Saturday, January 12, 2013

How to Fix the Oscars

photo by Alan Light

Last year my good friend, The Doctor, sent me an email after the last Academy Awards.  If you recall it was "The Year of Movies Nobody Saw."

That is a bit of hyperbole, but only one movie nominated for Best Picture, The Help, had made over $90 million.  All the other ones were box office duds or mediocre successes.

The Doctor's problem was that if you don't care about any of the movies, then you can't care about who wins.  Thus, you won't care about tuning in on Oscar night.

Here was my response that I wrote to him last year in its entirety (with a few additional clarifying points):

Subject: Re: This is why I don't watch the Oscars

In general, I agree with everything you said.

America loves football, so the Super Bowl is the highest rated television event in history.

America loves movies, but we don't love the Oscars anymore.

I think that the Oscars could learn a lot from the NFL (this essential point was something I read in a blog, but these following points are mine).

1.  The Superbowl is about the best, not the favorites. 

One of the things that makes the Superbowl exciting is that you have the truly best teams competing for the top prize. It doesn't matter who the favorite team is. It doesn't matter what team spent the most on publicity. All that matters is if you are the best at your craft. The most popular player (or at least the most talked about) was Tim Tebow, but he did not win enough games, so he did not make it to the end. 

Here, the “favorites” are not defined by popularity with audiences, but those deemed meritorious by the elite in the film industry. Hollywood's incestuous love affair with themselves serves to self-congratulate the ones that they most desire to flatter. I haven't seen Beginners, but I knew that Christopher Plummer was going to win, not because of his performance (which may have been wonderful), but because he is older and he played gay. Even the nominations are silly. 

Critics panned Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (rightly so) and it was a bomb (even more rightly so). And yet it was nominated for Best Picture. How?  Because it launched a heavy publicity campaign directed at Academy voters.  You cannot buy your way into the Super Bowl.  You can buy the best players, but that's it.  In Hollywood, not only can you buy the best talent,  but you can buy your way into the Oscars.

2.  In the Superbowl, the successful teams become popular. 

In the NFL, if you achieve victory in your goal, you gain popularity. The Oscars try to do it backwards. They think that they can give an award to a movie, thus ordain it as excellent. After this, they believe that it will be hailed as a work of art and draw the favor of the audiences. But we don't need the Academy to tell us what is and is not good. We can do that on our own. We do not need to be told what to make popular (here I am using the term “popular” to mean well received among a large audience). We are not plebes who need to be educated about good art. But in the Acadmey's eyes, we are the mob who just want bread and circuses.

 They are the gatekeepers of goodness. 

That is why they nominate movies that we SHOULD watch, according to them: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Midnight in Paris, The Descendents, the Artist (I do not include The Help, which was a hit). They did not nominate the ones we are watching: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 2, Transformers Dark of the Moon, Twilight Breaking Dawn pt. 1, X-Men First Class, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, etc.   

I would argue that popularity is a greater determiner of greatness than awards. I know more people who love The Phantom Menace than love The English Patient. This doesn't mean that TPM is a great movie, but that there is probably a reason why most unpopular movies are unpopular. Telling us eating feces will be good for us doesn't make it taste any better. The Academy will alternate between popular films and “films that we know are better for you,” in order to draw us in and make themselves relevent to audiences (or in economic terms, THEIR CUSTOMERS). Isn't it amazing that usually in movies, the philosophy is “The customer is usually wrong?” Take a look at the past track record:

1997 – Titanic – most popular film up till that time (and I believe the highest rated Oscars)

1998 – Shakespeare in Love – A movie loathed now because it beat the clearly superior and more popular Saving Private Ryan

1999 – American Beauty. While the acting is great and the cinematography beautiful, it does not hold up nearly as well as its competitor, The Green Mile (go ahead and ask most people which they've seen and/or liked better)

2000 – Gladiator. Here we return to the popular movie with Oscars also for acting.

2001 – A Beautiful Mind. A wonderful film, to be sure, but overshadowed by the success of The Lord of the Rings phenomenon

2002 – Chicago. A modest hit. But look at the other nominees (Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Pianist and The Lord of the Rings, the Two Towers). Most of them are small, art house films. And again, Two Towers has maintained its popularity over the years, whereas I would argue Chicago has not. And let's not forget that this was the year the Academy gave an Oscar to child-rape fugitive Roman Polanski

2003 – The Lord of the Rings the Return of the King. This was the highest rated Oscars since Titanic and tied for number of Oscars. A fun night to watch and exciting to see the wins. Though I still cannot believe that Sean Astin did not win an Oscar, let alone not even get a nomination.

2004 – Million Dollar Baby. Now this is where things really fall off the rails. This is actually the first best picture winner in this list that I still have not seen. I think that the Academy decided to get the stink of the common man and movie geek off of them by nominating movies that actively repel audiences. You went from a classic story about heroism vs. villainy told with all of the innovation of modern cinema to a tiny, dark, nihilistic piece of despair. [WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: The Passion of the Christ]

2005 – Crash. Sadly I've seen this movie. It is as bad as you think. Look at the themes of all of the nominated movies (Crash = everyone is racist; Brokeback Mountain = homosexual love trumps all other commitments; Munich = the terrorists feel pain too; Capote = self-centered author was deep; Good Night, and Good Luck = the red scare was made up). [WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Revenge of the Sith (I know this may be controversial, but seriously, compare it to the other nominated moves)]

2006 – The Departed. I believe that this is an excellent movie. But is this a movie to root for? It is tense and smart, but take Casino Royale, which came out that same year. It was a crowd-pleaser with a fresh take on an old character that has some wonderful performances. Now, I'm not saying that it is necessarily a better film than The Departed (though I could make that argument), but could you imagine how much people would have rooted for it?

2007 – No Country For Old Men – While the first half is brilliant, it devolves into a ponderous, pretentious mediation on death. The only real crowd pleaser here was Juno, which, when you strip away all of the hipster-speak, is still a nice little movie

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire – I haven't seen this one either, but I've heard good things. And it is the only one of the nominees to break $100 million. But this was also the year that changed how many movies could get nominated, because The Dark Knight was left out. Think about how exciting this Oscar show would have been as we all watched a genuine phenomenon at the box office ($533 million domestic) and a critical darling (94% on RottenTomatoes) try to win the day? Even if it didn't win, the nomination would have brought people to their televisions.

2009 – The Hurt Locker – This was the year that they expanded the nominations to 10. The Academy did try to expand its viewership by nominating the highest grossing film of all time: Avatar. The movie does have its flaws, but its achievement in visual spectacle cannot be denied. And there are some genuine hits (Up; The Blindside; Inglorious Basterds). But I have a hunch there was a little bit of a push back from Academy voters at having to open up the gates to let the riff-raff “common movies” in. So they gave the award to the LOWEST GROSSING best picture of all time! [WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Up]

2010 - The King's Speech – A genuinely nice movie with good performances. But this was a horse race between this movie and The Social Network. There was very little chance the the most popular movie (Toy Story 3) or the most innovative (Inception) were going to win. [WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Inception]

2011 - The Artist - Have you seen this movie? A silent French movie is better than any Hollywood film? I'm not saying that this isn't possible, but was anyone at home hoping desperately for The Artist to win? And the most successful movie of the year, the last in the most successful franchise in history was not even nominated. I can understand if another movie beat out Harry Potter, Hugo for example. But to not even get nominated...

 Not only that, but it didn't win a SINGLE award. Only The Help broke $100 million. And what was the point of expanding the number of nominees if you are going to fill it with excrement like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? The Oscars are lower rated even than the Grammy's. Is it any wonder why? [WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt 2]

3.Make the show fun to watch. Get rid of all of the side performances (did we really need Circe de Sole reenacting North by Northwest?) and tributes (isn't the award show tribute enough?) except for the In Memorium. Also cut most of the technical awards and the film shorts. And if you can't find a decent original song to nominate, then cut that as well. Also make sure that your host doesn't seek to insult half of the country's political views.

 The Superbowl is fun to watch, even if you don't follow football. 

The Oscars can be too if they let it.

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