Yesterday the world’s most impressive array of frocked up celebrities congregated, as they do every year, to distribute prizes around a glorious looking room and watch show reels celebrating the work of themselves and their peers.
The fact that Oscar presenters are also often nominees – sometimes, the smile they take to the stage isn’t acting, it comes from the knowledge they’ve already won – says something about the ethos underpinning the event.
What goes around comes around, and more important than one person’s triumph is faith the institution lives on. If a big player didn’t win one year, there’s plenty more opportunity where that came from. While Hollywood can be a harsh and unforgiving place, spotted with burn-outs, has-beens and drop-offs, approval from the Academy is a hot meal ticket: when you’re in with the in crowd, you’re in with the in crowd, and the industry will keep moving chairs to accommodate you.
In any of the major categories, it is rare to see more than one unfamiliar nominee. More often than not, all are notable stars. The reason we watch the same faces every year isn’t because the most famous people produce the most impressive work. Like any competitive organisation, the Academy must survive by playing to its strengths, which in their case is celebrity recognition. Take that away and the whole thing goes belly up.
Whatever “may the best person win” kind of innocence associated with the voting process was demolished in the 1990s, when Miramax and the Weinstein brothers decided they would stop at virtually nothing to obtain cabinets full of gongs.
They amped up the strategic element, the politicking, vote-luring and wining and dining, going to great lengths to entice voters and smear opponents. Other companies caught on and cranked their dials to 11 too, which eventually returned the system to a weird equilibrium: if everybody is playing the same vicious game, with the same kind of deep pockets and ruthless tenacity, everybody is again on a more or less even keel.
In 1998, Miramax shelled out $5 million to nudge Shakespeare in Love ahead of favourite Saving Private Ryan. Their tactics included hiring a fleet of veteran publicists to schmooze voters and staging a party that should have disqualified them from the race. It was worth it: Shakespeare in Love won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
In the lead-up to this year’s ceremony, David O. Russell’s American Hustle (which received a whopping 10 nominations) was said to have “lost momentum.” The fact those words are commonly used in conjunction with a film awards ceremony says something about the political nature of it. More telling, still, is the fact it proved true. American Hustle didn’t win a thing.
If we look at the Academy Awards as a battle of corporate interests, who really won last night? Was it Warner Bros, who collected seven Oscars for Gravity? Was it Twentieth Century Fox, which got three gongs (including Best Picture) for 12 Years a Slave? The real victor was the same victor every ceremony: Hollywood itself.
Simply extending the shelf life of its products (including celebrities and the films they star in) isn’t the core reason the Academy exists. Year after year, it plays a key role in perpetuating an important illusion: that the industry it represents is defined by quality and predominantly adult content. Yesterday a representative of the Academy mentioned that in 2013, the American film industry generated over five billion sales at the box office.
The vast majority of those ticket stubs didn’t go to the high quality films promoted yesterday. The reality is that Hollywood’s business model is youth-oriented, dependent on ancillary markets and reliant on the provision of another kind of illusion — that cinemas exist to show audiences moving pictures. In reality they are huge auditoriums attached to fast food outlets; the purpose of the screen is to get people through the door.
Exhibitors live or die not on the strength of ticket sales but on selling heavily marked up products loaded with sugar and salt. Author Jay Epstein describes this as “the popcorn economy.”
There’s no doubt the Oscars celebrate quality filmmaking, and that is precisely the point. Marquee releases that arrive lacquered with the pedigree of awards season buzz are crucial in sustaining the idea, perpetuated during Hollywood’s annual back-slapping routines, that the soul of the industry is built on serious art rather than expendable kiddish shenanigans.
Like big budget movies, the Academy Awards ceremony is smoke and mirrors. There’s no shame in enjoying the spectacle: it’s pretty, loud, funny and entertainingly out of sync with reality.