This is undoubtedly the prevailing question of the last few years when it comes to discussing the entertainment industries longest running awards show- Do the Oscars still matter?
To be honest, I’m not sure. They might, they might not.
It does seem simple at first. Lower ratings mean fewer people watching, while an increase in controversy means fewer people taking it seriously. However, in an article written for The Atlantic following last year’s gala event, David Sims argues that the question might be more difficult to answer than it first appears. As an example he points us towards the following facts:
- A year in which Twelve Years a Slave took Best Picture (2014), the Oscars actually experienced a jump in ratings equivalent to 2004, the year Lord of the Rings happened to earn the same honor (30 percent increase).
- In 2016, the year of the #oscarssowhite campaign, the Oscars actually saw a decline in ratings, even with the (visible) presence of films like Mad Max, The Martian and The Revenant (all successful big budget productions), and the hopeful expectation that Chris Rock might be able to address the prevailing problem of inequality.
In other words, there doesn’t appear to be a sole reason for a jump and decline in viewership on a given year, nor a single issue that can lobby people to take it seriously in a given moment.
The truth is, the Oscars remain a rather lucrative financial investment for the ABC Network, even in years where the ratings appear to be fluctuating downwards (largely a problem of shifting viewer trends). It is actually measuring the success or relevance of something like the Oscars in our modern landscape, where such ratings have become somewhat elusive, that remains a much more difficult task.
But there could be a more revealing question to ask that might help in gaining a better handle on the Oscars actual relevance for today, and that is this- Did the Oscars ever matter?
A Private Public Affair
What once existed as a private ceremony for industry insiders (according to sources, the premier of the Oscars in 1929 lasted an entire 15 minutes), the first televised broadcast (1953) pulled open the curtains to welcome in the general American public, and eventually the world.
With public participation comes public criticism (of course), and the televised era of the Oscars has always remained unceremoniously flawed to some degree. But in its lengthy history, the Academy Awards also managed to accomplish something unprecedented. At a time when Hollywood personified the American Dream, an era when many of us were still dazzled by the L.A. lights and the idea of the Hollywood film industry was still thriving, this shift from private to public managed to connect the experience of the filmgoer with the voice of the filmmaker in a way that made Hollywood a very real part of our lives, no matter where we lived.
It offered us a glimpse behind the scenes of the glitz and glamor, a chance to admire the film-making process from abroad. It gave us the opportunity to co-exist with the people that made these films no matter where we found ourselves in the economic divide.
And once upon a time, this was something special. Once upon a time, this was something meaningful.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are many who still enjoy the star gazing, the soap operas, and the expensive attire that accompanies the Red Carpet year after year; even while others continue to decry what feels to them to be a pretentious, liberalized, glorified, self-serving, over-produced display of self gratification, entitlement and materialism (to put it lightly).
But truth be told, the emergence of social media has robbed the Oscars of some of its mystery and allure over the years, and the decline of Hollywood some of its magic. However, here is what I would argue- For as easy as it is to poke fun at this display of seeming self-importance, a large percentage of the population, myself included, still watch the films that the film industry produces, and it is these films the Academy represents. For many of us, these films continue to matter. Why? Because they say something to us, something about us. They matter because they are a part of our moral and cultural fabric, a part of what makes us who we are and a part of what helps us to understand who we are.
Sure, the Oscars can be a convoluted mess of contradictions, failures, and missteps. We can complain about the persistent nomination of Meryl Streep, or about the self-effaced old boys club being an out of touch, nearly all white membership that makes up the Academy voter-ship. We can tire of long-winded political speeches by out of touch and entitled millionaires abusing their platforms for their own purposes, and we can even gripe about the nominated films whilst complaining about the ones they managed to ignore.
But in the end, whether we watch it live, youtube the trending conversations the next day, or fast forward through the boring parts on our PVR, it is the ability of the Oscars to create that bridge between the artist and the art that continues to make it meaningful. It is the relationship it fosters between the viewer and the films we wtach that will keep it meaningful.
Richard Brody puts it this way.
“It isn’t the movies that don’t matter—it’s the Oscars, and it is because of the movies that that we watch the Oscars.”
With this in mind, here is a brief look at what I believe could matter about 2017:
- SMALLER FILMS WITH STRONG BOX OFFICE NUMBERS
The Oscars have always struggled to maintain a balance between the push and pull of the big budget productions and staying committed to championing the relevance of smaller films and lesser known Directors/Actors. Personally, I believe they have become quite adept at maintaining this balancing act over the years, even if at times the big performers at the box office end up getting overlooked. Sometimes they do need to resist public opinion in order to give some of these films the voice they otherwise would not have, and to me that is the greater good of all of us.
But here is what is interesting about this year. When considering the nominees for Best Picture, nearly all of the films in the Best Picture category happen to be smaller films that have also managed to bring in solid numbers (perhaps with the exception of Moonlight, Lion and Hell or High Water).
Consider the following Domestic totals:
- Hidden Figures- 131 million
- La La Land- 126 million domestic
- Arrival- 100 Million
- Hacksaw Ridge- $66 million
- Fences- 53 Million
- Manchester By the Sea- $45 million
These numbers might feel insignificant, but when considered from within their respective fields and budgets, it would be fair to consider each of these films to be more than a mere modest success.
Consider as well the variety these films represent- two sophomore projects, a Hollywood legend, another Hollywood legend turned first time director, two emerging young filmmakers, a war film, a musical, a sci-fi, a fun (and important) historical drama and a serious drama, a modern western- it becomes rather easy to see any of these films as equally deserving of their nomination for entirely different reasons.
Although I have yet to see Moonlight, what is clear to me is the Academy has played an important role this year in giving many of these films the recognition they deserve, and considering there really is not a bad film in the bunch, it makes the 2017 Oscar race that much more intriguing.
2. THE PROBLEM OF DIVERSITY ADDRESSED?
In an article about the 2016 Oscar debacle, Nicole Sperling urges us as filmmakers and viewers to, “…remember that #OscarsSoWhite is not just about race, and definitely not just about the black race. While we’ve had some forward movement, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”
She goes on to quote Franklin Leonard, saying “I won’t buy the idea that we’ve moved past this thing until it is no longer perceived as a risk to make a movie about a person of color, or to hire a writer of color to write on a subject that has nothing to do with being that color.”
For as low as the ratings were for last years Oscars, you would have had to have been living under a rock to miss all the attention over its lack of African-American representation.
Much has been written about the potential of this year to address the problem of diversity and equality in the film industry. Only time will tell if it grows into more than simply a momentary solution. But what is true, what shouldn’t be overlooked, is the sheer number of great films with African American representation that happened to be released over this past year. At the very least this should feel hopeful in and of itself, if not a great reason to also tune in on Sunday when the awards are finally handed out.
3. AS MUCH ABOUT THE LOSERS AS IT IS ABOUT THE WINNERS
It says here that the great loss of Oscars 2017 will be the inexcusable absence of Scorsese’s Silence. I might never understand or find an answer as to why it was left out of consideration in all but one category, but here’s the thing. A part of what the Oscars affords is the opportunity to engage in this sort of conversation about the films we happen to be passionate about. If Silence had made the list, it is likely someone else would be lamenting the loss of whatever film it managed to supplant. And that is what makes the expression of film so wonderful, so engaging. It is in this diversity of expression and opinion that the Oscars can help foster meaningful and worthwhile discussion about an art form that should be taken seriously.
And hey, it should be pointed out that even fans of Deadpool have a seat at this table in 2017.
Two names: Casey Affleck and Mel Gibson;
And two very different stories of redemption.
One of the great things about the Oscars is that, save for the decision to ban Birth of A Nation (the right decision if you ask me), the Academy generally avoids any unnecessary discussion of off-screen character issues. They leave that up to the host (and the courts), and even then, hosts of the Academy Awards generally tend to err on the side of good taste and class rather than public humiliation.
For me, the preference should always be to allow the art to speak for itself, and in the case of Manchester By the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge, both of these films certainly have made their own collective statements on 2017.
In Manchester, Affleck puts his penchant for melancholy to good use with an intensely powerful performance that has helped term Manchester to be “the saddest movie you will see all year”, and for good reason. The depth of sorrow and despair his character is forced to wrestle with is gut-wrenching, to say the least, and in my opinion, Affleck is worthy of every accolade being thrown his way.
For Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge is a welcome return to form. It is a story of faith, but even more so it is an intensely honest journey through the emotions of a war-torn life (both literally, when it comes to the subject matter, and figuratively when applied to Gibson’s own journey of recent years).
I for one am happy that both of these men are being represented on Sunday night, and while Gibson himself remains a long shot (and Affleck an almost sure bet), the fact that we are granted the freedom to celebrate their art in the midst of their failures is something the Oscars deserve due credit for.
5. THE EMERGENCE OF NON-PIXAR ANIMATED COMPETITION
The big story this year is that Pixar failed to have even a single film nominated this year (save for the short film category I believe), which means they are finally facing some stiff competition.
While the popular pick is Zootopia, an early favorite and predicted Oscar darling for its exploration of racism and inclusion, it is Kubo and the Two Strings that some expect might pull off a surprise win. This would have me elated. The way this film plays with our senses of what is real and what is not, and the way it uses its imagery to challenge us to keep our eyes open to the world around us, was an absolutely beautiful experience to watch unfold on screen.
In truth, there were a number of other animated features that I could see to be equally deserving for differing reasons- the surprise success of Storks or the deeply affecting interpretation of The Little Prince for example- but it would also be very hard to ignore Moana as a strong contender in this fight as well. The somewhat surprising success of this film in breathing new life into a classic Disney formula affords it some pretty strong legs (and music) to stand on.
All said, this is one of the toughest categories to predict, and one of the more exciting to watch unfold on Sunday night.
6. WILL THE LIGHT-HEARTED (BUT STILL SERIOUS) LA LA LAND OR THE TIMELY (AND SERIOUS) MOONLIGHT WIN OUT IN THE END?
There is always room for a surprise upset (here is to Hell or High Water pulling off the impossible), but most pundits have already pegged these two films as the front runners. What remains interesting about these two films is just how opposite they are in their relative spectrums. What is even more interesting is that the one that takes the award will likely set the tone for the night in some rather important ways. La La Land is, in many ways, pure escapism (of the best kind in my opinion, fun and lighthearted with just the right touch of serious and somber), while Moonlight appears to be the kind of film that faces our current political climate head on.
I am betting that Moonlight will go on to win it, but I think La La Land will have an important role to play in balancing things out in Oscars 2017. Where people feel hopeless we all need a reason to smile, and La La Land gave us that reason.
7. AND OF COURSE, THE POLITICS
As David Sims argues, “The Academy Awards have long existed uncomfortably alongside politics.”
The big question will be, just how uncomfortable will this year get with all of the available Trump fodder at its disposal. In-fact, it hasn’t even aired and already this years Oscars seem poised to make a strong social statement follwoing the after affects of Trumps international ban and the subsuming absence of a certain filmmaker.
So what is it about the Oscars platform being used for political purposes that both turns us off and draws us in? Well, drama always makes things more interesting of course, but according to Owen Glieberman of Variety magazine, it has a lot to do with our perception of the person behind the pedestal.
“The perception — right or wrong — that people in the entertainment industry are standing on a pedestal telling the rest of us what to think has become part of the problem, not the solution.”
Owen describes this problem as the difference between a filmmaker addressing the point of their film, and an activist going on a rant about something that has absolutely nothing to do with their film. In one word- context. Context is important.
Every year arrives with its own bag of rhetoric and potential issues, with wars, racism, presidents and national policies tending to find the most sway with speeches at the Academy Awards. But this year the political commentary seems to feel especially pertinent. Perhaps it has something to do with the now public story of Asghar Farhadi, but, as Glieberman points out, if feels as if Trump’s presidency is an issue and a conversation that we can all find context for, no matter which side of the fence we find ourselves on. In fact, this just might be the year where viewers actually applaud Hollywood’s (self-proclaimed) Liberal elites for actually having a platform to speak from (and using it).
No matter how it all shakes down on Sunday, it will be interesting to see how the Academy Awards plays off of Streep’s momentum from the Globes. As Gliberman points out at the end of her article, there is a certain poetic justice to the idea that those in show business are able to speak to Trump on his own turf. Something about that just feels right.
And the winner is…
So do the Oscars still matter?
Maybe. Either way, I am inclined to think that they should matter. At the very least they have the potential to matter, and that is what I think will keep the numbers fluctuating from year to year.
More importantly, regardless of ratings, regardless of viewer trends, there is little doubt that what does matter at the Oscars are the films and the subjects and experiences that these films represent. As David Sims goes on to say, “… despite their perceived triviality and occasional misguidedness, the Academy Awards (have) the power to champion art that might otherwise be overlooked. This influence makes the show a platform that can’t be ignored this month.”
To this end there is plenty to look forward to in Oscars 2017 as I echo the words of Richard Brody. “The movies matter as much as ever, and this year many of the nominations have done the Academy honor.”
For anyone who is curious, here is a link to an article that dives underneath some of these nominations, titled 7 most inspiring stories behind the Oscars: