The Oscars: The Truth About The Academy Awards

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So I have this theory, perhaps even the beginning of some colossal Hollywood conspiracy, it goes like this…there’s a difference between a “good” film and an Oscar winning film. The Oscarish film is almost a sub genre in itself.

Now before you chastise me for being a cretin, failing to recognize that of course good films win Oscars and the best films are the winners, hence the category “Best Film”; allow me to provide a brief history of this mysterious award and demonstrate that there is indeed method to my madness.

Wings was the first film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards

A Brief History Of Oscars

The first awards were held in 1929 and was a fairly modest affair – an audience of 270 people, lasting roughly 15 minutes in stark comparison to the 3 hours plus running time today. Winners were announced to the media 3 months earlier although this practice changed in all following ceremonies. The awards are to celebrate the achievements of those in the industry for the efforts in the previous 2 calendar years.

The purpose of these awards is to provide an effective marketing tool for the studios. Its press worthy news to say some film or new actress has been nominated or even won an award, that in turn can be used to further market the film and/or talent. Certainly it feels good for any artist or filmmaker to get some recognition for their work, it’s wonderful to be celebrated by your peers and that is the second purpose of the awards…so who actually are the voters of this award?

Who Are The Voters?

All votes are from members of the AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science); they are from different branches of the film industry although actors make up a considerable portion of the votes. These votes have been certified by big four auditors PWC. New membership to this group is considered annually and The Academy does not publicly disclose its membership. Although it is possible to find out some of the names of those who have been invited to join via press releases.

In 2012, the results of a study conducted by The Los Angeles Times was published which revealed the demographic breakdown of approximately 88% of AMPAS’ voting membership. Of the 5,100+ active voters confirmed, 94% were Caucasian, 77% were male, and 54% were found to be over the age of 60. 33% of voting members are former nominees (14%) and winners (19%). Diverse they ain’t.

Evidence – Proof is in the Pudding

Wonderful scene from Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction.

Some years ago I stumbled upon a very interesting article online. It was an interview with Quentin Tarantino and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River). They were talking film, and writing.  The topic of the “Cool” film came up, Tarantino was saying when American Beauty won best picture it was a new day for film, finally the underdog film won. Usually you have the cool film the indie type one that everyone likes then you have your Oscar type film, typically a studio big budget picture.  I highly recommend you read the article so I’ve attached the link at the end of this one. They go on to talk about their own films and which films won best picture in the same year. Here are the findings.

Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates

Pulp Fiction – Best Original Screenplay – Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary67th Academy Awards

94% Rotten Tomatoes

Budget: $8 Mil

Forrest Gump – Best Picture

71% Rotten Tomatoes

Budget: £55 Mil

70th Academy Awards

L.A. Confidential – Best Adapted Screenplay – Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson

99% Rotten Tomatoes

Budget: $35 Mil

Since Rotten Tomatoes is a review aggregator of critic’s scores, I think its safe to say that in both examples the “Cool” film, the underdog, the one that we as the audience genuinely love, did not win the Academy “Best Picture”. Why is this I hear you ask? Why isn’t the peoples film the one that wins? Well remember what we said before about the voters, who they are, and the purpose of these awards. A celebration of a filmmaker’s achievement is very much a secondary role at most; the awards exist as a marketing device to catapult quintessential studio pictures into the public domain.  An award winning film will be marketed as such not only for the rest of the films lifetime but also that of the filmmakers, be they producers, directors, or actors who worked on the project.  This is no bad thing, it can certainly help those involved by opening doors that were previously hidden or sealed.

Maybe the awards are also the studios way of legitimatizing their existence, meeting the underdog nominee with a firm handshake saying “kid your good, real good but as long as I’m in town you’re only ever gonna be number two!”

Interesting to note that these studio Oscar type movies tend to have significantly higher budgets than the underdog/crowd favorite ones.

The Flipside

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Arguable I’ve only compared four films from two Award ceremonies (taking the examples from the Tarantino/Helgeland debate). There are indeed other examples where the crowd favorite emerged as the Best Picture winner. Notably The Godfather in 1973, a tougher win would have been the 48th Academy Awards in which One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest emerged as Best Picture winner, Dog Day Afternoon was amongst the nominees in this category.  The following year Stallone’s Rocky would beat Taxi Driver for Best Picture!

Rocky 1976

So perhaps then there is no diabolical scheme of handpicking “Best” films, maybe it is indeed a random process and dependent on the whims and tastes of the mysterious voters in any given year, I will say this though a film voted as best by the academy is not analogous with the one the general public enjoy the most.

Can There Really Be A Best Film?

Marketing and the celebration of filmmakers by their peers aside, one can raise the question, why bother with awards in the first place? Should there be an award for art? Taking it to the extreme, was there an award for who was the best painter in renaissance Italy? Can we choose between Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael? Who is the best artist Picasso or Dali? These questions seem nonsensical. Great art is great art there is no “Best”. Art by its very nature defies best and becomes an individual expression in its own right. It deserves to exist and be appreciated just as much as any other work.

The trouble then arises from the nature of filmmaking, for it is both an art form and an industry. Films for the large part are made with the intention of making money and most are funded by investors who expect a healthy return. So the challenge is to strike a balance between the two straddling the line between art and commercial viability.

Ultimately there are benefits of winning an award, particularly an Oscar and here I’m thinking of the up and coming filmmaker like Benh Zeitlin with Beasts of The Southern Wild. Hopefully that award has opened doors for him and made him and his team household names. Quite a feat for a guy who only a couple years before only had two short films under his belt! So what do we do? If we win an award great, use whatever benefit it throws our way, but remember awards do not necessarily mean the “Best Film”.

Read the Tarantino and Brian Helgeland Interview

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