A World Without Oscar

What do I think of this year’s Oscar nominees, you ask?

Well, my favorite movie of 2013 received a whopping one Academy Award nomination.  My second favorite garnered none at all, as did three other entries on my personal top 10.

That’s what I think of this year’s Oscar nominees.

Actually, I think this year’s lineup is just fine.  The year 2013 produced many excellent films with many exceptional performances, and a commendable number of both turned up among the Academy’s honorees at the annual nominations announcement on January 16.  Some of the esteemed film society’s selections caused many analysts to scratch their heads, but plenty of others were well-deserved and, dare I say, inevitable.

You know.  Just like every other year.

In truth, in the movie world throughout January and February, the only thing more fashionable than the Oscars is complaining about the Oscars.

These critiques take a dizzying number of forms, each one more predictable than the next.  Some folks gripe about the media’s intensive focus on fashion and the red carpet, while others bitch about the ceremony’s boring hosts and self-indulgently long running time (the last telecast to run less than three hours occurred in 1973).

The more pointed dissents, however, cut directly to the institution’s original primary objective, which is to bestow the title of “best” onto a given year’s assortment of motion picture releases.

After all, when it comes to movies, what does “best” mean anyway?  Isn’t weighing one movie against another—movies with utterly disparate subject matter and purpose—the ultimate exercise in comparing apples to oranges?  Was Humphrey Bogart not onto something when he mused, “The only honest way to find the best actor would be to let everybody play Hamlet and let the best man win”?

Even more so than other awards shows—at least the Grammys divides its categories by genre—the Academy Awards is a patently absurd attempt at applying some sort of objective standard to an inherently subjective art form.

This year, then, let us take this curmudgeonly thought a step further and pose the following query:  What if we got rid of the Oscars once and for all?  What if there wasn’t this annual gathering of Hollywood’s best and brightest congratulating themselves on a job well done, with the rest of us following along for the ride?  How would the movie industry change, and would such a scenario produce a preferable environment to the one that currently exists?

The upsides are certainly tempting to ponder.

For starters, the abolition of a movie awards season might engender a more evenly-distributed release schedule (qualitatively speaking) compared to the lopsided, bottom-heavy one we have now.

With no Academy voters with whom to curry favor, studios would not be tripping over each other to release all their high-quality “prestige pictures” in the final weeks of December while spending the year’s remaining eleven and a half months churning out utter cinematic dreck.  There would be little reason not to unload Important Films by Important Directors about Important Subjects at any old time of the year.

Studio executives would still care about nothing except profit, of course, and would still employ careful strategery regarding when (or if) a particular project might see the light of day.  (Don’t expect future installments of Star Wars and Star Trek to ever open on the same weekend.)

But these considerations would no longer be tethered to some gold-plated grand payoff that so often comes at the expense of the very consumers whose dollars these executives seek in the first place.

Per contra, minus Oscar’s sinister allure, the relationship between producers and consumers would become considerably more direct, and a bit more honest as well.  For the film industry, the only real point of the Oscars is to sell more tickets and DVDs.  In its absence, moviemakers would no longer be able to rely on a political, drawn-out, behind-the-scenes marketing campaign to reel in unsuspecting viewers.

Instead, any such scheme would need to be directed squarely at those viewers themselves.  The message would shift from, “Watch this movie because it won a bunch of shiny trophies,” to, “Watch this movie because you just might enjoy it.”

And that directs us to the real question in all of this:  Is it useful to turn the experience of watching movies into some sort of competition?  Does it finally do more harm than good to reduce a medium that many still regard as a form of art into a horse race?

So long as great movies can be seen and cherished for their own sake, shouldn’t we stop pretending they require anything more?

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