Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Stupidity of the New Oscars Category for Popular Film

This morning news broke that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be introducing a new awards category "around achievement in popular film." While Slate's commentator, Marissa Martinelli, objected principally because such a new category marginalized the films it ostensibly is meant to include, the idea is wrong-headed for numerous reasons, most of them founded on fundamentally silly notions of what the Oscars mean.

Any film critic is going to assume that the Academy is going to get it wrong, for a plenitude of reasons. For one, many of the films later recognized as masterpieces in any given year aren't even eligible for the Oscars. In the case of foreign releases, they need to have distribution in the United States, if they're not submitted by the country in which they were produced for the Best Foreign Film category, but in all cases, failure to get the right distribution at the right time can mean not qualifying for the Oscars. 

For another, the Oscars don't, and have never, actually recognized the 'best' in film. Awards are given as a statement of politics (Crash, being the most obvious one), or because a highly achieving individual hasn't managed to snag one yet and is getting elderly (Cecil B. DeMille, for the bloated and ironically titled The Greatest Show on Earth). The assessment isn't based on stated criteria, so the taste of the (notoriously old, white, male) Academy voters largely determines what wins, and those voters tend to be conservative and keen on protecting the industry. It's common knowledge that many voters don't even watch the films, voting based on their impressions of what is 'important' or 'significant' at the time. As such, the fury that accompanies every 'unjustified' loss becomes absurd: there is no objective evaluative method to determine the best film, performance, screenplay, etc. 

Thus, the Oscars are not, and have never been, a good measure of the best films and contributions to films. The choices of nominees are heavily weighted towards American and British films, produced and distributed by major studios who have the clout and financial resources to woo voters, and advertised and released widely. Let's take a look at an example, the Best Picture nominees of 2004: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways, and the winner, Million Dollar Baby. They were all distributed by major distributors like Warner Brothers, Miramax, and Universal, and even the indie, Sideways, got distribution through Fox Searchlight, which is about as mainstream an indie distributor as you can get. They have big name directors - Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese - and big name stars - Hillary Swank, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx. They're the sort of projects that have historically appealed to Academy voters: three are based on true stories, four are redemptive stories of people who make huge sacrifices for success, and even the outlier, that indie, is as tightly structured a narrative as any MFA workshop instructor could ask for. 

The notion that Academy voters ignore box office (and thus popularity) is absurd. Every one of those 2004 nominees made well over 100 million at the box office and two made well over 200 million. Those are not small box office returns. It's true that mega-blockbusters rarely get nominations in the so-called 'major' categories, though they more often than not sweep through the technical awards, for achievements in sound mixing and editing, special effects, make-up, and so on. However, mega-blockbusters are also designed to appeal to teenage boys and young men - the Academy voters are old men, not at all the audience those superhero movies and special effects extravaganzas are meant to appeal to. Even if a blockbuster is a fantastic film, by design, it will seldom have much attraction to Academy voters, who already fail to watch all nominees, let alone most of those films eligible for nomination.

The problem boils down to a series of false assumptions: first, that the Oscars are supposed to reflect objective excellence in global cinema; second, that the Oscar nominations are based on unfair criteria (they are based on no meaningful criteria); third, that the Oscars ought to reflect a majority opinion; fourth, that the majority opinion can be based off of box office returns. Popularity is not the same as excellence, though the two can coincide. But even if the Academy had nominated, say, Mike Leigh's quiet chamber drama Vera Drake, or the introspective German release, The Edukators, for Best Picture in 2004, the idea that failing to choose popular films is somehow prejudicial remains a fallacy. Awards in excellence are not democratically granted because the film industry is not a democracy. The new category promises to be a flat-footed, decidedly unwelcome, and essentially stupid category not because it continues to marginalize the most popular films (which is quite a whingdinger of an idea in the first place, since marginalization and popularity are antithetical by nature), but because all it accomplishes is the distribution of more awards to more films that, whether they are excellent or not, have earned a lot of money. It is purely redundant and a signal that the Academy Awards are nothing more than an exercise in industry self-congratulation. 

Then again, why the hell should any of us give a damn about the Oscars? For the record, my nominees for 2004 would be A Very Long Engagement, which I would make the winner, Head-On, Downfall, Vera Drake, and Howl's Moving Castle, five films that together received seven Oscar nominations, with no wins. 

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