What’s the point of Oscar nominations?

The Oscars are this Sunday, which makes it an appropriate time to ponder the point of the awards. Aside from the obvious, there seem to be several schools of thought on the subject.

Ben Shapiro of the National Review asks why films that so few people have seen get nominated. He suggests that the award should go to films that are successful, which would validate the movie-going choices of the Oscar audience.

As Box Office Mojo reports, “On average the movies have made just $57.5 million prior to the nominations. That’s up on the five-nominee years from 2004–2008, but way off from ten-nominee years 2010 ($119.5 million) and 2009 ($151.5 million).” Perhaps some of these are good movies — but if a good movie is shown in a handful of cinemas and nobody comes, what is the sound of TV remotes across the nation flipping the channel?

In the end, it’s the glamour of the nominees that counts. We like to root for the films we like. It’s tough to do that when we haven’t seen any of them.

It has been pointed out that the highest rated Academy Awards ceremony was the one in which Titanic won a lot of prizes. It probably would have been good for Oscar ratings if the Best Picture went to a critically acclaimed box office juggernaut. In the last few years, there would have been strong arguments in favor of the highest grossing film. I suspect that people will enjoy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Toy Story 3, Avatar and The Dark Knight decades from now. In years in which the highest grossing film wasn’t that good, there were still some alternatives available in the top ten: The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007, Casino Royale in 2006, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or King Kong in 2005, and Spider-Man 2 or The Incredibles in 2004.

One problem with focusing exclusively on blockbusters is that you’re more likely to favor certain types of movies (action, superhero, sequels, Science-Fiction/ Fantasy.) Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman thinks that the awards should be based on what the audience wants to see win. So it could be a film that represents something special to the public, rather than just a blockbuster.

I bring up my mistake not so much to come clean (the great thing about Academy Awards predictions is that so many people get so many of them wrong that you don’t have to), but because I think the reason I was wrong illustrates a quiet sea change that has taken place in the Oscars: The audience — remember them? — is no longer a very big part of the equation. I had assumed, mistakenly, that because The Help was an astonishingly big hit, and because its success sprung from the way that it clearly touched a racial-cultural nerve in people, that the movie’s organic popularity — as opposed to the heavily marketed freeze-dried quasi-popularity of The Artist — would be decisive at the Academy Awards. But all I was demonstrating was a mode of analysis about how the Oscars work that is now, more or less, completely outmoded.

The change has only really occurred within the last couple of years. As a kid, I loved the Oscars, but I always remember the first time I watched them as a film buff. It was 1977, my freshman year in college, and the year that Rocky won. You could say that Rocky was an inspired choice, but when you look at the movies it was up against — All the President’s Men,Taxi DriverNetwork, and Bound for Glory — the triumph of Rocky looks a lot more like what it was: Hollywood honoring the movie that year that had struck the greatest populist chord. Of the five nominees, it was hardly the most indelible work of art, and no one pretended that it was. It didn’t have to be. It was a classic crowd-pleaser, and the reason it won is that, make no mistake, that was the business that Hollywood was in, and always had been in. Pleasing crowds.

There’s the counterargument that awards should be given to the films that will benefit the most. The goal of the ceremony should be pointing all those Academy Award viewers to something they should see, rather than awarding something they’ve already seen. Laura Miller made a similar argument about the National Booker Prize, in a slightly different context as novels tend to be more time-consuming commitments for the consumer than films.

People who can find time for only two or three new novels per year (if that) want to make sure that they’re reading something significant. Chances are they barely notice media coverage of books — certainly not enough to see some titles as “overexposed” — and instead rely on personal recommendations, bookstore browsing and Amazon rankings.

Prizes are one part of this mix, if an influential one, and the public mostly wants the major awards to help them sort out the most important books of the year, not to point them toward overlooked gems with a specialized appeal.

Finally, there’s the argument that the Oscar should award a certain type of film, to give an incentive for studios to do movies that aren’t likely to make an obscene amount of money at the box office. This is a justification for the concept of Oscarbait films.

It’s a bit cheap to give the obvious answer, but I think it should be about the quality of the product and nothing else. If the best acting performance was by a douchebag who already has six Oscars, he still deserves a seventh over someone otherwise more deserving who gave the second-best performance. In some years, the best film is a blockbuster. In some years, it isn’t.

There are some reforms the Academy should do to improve the quality of the nominees. More transparency would reduce the effectiveness of Oscar campaigns, and encourage some additions to the voting membership, 86% of whom are above the age of 50. The current process is likely to result in nominations and awards which will not withstand the test of time, with a bias towards preferences that are already old-fashioned.

If the Academy wants higher ratings, they should also consider encouraging things that are certain to be entertaining. Revoking Sacha Baron Cohen’s invitation was a particularly bad idea.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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