Do the Oscars Matter?
Updated: Jan 26, 2019
Every year, starting in the fall, The Academy Awards dominate discussions about film. What movies will win an Oscar? What movies should win an Oscar? Will The Academy recognize work by underrepresented groups? Will The Academy recognize work by more popular films? Will the Academy actually find a host twitter won't destroy?
But there's another question I hear every year: do the Oscars matter?
The argument against the Oscars goes like this: The Academy Awards do not give awards to the movies and filmmakers who really deserve it. You can only win at The Oscars if you engage in an expensive Oscars campaign, so the smaller independent films almost never get recognized. But Oscars are so elitist that they never give awards to the movies that anyone between the coasts ever actually went to see. So the Oscars only go to that small group of Hollywood filmmakers that have enough money to fund an Oscars campaign but are making movies are so unpopular that they need the publicity bump from getting an Academy Award nomination. This is a popular enough argument it made its way into an episode of Adam Ruins Everything:
So are the naysayers right? Are the Oscars so hopelessly corrupt and out of touch that they aren't worth paying attention to?
Perhaps I just like looking at the bright side of things, but I think the critics of the Oscars are overstating the case a bit. I think it's pretty clear that the Oscars, faults and all--and there are many--are still incredibly important for a few reasons:
1. The Oscars determine what movies get made.
2. The Oscars are not bought and paid for.
3. The Oscars draws attention to great lesser-known films (even if they aren't nominated).
4. Awards and recognition are themselves are morally important.
1. First, on a practical level, the Oscars matter because they influence what movies get made. So you may not like which movies the Oscars pick, but you need to care which ones they pick. As Adam Ruins Everything points out, if a movie merely gets nominated it can make $20 million more at the box office, and if it wins an Oscar it can get more than $35 million more. So what movies the Academy awards with Oscar gold highly determines what movies studios greenlight. Did you think it was a coincidence that two years after Moonlight won Best Picture we suddenly had multiple high-profile independent films about the black experience by auteur black filmmakers? (E.G., Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, BlackkKlansman, The Hate You Give, If Beale Street Could Talk) It doesn't just determine what movies get made but when they're released. The reason almost all the Oscarbait movies come out starting in the fall is because they want these movies fresh in the Academy's minds come time to choose the nominees and winners. Oscar noms or wins won't affect the next box office smash Marvel movie or Mission Impossible film--which will come out regardless--but it will affect the chances of smaller budget films getting made or being widely promoted.
2. Second, the Oscars aren't as bought as people say. Now, I'm not saying spending money on an Oscar campaign doesn't help. Heck, people wouldn't do it if it didn't help. Academy voters don't have time to see every movie that comes out and they are as influenced by advertising and free perks as the rest of us. But a lot of it simply has to do with taste and preferences. YouTube series Film Theory did an analysis of the voting patterns of the Academy Awards and found that a lot of the voting could be explained by demographics: the academy tends to be older male actors or former actors, so many awards to go movies about the experiences of older generations (like WWII), male storylines, and stories either about actors or that give actors great chance for performances. You can watch the Film Theory Oscar video here:
All this tells us is that Academy voters are just like everybody else: they vote based on their tastes and preferences, which are influenced by their life experiences, recency bias, groupthink, social pressure, perks, and yes, advertising. If that disqualified award shows as illegitimate, than we couldn't have award shows at all. Of course we should hold the Academy accountable to be better if we think they aren't truly awarding the best of the best. But we should understand the nature of the Academy's failings, which are far more defensible and far less dismissible than some of its critics imply.
3. Third, the Oscars perform a really great service by promoting movies most people otherwise wouldn't know about. As I've written before, most people don't have time to see all of the movies that are coming out, so they go to sure-thing movies like superhero blockbusters and animated Disney films. Smaller films attempting to be more artistic or socially conscious are risky, so people rely on film experts to point them to the best movies they might have missed. How many fewer people would have seen The King's Speech, Spotlight, Brooklyn, Birdman, Moonlight, Lady Bird, Room, Darkest Hour, or Whiplash the past several years if those movies hadn't gotten nominated for awards? How many people would see Roma if they didn't think it would get nominated for an Oscar? We can't tell, but it would have been less.
The Oscars even bring publicity to the movies they don't nominate. The Florida Project was a brilliant movie about a mother and daughter living in a Florida motel to avoid homelessness and being watched over by the kindly manager. It rightly enchanted critics and insiders (and was my favorite movie of 2017), but was almost completely passed over by the Oscars, inspiring many articles and outrage on twitter over the snub. (At one point it was trending on twitter the day the nominations were announced.) How many people first heard about The Florida Project because they read an article or a tweet outraged by its snub? We don't know. But it's more than if the Oscars didn't exist.
The point is, without award shows like the Oscars, these kind of conversations wouldn't happen. Predicting what movies will win and the arguing about what movies deserve to win elevate the conversations about movies from simply "what movie you liked most" and "what movie made the most money" to "what movies are the best", and brings ordinary people into that conversation. It turns something that normally only critics and filmmakers talk about into something ordinary people get invested in because it's now a sport. It's like the Super Bowl where you might not have been paying attention the whole year but now you are rooting for your team to win. And that makes the process fun. 4. At an even more basic level, award shows fulfill a moral duty to try to award excellence.
As I've written before, human beings need to praise what is beautiful. We need to cheer for what is good and recognize it. Humans also need to receive praise, to be recognized by others and be lauded for what we've made. The Oscars matter because that is the most prestigious way we as a culture fulfill that human need and obligation to recognize and be recognized for great achievement. Even when the Oscars get it wrong (and considering my favorite movies of the past three years have been American Sniper, Eye in the Sky, The Florida Project, Game Night and Searching, you can bet I believe they get it wrong a lot) they are living out the ideal of awarding.
When we imperfectly give awards to imperfect people who show us a little bit of perfection, we are helping the world see that a little better what that looks like. And when we follow the awards and push them to do better, when we argue with our friends and on the internet which movies we're rooting for, which movies were snubbed, and cheering when our favorites win, when we challenge the Oscars to raise their standards or be more inclusive, we are helping each other see what that looks like too.
Whether the Oscars succeed or they fail, they matter. So I will be following them; I hope you'll join me. I think you'll find it's worth your time.