed his colleagues to alert them of his submission, which was evidently going too far. But really, how different is that from all of the other advertising that goes on during awards season? CNN reported last year that more than $100 million is spent on Oscar campaigns alone. If all the songs were actually put on the same playing field, would people realize how horribly clichéd “Let it Go” is?
The Academy had 289 films on their reminder list this year. That’s not including films that didn’t meet requirements or didn’t bother to apply (See: Upstream Color). It’s almost impossible to see that many movies in a year. Hence, if your studio can send out screeners to get as many voters as possible to see your film, your odds are a lot better. 

From here, the question begs, why do studios care about these accolades? Well, when a film gets a nomination, it’s free publicity citing the quality of the film. This translates to increased sales. According to IBISWorld, after a film is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it grosses nearly another $20 million at the box office. Another $18 million if it wins. This business incentive dilutes the awards season from recognition of the best of the year, to a simple way to make some extra cash.

The films tend to be reasonably good, but also quite safe. Notice how you don’t see too many controversial films nominated. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has been a big awards contender this year, but his last film, Shame (2011), was mostly shut out of many of the large shows. Why? Well its NC-17 rating may have been a factor. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Blue is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or award. A drama about two lesbians, the fact that it had a 3 hour runtime and an NC-17 sticker may have hindered its chances for a Best Foreign Language Film Nomination. One of the most talked about documentaries this year was Blackfish, but it didn’t get a nomination; could it be that SeaWorld doesn’t want a film that puts their company in a bad light to get any more notice than it’s been getting

Awards Shows can be fun though. We’re competitive by nature, and trying to find a winner just seems natural. We must realize though, we can’t truly grade art. I know, this is ironic coming from someone who has been doing just that this entire year, but any opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. Film is incredibly subjective, and so finding the “best” is an impossible job. I’m not advocating a boycott on the Oscars, but just don’t take them too seriously.

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