Oscar Bait: The Death of Cinema?

The Academy Awards, or more simply known as Oscars, were first awarded in 1929, and now their 91st annual ceremony is right around the corner. Awards are given out for the year’s best film, acting, directing, writing, editing, cinematography… and the list goes on.

Despite the Academy’s “dedication” to the filmmaking art, the real cultural interest in the awards is the betting game for which films will be on the coveted list of nominees.

The question of what film has the best such-and-such of the year is one that is very subjective, and one should be allowed to have whatever opinion they like (unless you think that The Love Guru should rank among the Greatest Movies Ever Made). But there is an aura about the Academy that forces people to listen when the best film is named, crafting the canon of fine filmmaking.

But, what is this factor?

One word: marketing. The level of prestige that a film will attain with the words ‘Nominated for Six Academy Awards’ on the poster or ‘From Oscar-Winning Director’ in the trailer is estimated to scoop up another $20 million at the box office. Why else do you think so many of these prestigious films (like The Revenant, La La Land and The Shape of Water, to name but a very tiny few) are released across the US in either November or December the year before? Getting nominated is just good for business.

So how does a film become ‘Oscar Bait’? Why is it that over the last ten years only the gritty historical epics, the biopics supposedly based on real life and the independent/arthouse films get nominated for Best Picture, yet it only took the Academy until this year to nominate a superhero film (that was not even the Best Marvel film) for that award?

Again, it is down to how marketing is done. There is often very little proof that the Academy members watch the movies that they nominate or vote for. No longer does a film have to be important, it just needs to feel important.

After the release of Black Panther, the Oscar Buzz escalated because of its messages about racism and the political implications of post-colonialism in the modern world. The reason why infinitely superior superhero films like The Dark Knight, Guardians of the Galaxy or Logan did not receive that exact same kind of coverage was that the Academy felt that they were not as important in what they had to say.

Awards are a nasty business. There is no substantial merit or value to winning an award, and the act of winning an award is no indicator of how good that film is: it is only an indicator of how popular it is. If a film wins Best Picture that means the Academy deem the work to be ‘tasteful’.

The Academy tends to favour films distributed by individual producers or companies. One study found that 81 awards went to a movie with Harvey Weinstein (*shivers violently*) behind him and that he was the second most thanked person at these ceremonies (behind Steven Spielberg). He practically controlled the awards, with many of his films getting nominated and winning at least one award each year. All thanks to his abusive and obtrusive marketing campaigns (he convinced one elderly Academy member to nominate Billy Bob Thornton for his performance in 1996’s Sling Blade, despite that member thinking it was a Sylvester Stallone picture). Five Weinstein Distribution pictures won Best Picture (those being The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Chicago, The King’s Speech and The Artist; the first three, in particular, are now considered among the worst films to win those awards) Now he has been expelled and that The Weinstein Company has been bought out by a rival company, this leaves a vacant spot on this ‘Oscar throne’ that will probably make campaigning a slightly fairer fight. Though it probably won’t and it will only be a matter of time before another individual becomes the same driving force as Weinstein.

After the drop in television ratings at last year’s ceremony and the overwhelmingly huge backlash they received after they tried to introduce the ‘Best Popular Film’ category (dropping that one was a good choice let me tell you that), the academy likely felt an urge to include more ‘popular films’ amongst their Best Picture nominees, attracting more average filmgoers. Hence, Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody being among the nominees, both crowd-pleasing box office hits with injections of politics. Regardless of what you think of those two, this might be the start of a new age of ‘Oscar Bait’.

Take what they think with a pinch of salt. Enjoy what you enjoy (and don’t enjoy The Love Guru).

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Joshua Bell

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November 2021
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