Films no longer have the same cultural cachet. Of course, fewer people care about the Oscars.
In the run-up to Sunday’s 94th Academy Awards on ABC, there were all kinds of panicked sweats over falling viewership numbers and the reversal of the trend. The deepest worry is that the Oscars will completely lose their relevance as a must-attend event. To which I say: They are so what?
Nothing stays the same. The film industry itself has changed dramatically: what is being done. Which gets the big marketing push. How it’s all distributed. If the Oscars no longer have the cachet they once did, it’s because “movies” are no longer the shared cultural experience they once were. And if we collectively don’t watch the same movies anymore, outside of a handful of blockbusters, of course, interest in the Oscars will wane.
Good movies are good movies, no matter how many people tune in to watch a few statues handed out. But if we think of the Oscars as the elaborate promotional program that they really are, then maybe it’s time Hollywood found other ways to sell binge-worthy movies. For years, Oscar presenters stood on stage and declared that a billion people around the world watched the show. It was never true. But that kind of hyperbole is emblematic of a mindset that insists that Hollywood should be the center of the cinematic universe. More and more viewers, I guess, are starting to feel the opposite.
Anyway, I never liked the horse racing news stories around the awards circuit. The Oscars have a long-standing problem of prioritizing white talent, in front of and behind the camera, while ignoring the work of others. But the Oscars weren’t based on merit or a noble desire to celebrate the best in cinema anyway; the Academy itself was started as a way to subvert efforts by actors and others to form unions. It’s not an obscure detail, but it’s one that probably isn’t talked about enough.
In the mid-1920s, MGM founder Louis B. Mayer and his fellow movie moguls decided they needed “an organization to handle labor issues at the studio without having to get into unionism,” film critic and historian David Thomson wrote in a 2014 piece for Vanity Fair that details the cynical mindset behind the launch of the Academy. “It would be a public relations stunt that would spread the message that Hollywood was a wonderful place where delightful and exciting stories were made to give people a good time.”
They decided to call it the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as if “the Academy had always been there, curated by God, Harvard and Albert Einstein”, as Thompson puts it. (Reader, I laughed!)
At their first banquet, someone suggested they give out prizes and the rest is history. The Hollywood biography “Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer” quotes the great man himself on this development: “I found that the best way to deal with (the filmmakers) was to hang medals everywhere. If I got them cups and awards, they would kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Oscar was created.
During its early years, the Academy operated as its own union—essentially a company-controlled union as opposed to an independent union—which had its own standard contract outlining working conditions. That is, until company unions were banned in 1935.
So those are the origins of your not-so-precious Oscars. That’s why I can’t get excited over a PR program that’s starting to falter nearly 100 years after it started. They ran well! That’s not to say I don’t like seeing great movies (and the people who helped make them) get a boost. That doesn’t mean the prospect of a live show not lacking in ego (and sometimes the rare glimpse of humility) isn’t fun to watch. But it was never a pure effort. I guarantee that on Sunday we will hear at least one presenter utter some version of the phrase “movie magic.” That feeling starts to ring pretty hollow when you read one of the brutally honest, anonymous ballots that The Hollywood Reporter publishes each year. If Academy members can’t drum up excitement for the nominees — their own peers, to shout out loud — why should the public? Do even people who make movies to like the industry in which they work?
The producers of this year’s show made a number of bizarre decisions in hopes of bringing audiences back. But if you haven’t watched the Oscars in recent years, I’m not sure the prospect of (check notes) non-film professionals like Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater and Shaun White showing up as presenters will make you change of opinion. Nor will this year’s change that moves eight awards, including film editing and production design, to a pre-show slot, where they will be taped and then sliced and diced and edited into the event. main.
Did you hear that Disney didn’t use one of its awarded tickets to ensure the studio’s top “West Side Story” nominee star Rachel Zegler would attend? If the Oscars are really just a glamorous PR project – and they are, Blanche, they are — why so many unforced public relations mistakes? Either way, the Academy stepped in and invited Zegler to be a presenter, which averted the crisis. But as editor Myron Kerstein, nominated this year for “tic, tic… Boom!” », Noted on Twitter: “With all due respect to the great and talented Rachel Zegler, there seems to be more star support than all the categories that won’t be able to be featured live on the show. What- what’s wrong with this town?
I mean… what’s wrong, indeed!
I’ve been pretty tough on the Oscars and even though it’s not my job to think about marketing plans for Hollywood – people get paid a parcel more money than me to do just that – I think a new series on HBO Max called “One Perfect Shot” (premiering this week) offers some ideas on how to promote movies and the people who make them.
Created and animated by Ava DuVernay (a former Oscar nominee herself) and inspired by the Twitter account of the same name, the six-episode docu-series allow a director to talk about a scene, a film, and the way it was shot.
The series needs work and doesn’t yet live up to its title; too much emphasis is placed on the director’s biography and not enough on the technical aspects of the scene in question. But I like the idea behind it. What if the Academy scraped the Oscars — or at least stopped worrying so much about the show’s declining ratings — and focused on producing a series like this every year? It’s a way to honor innovative work, but also to give audiences a sense of what problem-solving looks like in these massive creative endeavors.
Michael Mann’s episode features the director talking about how his upbringing in Chicago influenced his filmmaking: “Directors who come from Chicago and live downtown make movies like ‘The French Connection’ or ‘Heat’ . But if they lived in the suburbs, they make comedies. He’s not wrong ! Mann picks the climactic 1995 “Heat” shootout with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. I’ve never seen “Heat”, but you know what? Now I want to do this after watching Mann’s “One Perfect Shot” episode. This is marketing.
Aaron Sorkin is featured in another episode, and while he’s a visually indistinct filmmaker, I appreciate him walking us through a technical challenge of 2020’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” while filming the melee which took place between the police and the demonstrators in Grant Park. The budget only allowed for 120 protesters: “How do you turn 120 protesters into thousands and thousands? Through a crowd duplicating technique called tiling. And then it shows exactly what the CGI entails.
Understanding that doesn’t make me like this particular movie. But I have a deeper understanding of how it was done and why, which usually results in more interest in movies in general.
Far more, I would argue, than an Oscars broadcast ever did.
Nina Metz is a critic at the Tribune
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