Friday, June 26, 2009
2010 Oscars: More Films, Less Fun
Newsflash: The purpose of the Academy Awards isn’t to honor achievement in filmmaking. The purpose of the Academy Awards is to market the movie industry. If you didn’t know that already, you certainly must know it now, a day after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced that next year, and for the foreseeable future, there will be 10 films nominated for Best Picture instead of the (recently) traditional five. The purpose of this increase isn’t to decorate five more films, of course, because in a sense all the AMPAS has done is expand the list of Oscar night also-rans. The goal, without question, is to make five more films – and the star-studded live TV event that pimps them – more profitable.
Do I sound jaded? I don’t think I am. Because even though the AMPAS seems to be taking an embarrassing step toward the MTV mentality that celebrates films for their teen-biased performance at the box office, at the same time the Academy also is expanding the opportunities for small, controversial, abstract, and otherwise box-office-challenged films to reach a larger audience, and the latter might be worth the pains of the former, because, ideally, the latter might eventually influence the former. See, something like the big-budget Transformers 2 doesn’t need an Oscar nomination for the average moviegoer to be convinced that it’s a “must-see” film, but something like Two Lovers does. The difference between your 8-movies-a-year coworker having already seen The Reader over Revolutionary Road comes down to the fact that one of those films earned multiple major Oscar nods (a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actress win for Kate Winslet) and the other one didn’t. If that same 8-movies-a-year coworker could be convinced to see five more movies each year, he/she might realize that Frost/Nixon isn’t a top-5 picture of any year. Simply put: the more movies the average moviegoer sees, the greater the chance that he/she discovers a truly great film. In that respect, both sides seem to profit from the expansion of the nominee pool. But there is a significant downside.
By adding five films to the Best Picture slate, the Academy has sucked some of the fun out of Oscar season by eliminating the very thing that makes it interesting: controversy. For example, had the AMPAS expanded the Best Picture pool a year ago, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight almost certainly would have received the Oscar nomination that its fanboys so desperately craved. But what would that nomination have been worth? What does it mean to be one of the 10 best pictures of the year? The 2009 Oscars were four months ago, but already I’ve forgotten the five Best Picture nominees. There was Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and … and … Doubt? No, Doubt dominated the acting categories. So what was the fifth film? I’ll look it up in a bit. For the moment it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I can easily name five films that were considered unfairly “snubbed” in the last Oscar race: The Dark Knight, Gran Torino, Revolutionary Road , WALL-E and The Wrestler.
Because the Academy Awards have more in common with a political campaign than Olympic competition, there is power in controversy. In sports terms, the Oscar race better resembles college football’s BCS format than college basketball’s March Madness tournament. Though an Oscar nomination always raises a film’s profile in the short term, what often elevates a film to celebrated long-term greatness is the debate stirred up by the Academy’s dismissal. Fanboys might still be pissed that The Dark Knight didn’t get the validation of a Best Picture nomination, but as a result its fans get to spend the rest of time arguing that their favorite film got screwed, that the system didn’t support it, that at worst The Dark Knight was the sixth-best film of the year in the eyes of people who were prejudiced against it in the first place, which means it has to be awesome just to be in the conversation.
People will remember The Dark Knight in part because of its Oscar outsider status. Had it been included in a pool of 10 nominees, The Dark Knight might have become as forgettable as … as … as that fifth nominee from last year that still isn’t coming to me. Even worse, the validation that The Dark Knight fanboys hoped to receive through the Academy’s reluctant recognition of the superhero genre could have been spoiled with a 10-picture slate if the Academy also nominated 2008’s other wildly popular comic book movie, Iron Man. If that had happened, The Dark Knight wouldn’t have looked so special after all.
The Oscars will still be fun, of course, and they’ll still inspire debate, and maybe these extra nominations will allow the Academy to be more daring while also appeasing the mostly naïve masses. Maybe it will be a net gain. But it’s always been exciting to discover which five films would get a chance to compete for the big prize. After the announcement, it’s always been fun wondering which film just missed the cut and debating why. At the end of 2009 and in the initial weeks of 2010, there won’t be the same joy in Movieville. When there are 10 films competing for one statuette, the word snubbed no longer applies. That argument is now obsolete. Until recently, the Best Picture nomination system created lovable losers. Now, if you’re not a Best Picture nominee, you’re just a loser.