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making the sausage

Polone on the Great Oscar Farce

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As a kid I remember sitting in front of the TV with my family, like millions of others, in one of the largest non-sports audiences of the year, absorbing the drama and the gaudy clothing worn by beautiful people, and staying up past my bedtime to find out who won the big award: Miss America. But, over time, our changing values and the obvious irrelevance of the beauty pageant caused me and most Americans to dump the silly institution on the trash heap of cultural obsolescence. Soon, lying next to Miss America on that dump will be Oscar.

Whereas at one time Miss America represented the ideal for a woman in this country, the Academy Award may still be associated with the pinnacle in filmmaking achievement; but like Miss America, the Oscar has lost its relevance and value. Whether people realize it or not, it would be a benefit to the entertainment industry, as well as the moviegoing masses, if we just learned to ignore the Oscars.

As with that misogynistic competition, in which women’s bodies are dissected, judged, and then held up as a false ideal for the public, I can’t see the value in saying one artistic endeavor is better than another. This is also true of the Emmys, the Grammys, and the Tonys, as well as the various arts-related Pulitzers, of course, but the incredible attention lavished upon the Academy Awards demands it be singled out as a meaningless and misleading worst offender.

Instead of calling the ultimate award given at the Oscars “Best Picture,” they should really call it “the Favorite Picture of the Roughly 6,000 Academy Voters.” Given the makeup of this group — older, whiter, and more male than movie audiences, which are younger and more diverse than the American public — it would seem that contests between Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine, The Hurt Locker and Avatar, or The King’s Speech and The Social Network are all foregone conclusions. It explains why the year Driving Miss Daisy won for Best Picture, Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated. And it also suggests why genres preferred by younger audiences, such as comedies and animated movies, are rarely nominated and almost never win when they are. Can you really say that Borat didn’t deserve a nomination but Letters From Iwo Jima did? Beyond the fact that the older, white, rich liberals in the movie business will bring their own tastes to the Oscar ballot, human nature dictates voters will choose films that say something about how they see themselves: They want to be known as thoughtful, sensitive people who prefer less entertaining but more socially conscious films. Voting for a tedious movie about racism and injustice like Crash instead of meaning-free crowd pleasers like Wedding Crashers, Batman Begins, or Mr. and Mrs. Smith mitigates the voters’ guilt about parking their SUVs in handicapped spots and being part of the one percent.

But the Oscars aren’t just corrupted by self-regard; they’re corrupted by money, which affects everything else, of course — which movies are made, who makes them, who stars in them, and how likely they are to succeed. The studios spend tens of millions of dollars each year on campaigns to get their candidates attention from the voters. The push for The Social Network reportedly cost between $7.5 million and $10 million, mostly spent on parties, screenings, consultants, ads in trade papers, billboards on the West Side of L.A., sending out DVDs. When you add up all of that spending on so many films, you could easily come up with a nine-figure sum. The cost of two Oscar campaigns could comfortably fund the total production budget for a movie like Drive or Midnight in Paris.

Studios not feeling the pinch of these extra expenditures could take more chances in their choices of what to make. The current binge of sequels and remakes is largely fueled by fear, since there is a perception that offering content with an established brand carries less risk. If the studios bolstered their bottom line by reducing Oscar-related spending, they wouldn’t feel as great a need to make less risky but egregiously derivative product. It takes only a small number of outstanding and original movies to get people out of the “there is nothing worth seeing” malaise that has been reflected in an overall drop in ticket sales during the past year, which was dominated by films whose titles end with a number. And which largely suck.

Even more damaging than the effect on budgets might be the effect on the movie calendar. Any film thought to have a shot at an award has to be released in the late fall or early winter, meaning that almost every film released between January and September is pretty much out of the running. (I wonder if the fine film from 2010 Get Low would have earned nominations for Robert Duvall or Bill Murray, or even one for Best Picture, had it been released November 26 instead of July 30?) Distributors select the films they think can garner awards and release them during the last quarter of the year all at once, meaning that the holiday season is hugely overserved by prestige projects and all other seasons woefully undersupplied. As a result, the Oscars damage the prospects of the very movies they’re designed to promote. If there were no Academy Awards, there would probably be a more even release of quality films throughout the year, making it more likely that additional people would see those films, since most moviegoers don’t schedule their year to make room for increased movie attendance in November and December. Instead, it’s a battle royale for ticket buyers, and too many movies lose out.

Many in Hollywood would say that the financial reward of Oscars success makes the cost and loss of dignity worthwhile, but the facts indicate otherwise. A detailed statistical analysis of the Oscars’ box-office effect by Boxofficequant.com showed that almost all of the ticket money flowed in after the nomination, not the win. But this is also misleading, since it is difficult to know how a film that was nominated would have performed had it not received a nomination. True Grit, for example grossed 18.5 percent of its total after being nominated, but The Social Network took in only 1.5 percent of its total after its nomination. The difference between the two is obvious: release dates. The Social Network came out October 1, while True Grit was released at the end of December, so the latter was in the middle of its strong theatrical run, the former at its end.

Of course, some people do benefit from the Oscars, aside from publicists, the trade press, the New York and Los Angeles Times (have you ever seen any kind of anti-Oscars article in those publications?), and Los Angeles billboard owners: the individuals who win. Directors, screenwriters, actors, editors, and anyone else with a nomination or a win gets a big bump in pay after being so honored — as much as $5 million, it’s said, for a Best Actor trophy. Unfortunately for the payer of this Oscar bonus, there is no correlation between anyone’s winning an award and future box-office success, despite the big deal made about Oscars in marketing campaigns. PopEater’s Jo Piazza showed that of the top 100 highest-grossing films of 2010, 40 percent of the top twenty featured Oscar winners, while 50 percent of the bottom twenty did. If possessing a statuette was actually worth something, shouldn’t there be some direct correlation between casting an Academy Award winner and higher box office? If you were financing a drama that starred a man in his mid-­forties, would you feel more comfortable with your investment by offering the part to Sean Penn or Kevin Spacey, each with two Oscar wins, or to Will Smith or Johnny Depp, neither of whom has won?

I will acknowledge that the Academy funds some good work in the area of film education (though I could also mention that the Miss America Pageant gives out $45 million a year in scholarships). And I am only knocking the Oscars because they are the most prominent film awards; the Golden Globes are a whole other level of ridiculousness, and I would encourage those interested to watch Vikram Jayanti’s documentary The Golden Globes: Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret, which is both entertaining and illuminating (one actress comments in the film that the Globes are really a contest for who “kisses butt best”). Really, I see no point to any of it, other than the kitschy fun of the spectacle, which, as with the Miss America Pageant, certainly can be entertaining in limited doses. But by the third speech of someone thanking his spouse, agent, manager, psychic, dog walker, and the person who clears his chakras, I am always bored and left wondering why he couldn’t just have a private conversation with the person to whom he wishes to express his gratitude, and then find something more interesting or entertaining to talk about on television.

Fortunately, the public seems finally to be losing interest. The Oscar broadcast has evidenced a pretty steady decline in audience share since the mid-seventies. Last year, obviously feeling the need to bring in a younger viewership, the Academy hired James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts. The plan didn’t work; there was a 12 percent drop in the 18-to-49 demographic and a 9 percent decrease in overall viewers. Clearly, this is because the audience feels alienated from the choices of nominations and winners, not how they are presented. As with any cultural institution, when the interest and support of the young are lost, it is just a question of when, not if, that institution becomes fully irrelevant. I can’t wait.  

Gavin Polone is an agent turned manager turned producer; follow him on Twitter @gavinpolone.

Photo: A.M.P.A.S.