Sounds of Cinema

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Commentaries

The 2011 Academy Awards

Aired on March 6, 2011 (Episode 329).

As many of you are probably aware, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony was held last week. Regular listeners of this show are familiar with my take on the Oscars, as well as the whole Hollywood awards circuit. In the past I’ve gone to great lengths to criticize the show and its choices. To summarize, I’ve argued that Hollywood’s award circuit is largely a sham. The awards are distributed on a political and capricious basis and the televised ceremonies are little more than three hour commercials for the products of media corporations, masquerading as art appreciation.

I’ve said most of this on the air before and my previous rants on the subject can be found on the website for this show, so I don’t feel compelled to reiterate my complaints in full. Generally I’ve ignored the Oscars altogether, since there is plenty of coverage in the mainstream press and predications of the winners aren’t based on anything other than an educated guess.

However, I’ve had a softening of my opinion about the awards. Most of my criticisms still stand, but looking at the bigger picture there is a way in which these awards actually benefit audiences and even aid filmmakers.

Like most things it life, it comes down to money. The marketing model that has overtaken Hollywood production and distribution over the past three decades puts the emphasis on large event films that are expected to make, at minimum, $150 million in their domestic theatrical run. Ironically, most of the films that are the biggest box office draws are also the costliest to make, and so the profit margins are comparable to lower budgeted films. The highest grossing film of 2010 was Toy Story 3, which made $415 million but cost $200 million to produce. Another animated film, Tangled, was the tenth highest grossing film of the past year with $194 million at the box office but it cost $260 million, making it a net loss. But nevertheless, Hollywood’s behavior seems to be dominated by a belief that bigger is better.

Another important part of Hollywood’s economic model is the emphasis on opening weekends. This is something that has developed over the past decade and it has become a significant impediment to film distribution. As filmmaker Kevin Smith recently noted, the entire judgment of a film’s success or failure is based on its first three days of release. If a film does not premiere at number one on its opening weekend and make a spectacular debut, it is quickly pulled from theaters. There is no room for a film to cultivate an audience based on word of mouth. This is especially true in middle-America where theater space is at a premium. As a result, studios are spending huge amounts of money on advertizing costs, sometimes more than the production cost of the films.

This obsession with opening weekends combined with a bigger-is-better mentality has resulted in an industry that is cannibalizing itself with remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and rip-offs, making bigger and louder versions of classic movies or remixing franchises that have run their course. It has also created a marketplace in which small films have no chance to compete, at least not in theaters.

This is where the Oscars come in. The best picture winners the past few years, such as The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, and Slumdog Millionaire, and some of the nominees in that category such as Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, Precious, An Education, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Milk, do not fit into the blockbuster standard by which many studio films are now green lit. They’re not special effects driven, they are not derived from a toy line, and they don’t fit into neat genre categories.

But these films don’t tend to do huge business either. In theatrical release, The Kids Are All Right made $20 million, The Hurt Locker made $17 million, and Winter’s Bone only made $6 million. All these films were profitable, at least in comparing theatrical gross to production costs, but they are nowhere near the $300 million box office of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse or the $400 million take of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Hollywood studios need an incentive to make films that are not going to earn hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s important to remember that it’s called show business for a reason. And the Oscars can be that incentive. Films generally receive an economic bump from a nomination and so audiences that might not otherwise have heard of these films have a better chance of seeing them. And there is also an image and morale incentive, as studios earn bragging rights for creating award winning pictures and thereby attract talented actors, producers and directors who want to make those kinds of films.

I’m not letting the Oscars off the hook. Not by a long shot. Nominations are a valuable commodity and the films that get recognized tend to appeal to a lowest common denominator of Academy groupthink. There is a resistance to films that are politically or aesthetically challenging and minority filmmakers and performers are sorely underrepresented. That’s to say nothing of the televised ceremony, which is a nauseating display of wealthy and beautiful people congratulating themselves on being wealthy and beautiful.

The Academy Awards are a part of the culture and a fixture of Hollywood. It’s not going away. As problematic and flawed as the awards are, there is a silver lining. In the current media environment where ownership has been consolidated and the means of production are controlled not by artists but by corporations, these awards not only highlight some of the bright spots of Hollywood’s output each year but actually ensure their existence.

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