Friday, February 13, 2015

The Perceived Irrelevance of the Oscars

On the fiascos surrounding Selma and American Sniper, whether or not the Oscars are out of touch, and if it matters.

Whenever you have a conversation about the Oscars with a group of people, someone inevitably brings up the following gripe: The Oscars are out of touch with the average moviegoer. Ignore for a second whether or not this is true. (It is.) What a statement like that really calls into question is whether or not the Oscars should care. Should the Oscars actually want to be in touch with the average moviegoer?

It’s very easy to understand why they might want to be: ratings for the Oscar telecast. Nearly everything the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) does is financed by the revenue received from the Oscar telecast. Higher ratings equal higher revenue, so that’s not a difficult motivation to work out. One of the highest rated Oscar telecast in history was in 1998, when Titanic was up for a dozen or so awards. Generally speaking, the more invested the public is in the nominated films, the more likely they are to watch the show. When the public hasn’t heard of the nominated films, they could care less about who wins.

But this is a purely financial consideration to a problem that ought to not consider financial implications. One of the major lessons of The Newsroom (aside from “The internet is the devil” and “The current generation sucks”) is that news shows are inherently not profitable. They exist for the greater good, not to make money. They mostly lose startling heaps of money that their conglomerate parents have to make up elsewhere, probably by jamming more Two and a Half Men down our throats. Good plans always have necessary evils and unintended consequences. And we’ve seen what happens when news shows try to be “in touch” with their viewers. We get lots of stories about puppies.

The Oscars should not succumb to the equivalent of puppy stories. They exist to award the annual best of an artistic medium. Whether or not people saw that best makes utterly no difference (or at least shouldn’t). The reason everyone now thinks the Oscars are out of touch is because fewer people than ever are seeing the nominees. This has been written about many times before, and is quite easy to explain--because of the rise of home entertainment quality and movie availability via things like Netflix and On Demand, adults largely don’t go to movie theaters anymore. Because that demographic can no longer be counted on for money, Hollywood no longer makes movies for them. These are the mid-budget, star-driven dramas that used to be widely loved Oscar winners, stuff like Rain Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Braveheart, Dances With Wolves, and so many others. Now, movies are largely only made for the two demographics that dependably pay to see them in theaters: teenagers and cinephiles. The teenagers get the summer franchise movies, and the hardcore movie snobs get the art-house movies. The art-house movies now get all the Oscar nominations because, well, what else would? Movies that cost between 20 million and 120 million to make just don’t exist anymore. It’s all one extreme or the other.

Here’s a fun (and depressing!) exercise: Ask the next teenager you encounter if they’ve seen—or even heard of—your favorite movie. Likely, they’ll say no. Does this mean your favorite movie actually isn’t that good, or that your taste is out of touch? This is the exact problem AMPAS runs into every year, just on a much wider scale. They’re hoping a demographic that clearly hasn’t seen their favorite movies might care about which ones win awards. Because this problem is largely unsolvable, the solution is to stop trying to solve it.

Within all of the annual bitching and moaning about how out of touch the Oscars have been over the last decade, what’s lost is how they’re actually more in touch now than they’ve been in almost 40 years. It’s merely a question of in touch with who. Pick any year from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, and look at which films won the most Oscars, as well as which films topped the most critics’ lists. You’ll almost definitely be looking at two different sets of films. Hopefully one or two titles might overlap, but it just as easily might be zero. That hasn’t been the case for the last few years. Last year, critics and film snobs spent all fall arguing over what was better between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, and those ended up being the two films going head-to-head for the top Oscars, ultimately splitting Best Picture and Best Director. This year, the same thing appears to be happening with Birdman and Boyhood, one or both of which have appeared at the top of virtually every single Best of ’14 list I’ve seen. If they also split the top two Oscars, which is becoming an increasingly more popular prediction, it will be the second straight year in which the two most acclaimed films of the year also become the two most handsomely awarded films. That’s not how it used to go. 

The nadir was in 2008, when the two most acclaimed movies of the year, Wall-E and The Dark Knight, received 14 combined Oscar nominations, but only one of which was in a “Big Five” category (Wall-E received a Best Original Screenplay nomination). It was as though every technical and craft category of AMPAS recognized the genius of these films, but the major clubhouses refused to let them in. Sci-fi, action, super-heroes, animation… it was an outdated way of thinking that these “lesser” genres weren’t deserving of playing with the big boys. Meanwhile, The Reader received one of those Best Picture slots. Yikes.

This problem was largely fixed the next year, when both the number of Best Picture nominees changed, as well as the way the nominating votes are tabulated. Since then, the clubhouse has opened up. We’ve seen multiple Best Picture nominations go to sci-fi (Avatar, Inception, District 9) and animation (Toy Story 3 and Up). And although a main-stream super-hero film still hasn’t received a Best Picture nomination, that could be because there just hasn’t been one as good as Dark Knight. And hey, Birdman kinda counts, right? (Just nod.)

In the six years since the rule changes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a critical consensus Top-Ten-of-the-year film that didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination. The Oscars are actually more in touch now than they’ve been since the heyday of the second Hollywood Golden Age of the 1970s, when audiences and critics largely agreed on what the best films were, and there was a run of total-classic Best Picture winners like The French Connection, The Godfather, Annie Hall, and the aforementioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as well as several near-winners like Chinatown, Network, and Apocalypse Now. The only difference now is the “who” that the Oscars are in touch with. Mainstream audiences simply took themselves out of the equation. You can’t bitch about who wins Prom Queen if you don’t even care about going to Prom. There were some painful adjustment years, culminating in the 2008 fiasco, but now we’re in a better place, where the best movies are getting awarded at a higher average than we’ve seen in two generations.

Is everything fixed now? No, of course not. There is no voting body in the history of organized society that has ever gotten everything right. Expecting the Oscars to do so and excoriating them for failing is an argument that will never, ever be fair. Just a few years ago, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close received a Best Picture nomination, and that was a moment that unified us all in its horror. This year, there are equal and conflicting brouhahas over how many nominations Selma failed to get and American Sniper succeeded in getting. In both cases, the arguments are devolving into fights we shouldn’t be having, fights which actively undermine everything the Oscars hope to be about.

There’ve been several high profile pieces written about why Selma only received two nominations, and they all boiled down to the same four theories: The Academy is racist, the Academy has “race story fatigue” (having just given Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave last year), the film’s campaign wasn’t run well enough, or the historical liberties taken—specifically in regards to the portrayal of LBJ—were too far and too offensive. Could any or all of these theories have at least somewhat contributed to why Selma didn’t get many nominations? Sure, I guess. But what I find really sad and pretty offensive is that none of these theorizers theorized the simplest theory of all—that Selma just wasn’t that great.

Does Selma tell a good story? Of course it does, in the same way that reading the Wikipedia page on MLK tells a good story. That’s really what Selma was—a Wikipedia page brought to life. It was the best possible outcome of a paint-by-numbers. But there weren’t any interesting artistic choices taken in Selma. It was a film with the great craft and skill of filmmaking, but without any of the art. After seeing Selma, I went back and re-watched Spike Lee’s daring Malcolm X (1992), which I’d only seen once, ten years earlier. I felt compelled to prove to myself that you could create a worthy portrait of an important figure without sacrificing artistic risk and style. Believe it or not, you can! Malcolm X also only received two Oscar nominations, and in 1992, race may have been a bigger factor in that, as well as The Oscars still having been in the phase of predominantly awarding movies that really connected with a mass audience, which Spike Lee was certainly not doing at the time. (Even The Crying Game, which was partially a transgender story, made 14 million dollars more than Malcolm X at the 1992 American box office, if that tells you anything about how unready mainstream moviegoers were for early Spike Lee.) 22 years later, we’re in a better place, and when you stand Selma up to something like Birdman or Whiplash, where the visceral excitement of great art is just constantly digging into you with every moment, there’s just no comparison. It’s unfortunate that when an un-amazingly told story isn’t recognized as amazing, our collective reaction is to immediately assume race must be a factor.

The race fatigue argument might be even worse. To suggest that 12 Years a Slave winning last year might be why the Academy showed indifference to Selma this year is to assume the two films operated on similar levels of worthiness, and that discredits the accomplishment of 12 Years a Slave. The single scene ofSolomon Northrup hanging from a tree, barely kept alive by the faintest tips of his toes, forcibly shown to us with no music, no dialogue, and no cutting away for nearly three full minutes, represents more risk and a more ambitious level of art than Selma even remotely flirts with at any point in its 128 minutes. If anything, the Academy’s lack of awe towards Selma isn’t about race fatigue in regard to 12 Years a Slave, but rather in remembrance to how great 12 Years a Slave really was, and recognition that Selma just doesn’t operate on a similar level.

American Sniper finds itself in an entirely different controversy. Instead of a movie that requires the public to manufacture reasons why the Academy didn’t laud it enough, here’s a movie that the public is trying to understand why the Academy undeservedly lauded it too much. Or did they? American Sniper received six nominations, and at least three of them (Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing) are probably deserved no matter how awful you think the movie is. Bradley Cooper also received one of the nominations, his third in a row for Best Actor, and it’s useful to remember here that a nomination for acting is not an endorsement for a film. Whether or not Cooper deserved to be among the final five names is a more subjective argument than I’ll get into here (I’d say no, but whatever), but he did do a good job in the film, and the Academy clearly loves him. If you want to argue that his nomination is proof the Academy irrationally likes a bad movie, then you also have to pretend to forget his Best Actor nomination last year, for American Hustle, which equally caught prognosticators by surprise.

The gist, then, of the “Why does AMPAS love American Sniper so much?” controversy rests solely on the shoulders of the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture nominations, with the Screenplay nod being the especially tricky one. But here’s what no one is seeing, saying, or realizing: Captain Phillips was nominated for the exact same six Oscars last year. Phillips also received highly deserved nominations for Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, a we-love-him-and-he-was-good nomination for Tom Hanks, an okay-sure-I-guess Best Picture nomination, and a deeply suspect Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. In both cases, AMPAS chose to recognize a highly tense, well acted, and technically well-crafted movie, which largely ignored the moral quagmire of the US military celebrating the sniper assassinations of poor, third world brown people. Am I over-simplifying the political stance of both stories? Of course! But the problem is, so do the movies themselves. Neither film digs deep into the morality of the situations they play in, and neither film has any idea what it’s trying to say. So yeah, both Adapted Screenplay nominations are pretty problematic. But remember the part several paragraphs ago where I reminded you that no voting body ever gets everything right? Yeah, this is one of those. A bad result in Oscar voting does not invalidate the Oscars in the same way Michelle Bachmann having won four congressional elections does not invalidate the American government.

As to the Best Picture nominations for both films, you just have to chalk that up to what critic Anne Thompson calls “The Steak Eaters,” which are the faction of AMPAS that want a Best Picture nominee to look like such, with a budget that visibly appears on screen and a result that screams “We are Hollywood and this is what we do bitches!” This year, the Steak Eaters only had one kind of steak on the menu, so we can’t be too surprised that they ordered it.

In any case, what’s great about the Oscars right now is that we generally expect the nominations to get it right. (Just go ahead and mentally add “for the most part” to the end of every sentence in this paragraph. Thanks.) We’re having these arguments because what happened with Selma and American Sniper actually shocked people. Comparatively few people were shocked in 2008 when Wall-E and The Dark Knight failed to receive Best Picture nominations, or Do the Right Thing in ’89, Malcolm X in ’92, Boogie Nights in ’97, Being John Malkovich in ’99, or so, so many others. We spent almost three whole decades from the dawn of the ‘80s to 2008 expecting the Academy to screw it up with regular frequency. Then, in 2009, when The Hurt Locker became the lowest grossing Best Picture winner in history, it was like AMPAS screamed from the rooftops that they no longer cared about being in touch with what audiences were seeing, if audiences couldn’t bother getting themselves to the right movies. Two years ago, Grantland writer Chris Ryan referred to the Oscars as a “first draft of history.” It’s a great way to think about them, and what’s even greater is that lately the first draft has needed far less work-shopping.

For the most part.

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