And the Oscars go to…

January 10, 2011

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

The early days of the new year are less than exciting for film releases, so it isn’t especially surprising that more attention will be paid to the major awards ceremonies in the coming months than to the actual theatrical output during the same period. At The Michigan Daily (as well as across the world of arts journalism), there’s likely to be forecasts and predictions of what might occur on Oscar or Golden Globe Sunday, and a breakdown of what should happen, in the journalists’ own humble opinions.

But maybe it’s time to take a look back and consider what exactly these awards accomplish. What’s the point?

A ceremony like the Oscars is more than a simple awards show, but the hype that surrounds it has been consistently misplaced. It’s often Hollywood politics — a campaign of sorts that finds studios pitching their films to industry folk and doing what they do best: throwing money and buying success.

The strategy has worked well for certain films in the past. The Oscar-bait Miramax films that earned their awards through multi-million dollar campaigns often saw the studio employing campaign strategies that involved sending screeners to Academy members and hiring teams of consultants to leverage their film’s advantages. Miramax also saw other studios employing similar tactics to catch up — most notably with the success of undeserving films like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Chicago.”

In many ways, the Academy Awards became like an election, wherein voters didn’t choose the the best film. Instead, the one that fit with the Academy’s image of the award was crowned the winner. Among true film fans, the Academy Awards, and specifically its Best Picture crown, is among the most flawed awards in the book — likely amplified by ceremony’s prominence in the industry as a potential red-herring sign of quality.

That said, the Academy, like the community of filmgoers as a whole, is evolving.

With the inclusion of ten, rather than five, nominees for Best Picture, the Academy is starting to counteract displeasure with nomination snubs and allowing more non-traditional titles into the fold. While the result may initially seem like a circus for the elite awards show, the long-term effect allows for a more accurate and ultimately less questionable outcome.

With more strict promotional regulations limiting studios’ interactions with Academy members now also in place, those outside the industry can be confident that Oscar decisions aren’t being made by marketers on the inside.

It’s also safe to say that the Academy Awards, as well as other awards ceremonies, is just as much a driver of the film industry as something external to it. Films released in the last few months of the year are often positioned there specifically for the awards season, and a number of films get spurred on at the box office and in home video sales because of their performance therein.

The most important point of this season has become clear in recent years. More than being a measure of the best in film, the awards ceremonies are a meter of the film industry as a whole and illustrate trends in what people want from year to year.

In the past ten years, that public opinion has shifted from wanting traditionally dramatic films like “Gladiator,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Million Dollar Baby” to more original concepts dealing with contemporary stories, like “The Hurt Locker,” “Crash” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The 2011 Academy Awards, as well as the Golden Globes and other ceremonies over the next few months, will likely follow in that trend.

Front-running films in this year’s awards season — “Inception,” “The Social Network” and “Black Swan” — and others likely to get significant attention — like “Toy Story 3” and “127 Hours” — beautifully show a shift in the film industry toward critically rewarding originality.

Even films that have more historical, based-on-a-true-story premises are showing a formal shift in the way in which they are made. “The King’s Speech,” set in the early-to-mid twentieth century England, uses off-putting cinematography and a quiet aural landscape to focus the audience on its characters while foregoing the melodrama of the typical period piece. “The Fighter,” a boxing film set in the 1990s in Massachusetts, strives for reality in its boxing sequences by using the same TV cameras that were actually used in broadcasting the fights.

No matter what type of film they’re working on, directors and filmmakers are consistently and confidently putting their efforts into new, inventive modes of filmmaking, and viewers, critics and awards voters alike are rewarding them for it. In an industry that less-than-subtly celebrates its history and whose golden age is by definition long past, it’s a refreshingly good sign. With new technologies taking over the industry in a big way, the future of filmmaking is looking up in a manner unique to our time.

I’m excited for the coming awards ceremonies, starting with Golden Globes on Sunday. If nothing else, I’m excited to watch the next ten years of film begin its own evolution. And if the general cynicism that often surrounds the awards is a sign of the past, perhaps that excitement is what’s most important.

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