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What the Academy Awards are really about

movies and-tv

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University of Virginia

culture

What the Academy Awards are really about

Turns out it’s mostly up to you

Andre Hirschler

3.15.18

The Oscars. What a wonderful word. Ain’t no passing phrase…

Would it surprise you to know that 2001: A Space Odyssey, widely hailed as the one of the best films of all time wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture in 1968? Instead, Oliver! won that honour, a musical version of Dicken’s epic novel. Memorable, sure. But better than Space Odyssey? Doubtful. Space Odyssey was nominated for 4 Academy Awards by comparison to 11 for Oliver! The Lion King also garnered 4 nominations...but won two in contrast to Space Odyssey’s single victory.

This might seem like an odd standout, but the the Academy Awards are full of snubs and other misnomers that have them both unpredictable and incredibly frustrating to follow. This year alone, with a near record number of female nominations (near 1 in every category), women were still snubbed. Yet, Del Toro, famously neglected by the Academy as a “horror” director was recognized with a Best Director award, keeping the winning streak going for Latin directors (Inarritu in past decade). Jordan Peele, a newbie into the film industry with a record more geared to light comedy was also hailed. So it has its ups and downs.

The truth is Academy Awards are so powerful not because they recognize the best films in the industry, but because their name carries so much weight. An Oscar derives its power mostly from two bases, economic and political (through viewership). This can significantly affect who and why wins an Oscar, as well as how.

Let’s begin with the how of things. The Academy (fanfare please). The voting base of members, invited previously for life (new rules are changing that up in an effort to keep things fresh-er) in annual rounds. There are around 8,800 members now, a record number thanks to new pushes to incorporate a more diverse group. But how diverse is this voting group? According to a 2016 LATimes study it is still 91% white and 76% male, somewhat skewed by comparison to viewer base demographics. This is not entirely the Academy’s fault, they have strict membership requirements and it is difficult to find minority and female members in an industry so uninviting to them (they’ve gone as far as inviting Leslie Jones this past year based on her role in Ghostbusters). Still, the Academy does reflect the industry, which is where it’s political power comes in as representative of the larger Hollywood system. The Academy’s failure to recognize minorities and women (who are after all, 50% of their possible audience) is actually the industry’s failure to account for them. That is why the Oscars are subject to politically motivated movements. The awards in and of themselves are not that important (other awards are better judges of quality), rather it is the recognition they gather that matters.

Which is where the money comes in. Let’s not forget that racial/sex demographics are not the only thing that matters in cinema. There’s role demographics. Actors, Producers, Directors, Cinematographers, Special effects, Costume, Set design. These are all varied roles within the industry that have different voting interests. Actors might look for the best performers, producers for the highest earnings, set design for the most elaborate sets. It’s easy to piece together. Significantly, the least diverse branch is the Academy Executive Branch which consists of the producers who finance the industry. They also influence who is invited into the academy, thus exerting influence over the voting blocs, of which actors (at 22%) are the largest. The Academy is also subject to lavish campaigns run by nominees, who are not beyond gifts and special screenings for members. Icarus this year was a surprise documentary win, apparently Netflix held an aggressive campaign for it, an unconventional move for the category. Amazon similarly "campaigned aggressively" (NY Times, Oscar Nominations 2018) for The Big Sick for Best Picture, reflecting the increasing activity of online streaming giants within an industry hostile to them. Hollywood and the Academy Awards are still very much based within the box office model.

So now you know how it works, or at least understand a bit more. Honestly the whole thing is shrouded in secrecy. But what’s the endgame here? As Kumail Nanjiani put it, "Don't do it because it's better for society and representation, even though it is. Do it because you'll get rich. You'll get that promotion, right?". I think he’s getting at something deeper there. Box office numbers are down, as are viewing numbers for the Award Ceremony itself, which usually pulls in several million viewers and significant ad revenue. The sudden push for diversity is not necessarily kumbaya peace and love felt by the industry, a famously hostile environment to those outside the boy’s club, but rather a reflection of self-interest to survive the rise of independent cinema and streaming platforms. They’re here to make money, and what better way than awards to mark out what to spend on. I mean, who really would’ve watched Birdman if it hadn’t won Best Picture?

Nominations for Best Picture can secure your film between 50-100% increase in revenue. Or, if you don’t trust my maths, that means that between 30-60% of the box office revenue for an Oscar nominee come after the nomination. For the winner, upwards of 50% of revenue comes after winning (this according to Business Insider, "Here's How Much Hollywood Studios And Stars Can Earn By Winning An Oscar"). That’s big incentive to win, to push for your nominated film to win and to nominate potentially struggling films or pick winners that haven’t yet had much commercial success. It’s basically a rigged system built upon how much money you’re making.

I guess my point is, if you’re as annoyed as I was that Dunkirk didn’t win and instead a film about erasing boundaries and having sex with fish people did, it doesn’t really matter. An Oscar does not necessarily denote quality. A similar twist happened back in the 90’s when Saving Private Ryan was beaten by goddamn Shakespeare in Love. Who’s to say which was better?

...you are. Saving Private Ryan was clearly better, Oscar or not. Movie taste is subjective, the Academy Awards are political. Look to them to mark industry changes or taste, not quality.

Or don’t. If you think Meryl Streep deserves a nomination for so much as signing an acting contract then yes, the Oscars are for you marks of assured quality. Fuck you then Marvel, looks like you’ll never be good, no matter how much you push the boundaries.