Oscar Sunday is my own personal film Superbowl. I spend every day leading up to it hypothesizing on who will win for what, discussing predictions with like-minded cinephiles, and helping my parents with their office Oscar pools. When the grand nominations announcement occurs in mid-January, I immediately take stock of every lauded flick that I failed to view and form a grocery list of films to see before the much-anticipated broadcast.
Since 1929, the Academy Awards have served as a gauge of cinematic excellence. Any film nominated for an Oscar is regarded as “the best of the best” and is instantly rocketed to a must-see status. Even before nominations are announced, certain films accrue tremendous “Oscar buzz,” based on the merits of the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the Critics’ Choice Awards. Carrying 87 years worth of accumulated prestige, the Oscars is less of an awards ceremony and more of a cultural institution — a recognition all filmmakers dream of, but so few actually obtain.
But, in the Internet-saturated world we live in, with film blogs, entertainment news sites, and online streaming services becoming more popular by the day, how much do the Oscars actually matter?
Despite the very high, almost dogmatic regard in which it is held, the Oscars grow less and less essential to the cinematic landscape with each passing year. They are becoming more of a tool of frustration than an instrument to determine actual filmic importance. Adam Bellotto at filmschoolrejects.com has picked up on this, as has The Huffington Post, each with similar pieces on Oscar irrelevance.
Needless to say, they are right: the Oscars are plunging, headlong, into a void of unimportance.
One of the main sources of frustration among critics is the specific kind of films that seem to gain recognition. These films, pejoratively referred to as “Oscar bait,” often possess some combination of the following attributes — those released late in the year, bio-pics, and period pieces, featuring a disabled protagonist, a star-studded cast, patriotism, and tragic historical events.
Roger Ebert noted that the 2010 expansion of the Best Picture category from five to 10 nominated films has allowed the Academy to recognize stunning efforts that fall outside the confines of these restrictions, but the change has barely impacted actual victors; The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and 12 Years a Slave practically had “For Your Consideration” stamped in the corner of every frame, and the 2015 Best Picture front runners The Theory of Everything, Selma, and The Imitation Game strike much the same tone. Great films that don’t “fit the bill” are left by the wayside, leaving most of the year’s “cinematic excellence” — which the Oscars strive to acknowledge — utterly unrecognized.
Even more grating than the homogeny of the chosen films is that of the people choosing them. The Los Angeles Times recently conducted a study of the American Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) voting membership, and found that Oscar voters are 94 per cent Caucasian, 77 per cent male, and 86 per cent over 50. Neither the American film industry nor the Oscars themselves are very diverse, but many members of the Academy have called for a more representative membership. Given that Oscar nominations are, in themselves, an exercise in taste-making, public perceptions of important films are being dictated by a narrow voting populace, reflecting cinematic interests out of touch and inconsistent with modern day diversity.
The AMPAS, however, is not the only party awarding achievement: the Academy gives prizes to “merit categories” that, themselves, have their own awards. The Screen Actors Guild Award, the American Society of Cinematographers Award, the Directors Guild of America Awards, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and more, represent a more specialized acknowledgement of filmic excellence that is based on votes from a constituency of fellow professionals. These specialized awards render the Oscars redundant; since winners are selected by a tightknit group of peers, they are a more accurate glimpse into noteworthy category-specific achievement.
With respect to taste, Oscar nominations are not what they once were. Trusted film critics give insight into what is worth watching, and bloggers provide their own reviews to subscribed audiences. Vulture, HitFix, Rolling Stone, Indiewire, AV Club, Collider, and Variety all boast reputable film sections, and with them the power to introduce readers to films that stray off the beaten Hollywood path. And of course, the new superpower in cinematic technology, Netflix, personalizes film selections according to past views, shifting the focus away from “What did Academy voters like?” to “What am I going to like?”
Tragically, the golden statuette named Oscar has tipped on his side. Oscar nominations no longer hold the same force they once did, as the once-glistening beacon of popular taste has toppled beneath the weight of its own redundancy. The Academy Awards will not stop walking the red carpet any time soon, but do seem to shine less and less radiantly with each passing year.