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Do the Oscars Matter? Do the Movies Matter?

02/18/2015 04:32 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015
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Do the Oscars matter? Americans are of course talking about the upcoming spectacle, and a few people are even occasionally discussing merits of the nominees rather than just handicapping the horse race. But we are also talking about emoji and whether Leo and Rihanna spent Valentine's Day together. The intellectual bar is not high for our popular attention.

What does it mean for anything to matter in our popular culture, anyway? Our most cynical countrymen would say sales are the only measure of whether a pop product matters, and it's an admittedly straightforward standard, if a bad one. The movies still hold enough imaginative value for enough moviegoers -- whether these are aesthetes, or idealists, or other people with no financial stake in the entertainment business aside from the 10 bucks occasionally shelled out for a film here and there -- that something beyond business is at stake when we discuss the movies. Maybe a reasonable starting point to think about whether manufactured cultural events, like awards shows, "matter" is by conjecturing whether said event will influence how we think about culture five years from now.

One reasonable perspective on awards shows comes from the Woody Allen character Alvy Singer in Annie Hall: "They give an award for everything nowadays. Greatest Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler!" Hyperbole aside, the point is a good one. If everyone in the world is an award-winning something-or-other, then what's the point of awards to begin with? And why bother pretending any subjective work of art is "the year's best" at all, when it should be good enough for the work to be recognized as interesting and worthy of some attention. With art, it makes more sense for individuals to express favorites than for committees to do so. As for Annie Hall, it did win Oscars in 1978 for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director. Woody did not attend the event.

To state the obvious: Annie Hall premiered almost four decades ago. A few things have changed since then in the realms of entertainment, digital media and society at large. Questions that once had obvious answers need revisiting.

For many decades, there was a status quo for the Academy Awards. In the 20th century, the Oscars were traditionally a good spectacle, and were likewise a place for industry self-congratulation. The show did not necessarily encourage a broader range of expression from artists in the entertainment industry, nor did it especially discourage it. In favor of the cultural value of the Awards, one could reasonably argue that the act of watching and responding to the Academy Awards, after watching some of the nominated movies, led more filmgoers to refine their critical sense as hobbyist moviegoers or even as cinephiles. This was, relative to the sales and marketing function of the Awards, simply the other side of the same coin.

Now, a decade and a half into the 21st century, the status quo is no more. Movies face unprecedented competition for screen time and attention. The audience for a successful Buzzfeed video can be larger than that for a moderately successful feature film -- which, of course, is no longer technically a film at all. Social media trends -- few of them having to do with pressing social issues or aesthetic achievements -- drive public discussion. The attention paid to emoji or to Leo/Rihanna needs to build steam somewhere. At the same time, the new digital media landscape is providing vast new opportunities for industry outsiders and insiders alike. The wit and storytelling chops that young unknowns show off in six-second video clips on Vine are one of my favorite developments of social media. For insiders, there are other glimmers of hope that they and their cash cows can remain relevant in the future. One major show-biz executive joked with me last year about the "collective orgasm" the industry has been experiencing over video streaming revenues -- the numbers for which conflate television and film-viewing, as the studios and agencies are all too aware. Industry execs seem nervous about film, and reassured by television.

Just look at the business decisions any major studio makes, and it is clear that industry executives would prefer to achieve blockbuster success with a summer tentpole action movie rather than win Best Picture for a movie that garners only a modest profit. The corporate spreadsheets no doubt prove that this is sound short-term business logic, but it could be a problem for the future of the movie industry. The actors and other creative members of the Academy, many of whom would quite reasonably see it as too unseemly to even consider voting for a superhero movie for Best Picture, can use their votes to provide marketing cachet for any studio's motion picture, but these voters increasingly seem like a group that many of the industry's big players would rather not bother with courting. The problem with this approach is that it hints of studios being too willing to compete with video games on turf that is indeed better suited for video games. The gaming industry has already eclipsed the motion picture industry in revenues. What movies have to offer that video games cannot offer, nor can Internet video-cliplets offer, are a particular strength of story structure and a particular depth of emotional experience. The next ten to twenty years will be the time frame over which the movie industry will have to differentiate itself, or else face increasing marginalization. Which brings me back to the Oscars.

The Oscars used to be -- say, before 10 years ago -- year after year a vastly successful, take-it-or-leave-it spectacle. The motion picture industry was also strong enough that any particular shortcoming related to the Oscars did not seem to stick to the industry at large. Sure, the movie industry previously went through scares at key moments, most notably when household television ownership first became widespread, but the truth is that, in the20th century, there was never another mass entertainment that surpassed the cultural clout of Hollywood. And the Oscars have traditionally had staying power. A young person exploring film history would be best off starting with a couple dozen good books from the film section of a library, and building viewing lists out from that reading. Many people will not operate that way, which is fine. My point is partly that there would indeed be worse ways to begin exploring film history than by compiling lists of all the movies ever nominated for Academy Awards, watching a couple hundred titles, and then exploring additional work by actors, directors, editors and producers that spark an interest.

My conjecture now is that, if the movies will continue to matter in the future, the Oscars will have to continue to matter. A strong film industry needs a strong film culture, which requires a hospitable environment for young filmgoers, and for grown-up cinephiles, and likewise for creative professionals, producers, agents and critics. Strengthening the industry -- its products, its audience and its culture -- is going to take a lot of work from a lot of different people. The industry will have to again prove its vivacity, and part of that will be a matter of differentiating itself from cultural drivel by reconnecting with the industry's best traditions. To me, this means visual story development, wit, emotion and clever use of genre. The Oscars are an opportunity to showcase these strengths, both through the nominees and through the structure of the telecast.

Hollywood knows how to market itself and its products. Getting attention is not the problem. Connecting with people in a manner that does not seem shallow occasionally can be a problem, however. One way to do this in the Oscars would be to emphasize the exciting variety of moviemaking styles in the world by giving more time to the categories for short films and foreign films. Another way would be to emphasize the displays of great moments from the films of decades past, while still likewise emphasizing clips that show off the good work of the present nominees. To maintain and grow the relevance of film culture in general and Hollywood in particular, Hollywood should use the Academy Awards broadcast to show that it still stands for something beyond visual effects and celebrity culture. Movies can stand for story, imagination, and the synthesis of a variety of art forms. It beats obsolescence.