Sounds of Cinema

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Commentaries

The 2009 Academy Awards

Aired on March 1, 2009 (Episode 229)

The Academy Awards Ceremony occurred last week and long time listeners of this show are probably aware that in years past I have often made predictions or at least gone through the nominees for the ceremony. For the first time in the history of this show I did not do that and there are some reasons for that that I think are important to share.

First, I suck at predicting these things. I've only been right about half the time and the times I have been right have been due to obvious winners in a given category or just dumb luck. I really don't spend time analyzing these things but really anyone who claims that they can tell you who is going to win is full of it. Nate Silver, a statician who correctly predicted the outcome of the World Series and the 2008 election—including all of the Senate races and 49 out of 50 states in the presidential race--only got four out of six major categories correct, and Slumdog Millionaire’s win for picture and director was not a big shock to anyone. So, given that my input is rather worthless and my insight is blind, that seems like a good enough reason to hold my tongue.

But there is a second reason, one that is just as important but one that the Academy or fans of the show might not like: the Oscars just don't matter very much anymore.

The Oscars --and for that matter the Grammys, the Emmys, and most other award shows--are victims of the Information Age. In the past, the only times we could see our favorite movie stars were in their films or in the occasional newspaper or magazine article. Today we are inundated with images of our favorite celebrities, or at least the ones that the mass media has decided should be our favorites. Logging onto the web I can flip through image galleries of movie stars at award ceremonies and premieres, behind the scenes stills, and leaked sex tapes. In this media saturated environment, the novelty of gathering all the biggest stars together for one show does not have the same luster.

Another outgrowth of the Internet is the democratization of opinion. With websites, blogs, and other online features, anyone can chip in their two cents on a celebrity's outfit or give their own top ten list of best and worst films of the year. Of course, not everyone's opinion is worth listening to, but the fact is that the democratization of media robs the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (among others) of their privileged status as the sole arbiters of cinematic excellence.

Aside from the change in mass media, there is also a perception problem facing the Oscars. First is the glamour. Compare the stuffy formal style of the Academy Award's production and the tuxes and million dollar dresses worn by the nominees to the casual outfits worn by attendants at an MTV awards show. While MTV's awards have even less clout than the Oscars, there is a hipness to MTV's show that lends it some degree of street credibility.

And who wins at an MTV awards show? Often the winners are films that made a lot of money but more importantly they are films that are popular with the viewers. And this is the other half of the Oscar's perception problem. In pursuit of awards, Hollywood studios have designed their release schedules around the award shows, opening films in New York and Los Angeles but nowhere in between. In many cases, especially this year, those of us living in middle America cannot get to see the films nominated for best picture without driving two and a half hours through a snow storm to get to a theater that is running them. It is an alienating release strategy that makes the Oscars even more meaningless to the viewers.

Ultimately the Academy Awards are most important to the people who attend them and win them. For the rest of us, even those of us who are passionate about movies, the recognition of these performers and filmmakers is a nice way of drawing attention to films that are usually above average but the memory of who won and who did not fades rather quickly. What is important—and should be important to us and to the filmmakers—is that they make work that is interesting, relevant, and of high quality, regardless of whether it wins statuettes.

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