By Paul Sawchuk
In previous years I’ve tried my hand at predicting the Oscar winners. From about 2005 to 2012 the race had been very predictable. It’s only been the last couple of years where the Academy voters really broke from the patterns they had gotten comfortable with, though it still remains that the whole race is political. I won’t try to predict this year. There are clear front-runners, like The Revenant, Mad Max, The Big Short, Room, in multiple categories. In my first article for The Sound I talked about what I thought might be the biggest movies of the summer. I was right on one of those, the only big movie of the summer, Jurassic World. I’m not testing myself this year. I don’t want to try and get into the head of Academy voters and gamble on the winners, even if it’s with myself, because the Academy is in crisis mode.
Oscar voters have gone on record, especially in the 2014 Awards season with 12 Years A Slave, that they simply cannot see all the films up for the big awards. According the L.A. Times in 2014, “two Oscar voters privately admitted that they didn’t see “12 Years a Slave,” thinking it would be upsetting. But they said they voted for it anyway because, given the film’s social relevance, they felt obligated to do so.”
I wrote last month about the shifting views of quality films, and this is important to remember along with the above quote. If a film is so impactful and so “relevant” a film as to sway voters to call it “Best Picture” without having seen it, how are we to judge “Best” anymore? In the case of 12 Years, its emotional resonance equated it with an abstract cultural relevance, yet this vague and subjective “relevance” is what apparently earned unseen votes for BP. Whether or not “relevance” is subjective or objective, 12 Years a Slave was certainly voted for because of its political resonance.
Was last year’s Birdman relevant in the same way? The cast was predominantly white with a Latin-American writer-director conceptually shitting all over pretension in art and mass-media at the same time. In a way it was timely, and that may have made it “relevant”, but that the Academy astoundingly voted both Birdman and Alejandro González Iñárritu top in their categories said something about the Academy’s transparency and openness to self-criticism, or at least tongue-in-cheek looks in the mirror. In fact, the only politically motivated contender for Best Picture last year was Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in 1965. Perhaps Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper could be called timely, but its strong right-wing conservatism would easily alienate a Liberal Hollywood mindset that usually chastises such Oscar baiting. In the span of a year, the Best Picture award went from being awarded to a blatant and transparent examination of racial relevance to a film attacking the very institutions it was a part of. What gives?
What seems to give, at least in North America, is that films and filmmakers want to be treated as they once were. An art form. Where independents are successful at creating amazing character pieces, Hollywood has always been about spectacle, bringing in independent (often foreign) filmmakers to pepper their release schedule with “Quality” films from December to February while dumping off poor blockbuster failures in January, hopefully without notice. Up against new forms of narrative-television, big studios were in a creative rut come Oscar time. Despite their nominations, films like The Danish Girl or Room aren’t pulling big box office numbers to justify their presence in a primarily capitalistic revenue based industry.
The Oscars, as you likely have figured out, is an elitist programming attempting to appeal to the masses out of necessity. Network programming is more expensive, and as streaming services have cut television viewership down significantly, in order to reap in the acclaim and notoriety the Academy wants they simply must pander away from predictable internal political leanings. This, as well as the apparent snub of The Dark Knight in 2009s Oscar race, is the reason that blockbuster behemoths such as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian are up for the big prize.
In today’s world, the Oscars simply don’t hold sway over a films success. Walk into the new releases section (if you still buy Bluray discs or physical media) and you’ll sooner see a sticker with “Certified Fresh” from Rotten Tomatoes review aggregations than you will “Best Picture Oscar Winner”. And as the prevalence of online-only reviewers and critics associations grow-mostly formed of twenty-to-thirtysomething males with nostalgia glasses on, films that normally wouldn’t be receiving these Tomato badges of honour now are, and are reaping commercial and critical accolades in the process at any time of the year, not just in awards season.
Are the Academy voters wising up to this? Hard to say. This year, the grassroots social media campaign, #oscarssowhite, is again fighting against perceived racism in the acting category nominations. Where the last two years the category has featured exclusively white actors, many are debating, on both sides, whether the academy is “racist” in doing so. However, is implementing a quota for Black actors in the acting categories going to solve the issue, or exacerbate it? The L.A. Times reported in 2012 that “academy voters are markedly less diverse than the moviegoing public, and even more monolithic than many in the film industry may suspect. Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male, The Times found. Blacks are about 2% of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2%…. Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the study showed. People younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.”
How much has this demographic changed since the 2012 report? Enough for the higher-ups to order pandering to blockbuster films to increase their own relevance? They’re part of an industry that relies on awareness to generate their own revenue, and their advertisers and broadcasters require that. If the Academy wants to be able to run their swanky shows on their network tv and pull in advertisers they need the viewership. Making the Oscar night one where (finally!) Leo might win his Oscar, or a Mad Max film may win Director and (gasp!) Picture generates headlines and awareness for the program. When you’re up against seemingly endless programming on television and streaming services that have told stories better than you have in the last decade, you might need to pander and give credence to what the audience judges as quality over what you judge as quality.