Time to tune in or turn off the Oscars and other awards shows?
By Andy Marken
When Louis B. Mayer, founder of then powerful MGM, held his party on May 16, 1929, to give a few of his conscript filmmakers some rewards for staying in line, his rationale was delightfully simple, and it worked.
It was a small affair—270 attendees dropping five bucks (equivalent to $75 today) for a 15-minute presentation ceremony with a deviously simple goal. “I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted,” is a quote attributed to Maher.
AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) hosted the affair, giving Academy Awards to the pre-announced winners, including Janet Gaynor, best actress; Emil Jannings, best actor; and Frank Borzage, best directing. Even though they didn’t like him very much (the word is he was a pain in the arse), Charlie Chaplin received a special honorary award for his all-around contributions to the film industry.
That was it. Folks ate their rubber chicken, politely clapped, went home in their limos, and (we suppose) deviously planned how they were going to scoop up one of the cute statues by sucking up to the AMPAS founders who held all the power to name the winners.
Of course, someone figured out that AMPAS could make money on the event, so they broadcast it on radio the next year, and then 25 years later, they went for more money, and with Bob Hope as host, they televised the gala.
Quickly, the Academy Awards became hot, profitable, political, and… increasingly boring.
In fact, award events around the globe—BAFTA, Cannes, SXSW, TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), Sundance, Berlin (Berlinale), and hundreds more—have become a serious business segment where organizations and individuals spend a lot of marketing dollars in hopes of influencing the award results.
Why the contest rush? Winning one—or more—of the prized statues or medals can mean millions more dollars for the A-listers on the back ends of their project showings and even more front-end dollars on tomorrow’s projects. Nothing wrong with that. It’s called free enterprise, and if you can leverage your past and present work to make more money in the future, great.
In today’s divided/equal world, the film industry has become the staging ground for diversity and inclusion, and has become tougher in the process. Perhaps even a little vicious. Everyone—us included—wants to see accepted diversity and equity for folks; and even though it is difficult to achieve, it’s a goal we need to work toward. LGBTQIA2S+, AAPI, BIPOC, and other organizations have taken a stand for equal representation in films/series regardless of gender, race, religion, culture, or sexual orientation. And after all these years, they deserve to be seen and heard.
But it’s difficult. Last year, Statista estimated that 403 movies and 559 original scripted TV shows had been released in North America. Even if we multiply that number by 10 for global releases, we’re not certain if anyone would feel he or she was equitably—and properly—represented.
Hattie McDaniel became the first African American female to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting actress in Gone with the Wind (1939). Clark Gable considered boycotting the premiere in Atlanta when he heard McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend. She persuaded him to attend, and no, he didn’t repeat the film’s closing line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” David O. Selznick, producer, also had to pull strings so she could give her acceptance speech at the 12th Academy Awards. Both stood up for their professional friend.
Despite all the pomp, pageantry, and financial rewards that certainly followed the awards, Gable may have been one of the first, but certainly wasn’t the last, Hollywood professional who thought taking a stand for equality and inclusion was important—especially since many feel the awards have deteriorated into little more than popularity contests.
Marlon Brando, meanwhile, had Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather, on his behalf, decline his best actor statue for his performance as Don Corleone in The Godfather. He said it was a political statement protesting Hollywood’s treatment of First Americans for their inaccurate, derogatory, racist portrayals in films.
Sir John Gielgud who won a wall of awards over his 80 years on the stage and screen, turned down the Oscar for best supporting actor as the butler in Arthur because he felt award shows were “full of mutual congratulations baloney.” While Woody Allen has been nominated for an Academy Award 24 times, he won an Oscar four times but didn’t bother accepting the award for Annie Hall, noting, “the whole concept of awards is silly. I cannot abide the judgment of other people, because if you accept it when they say you deserve an award, then you have to accept it when they say you don’t.”
Don’t think the awards events around the globe aren’t an increasing cliché recognition affair? Take this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Titane. It gets right to it with a woman making out in a car. Oops, we’re wrong; it’s about a woman making out with a car. It was wildly acclaimed by fellow film production judges but was it? creative for something other than shock value for an average moviegoer.
Now we’re no prude, but we’re sorta glad we missed seeing it in a theater and can’t wait to miss it when it shows up on one of our streaming services.
In our increasingly polarized world and industry, we’re certain there are, and will be again, others who reject the popularity contests.
This year’s Academy Awards party is already being called a shambles, and it hasn’t even been held yet. Co-host Amy Schumer came up with this silly idea of inviting Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to appear (Zoom or pre-recorded, of course), but the Academy blew off the suggestion because… well, because. It was probably because he isn’t “in the trade.” Sorry, he is a former actor/comedian and probably still has his Guild card somewhere in the rubble.
How about because he’s a politician? Well, yes, and he’s also one of the most widely known, inspirational, and respected international figures in the world today. In fact, the Academy has had a history of having politicians front and center—Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, Ronald Reagan in 1981, Laura Bush in 2002, Michelle Obama in 2013.
But as Benjamin Svetkey said in his Wrap article on the rejection, “There’s one thing you can always count on from the folks who put on the Oscars—they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
You might rationalize by saying it would be in bad taste, but everyone knows it’s all about A-listers and being seen. Now that might be a problem.
The biggest night for Hollywood, the Academy Awards has usually been shown on TV with a lot of pre-show hype. The problem is a lot like movie theater ticket sales— viewership has dropped since 2015, dipping to a record low of nine million-plus last year.
And the Oscars aren’t unique. The Emmys, Grammys, and all the big award ceremonies don’t appeal to today’s appointment TV or anytime, anyplace, any screen viewer—especially given the key audience advertisers want to reach are adults 18 to 49 years old. Any pay TV or streaming executive who saw the numbers drop like that on one of their shows would drop it in a heartbeat.
In an attempt to save their day/time slot on TV, the Academy is fighting (internally) to award and pre-record Oscars for film editing, doc shorts, makeup/hairstyling, original score, production design, animated short, live-action short, sound and edit, dropping it into a tighter live broadcast. Reps for the Academy have pledged that every nominee will be mentioned, every winner will get a moment on the Dolby Theater stage, and the home audience will hardly know the difference between the categories handed out during the live telecast and the ones edited into that telecast.
Yeah, that has ticked off darn near everyone, because folks know their expertise and achievements have been or could be diminished in the next go-around. ACE (American Cinema Editors) have said there are other creative, entertaining ways to shorten the long, painful, dull show because they believe the true fans want to see an evening celebrating “the highest honor in our industry.”
That might be true. But maybe—just maybe—those true fans are getting to the age where 8 pm is their normal bedtime.
Or perhaps it’s like the industry’s highest grossing—and one of our favorite—actors, Samuel L. Jackson, said a few months back, “Oscars don’t move the comma on your check—it’s about getting assess in seats, and I’ve done a good job of doing that.”
And that’s true, even if you’re watching him in his new, great (our opinion) Apple TV+ series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.
Maybe it’s time for the Academy to do exactly what folks have told HFPA (Hollywood Foreign Press Association) to do when the Association and their Golden Globe awards fell into disgrace… “start over from scratch.” The Academy isn’t corrupt like the HFPA was, but it’s just got a lot of excess baggage based on what worked before.
Now that MGM has been snapped up by Amazon, let’s cut out the middlemen and have the biggest customers pick the winners and have a bigger—and more expensive—dinner party.
As Macbeth warned in The Wrath of Macbeth, “Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell that summons thee to Heaven or to Hell.”
After all, award presentations are really for the participants, not the audience.