Does Awards Season Matter?

*The following was written prior to the 2014 Academy Awards as a supplement to this blog.  It was originally published as a chapter in the blog and had a spot on the left-side panel with other like pages.  I have re-categorized it for organization’s sake, so it has been re-posted as a blog post.

The ending of the year (and the beginning of the following) represents an important time period in the movie industry, particularly in Hollywood.  We have come to call this period of time “Awards Season”, that four-month-or-so period of time between November and February (or March this year) which begins with the Gotham Awards and ends with the Academy Awards.  This period is not only limited to awards jubilees, however.  This season is also marked by film festivals, with their accompanying festival awards.  It is a time of balloting, nominating, campaigning, voting, winning, accepting, losing, and politely applauding.

The question of whether or not awards season matters is an important one to ask when one is contemplating the jump from casual movie-goer to competent movie-connoisseur.  An important topic of debate, particularly in contemporary discussions on film, revolves around a given award’s significance.  As time goes on, the line between the “cultured” and the “layman” continues to grow, but only because the “cultured” desperately want it to grow.  It makes them feel good about themselves.  As a man who considers himself to be quite cultured, I know that it doesn’t take a whole lot for a casual movie-goer to become competent.  It has nothing to do with how smart they are, merely how much time they’re willing to devote.  In a world full of humans who constantly contemplate the cost-benefit ratio of any decision, one cannot expect every person in the world to consider a Robert Bresson marathon a worthwhile use of time; particularly when there are hours to clock and shelves to fix.  The “cultured” people, too often, are the ones that don’t have the energy or desire to be practical, and they often choose to replace that with artistic pursuits.  There is nothing wrong with that—at least in theory—but problems come up when these “cultured” people insist on asserting their cultural superiority to somehow compensate for their lack of practicality.  So, they desperately try to stretch that boundary between themselves and those whom they have deemed “laymen”.

In what I consider a strategic move designed to play on this “cultured/layman” dynamic, the critical world has come to whine quite a bit about the “commercialism” of the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and other major awards.  They give too much credit to the popular film, they say.  They don’t give proper respect to independent films, which don’t have the means whereby they can publicize and campaign that major production companies enjoy.  They don’t give proper respect to non-American films, which no one in the United States are familiar with and which would helpfully pull attention away from Hollywood’s shallow dominance.  Meanwhile, they contradict themselves when they come to praise great works of political commentary, which almost inevitably come from Hollywood, where progressive ideals are far more abundant and accepted.  This is particularly evident when they say that movies like Dallas Buyers Club and Lee Daniels’ The Butler are the best movies of the year, when they actually aren’t, they are merely the most politically in line with their own activism.  They then turn around and say that we should pay more attention to other countries, when the movies that they themselves have lauded as the “best” are American.  It gets a little crazy.

The truth is, awards season does matter.  I know, how shocking.  Most would say it doesn’t.  After all, does it tell you what the best movie of a given year was?  No.  Does it validate a performance by objectively saying whether or not it was good or bad?  No.  Does it help a movie age well and gain some degree of cinematic immortality?  No.  Good movies, like all good art, are not validated nor survived by awards.  I am reminded of that scene in Dead Poets’ Society when Robin Williams’ character takes the chart that has been designed to quantify the quality of a given work of art and tears it in pieces in front of his students.  An award merely says that the particular group of people voting on that particular award liked that particular movie more than the others.  That doesn’t mean anything about a movie’s quality, as the quality is subjective.  Subjective, by definition, means that it deals with the individual.  That is why I said in the introduction to my list of the greatest films of all time that it is just fine for a single individual to come up with a quantified list, because it actually encourages boldness in an individual’s subjectivity.   It is a helpful exercise in the journey from casual movie-goer to competent movie-connoisseur.

That is one reason why I feel that awards season is a noble tradition: it involves a large group of competent movie-connoisseurs expressing their own opinions, deciding a winner based on popular vote, and then engaging in debate on the results.  There is something important about a film’s ability to gather a following.  This following could be critical, popular, demographically-driven, or even one of those “cult” followings that seem to be as powerful as any of them (consider the long-held popularity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even Napoleon Dynamite).  While there are many factors in determining a given film’s overall legacy, one of these factors involves the given film’s ability to garner an audience, and this is demonstrated by the awards that the film was nominated for.

Perhaps the most significant of these audiences is the audience of one’s peers.  The awards season is primarily an opportunity for actors to nominate actors, for directors to nominate directors and for technical specialists to nominate technical specialists.  I think that critics get so caught up in the “screw awards season” banter because this is the moment that hurts their elite status.  Consider for a minute when someone goes to a restaurant and critiques the food, using all the tasting experience he or she has had in his or her life, ultimately declaring that the food is terrible.  After all, this person knows food, having eaten three times a day for an entire lifetime.  Then, some professional chef comes in and says the food is great.  No one doubts the credentials of the first person.  After all, what better opinion is there than one held by someone exposed to something so common as food?  But, the professional chef still has some sort of clout that we can’t help but respect, deserved or not.  Often, these awards situations make the critic, like the non-chef, somewhat bitter, despite the fact that critic is still a superb source.

Actually, critics are often better sources because they view pictures as composite wholes, while these awards by peers that are given every November, December, January and February are often viewed through biased eyes.  Actors of a Adler’s school will not as soon vote for actors of Strasberg’s school; just as directors of blockbuster pictures are often looking for different things than those that direct low-key dramas.  While some may want to laud a great technical achievement, others may be extra focused on acting ensembles (hmmm….Gravity or American Hustle?).  The fickleness of these voting bodies may make them less credible than a critic that examines every facet of a given film, but it also lends to a volatile and thriving industry.  Really, popularity contests only matter among your peers, and there’s something very telling about a chef saying you make a good meal.  Perhaps that is why Sue Mengers, a famous talent agent for many significant filmmakers and actors in the mid-1900s, said “Stars are rare creatures, and not everyone can be one. But there isn’t anyone on earth—not you, not me, not the girl next door—who wouldn’t like to be a movie star holding up that gold statuette on Academy Award night.”

So, awards season contributes to a film’s overall legacy by giving it its proper praise from the peers of its creators.  That is important.  But, there is a bigger reason, and this is the biggest reason of them all.

These awards can be utilized to help open people’s eyes to the world of cinema.  Remember the purpose of this blog!  I hope, through my writing, to help the casual movie-goer become a competent film-connoisseur.  Going to the archives of the various awarding administrations can help the casual movie-goer find movies.  Take this example.

Casual movie-goer A goes to a movie theater in August of 2008 with his extended family and watches the biggest movie of the year: The Dark Knight, starring Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Michael Cane, and Morgan Freeman.  Leaving the theater, casual movie-goer A exclaims “that might have been the best movie ever made!”  As casual movie-goer A is enjoying his first year as a college student, with his first-ever laptop, he often finds himself reading articles about The Dark Knight.  He “likes” a page saying that The Dark Knight should be nominated for Best Picture.  He reads troves of essays on Heath Ledger’s monumental performance.  Then, February 22 of the following year comes around.  The Dark Knight, not even nominated for Best Picture, goes on to win only two awards: for Best Supporting Actor and for Best Sound Editing.  This atrocity bothers casual movie-goer A, and so he decides to look into it.  What is this Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonmovie?  What about this Slumdog Millionaire movie?  All of a sudden, casual movie-goer A starts looking into “Bollywood” films, and is eventually (four or five years later) introduced into such Bengali-language masterpieces as Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu.  Meanwhile, he becomes a Cate Blanchett fan after watching Curious Case of Benjamin Button and finds himself loving the Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There, where Blanchett plays one of many manifestations of Bob Dylan’s character.

Still, casual movie-goer A insists that The Dark Knight was the best movie of 2008.  He goes to various lists online to see where it ranks.  Imdb.com sends him on a search for this The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly movie.  A list of the “Biggest Ever Best Picture Snubs” sends him to The Shawshank Redemption.  Upon finding out, reading that same list, that the first Star Wars movie lost to some rom-com called Annie Hall, he decides he should see what the big fuss about Woody Allen was all about, especially since the only time he had ever been exposed to the work of Allen was in Antz.

All this from the fact that the Academy made a decision.  And in case you didn’t notice, which you probably did, casual movie-goer A is me.

This is the reason why awards season does matter, especially for the casual movie-goer on the path to competency in the world of cinema.  I would recommend an exercise that I myself have never actually done, but I think it sounds fun: start with 1927’s Wings—the first ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture—and watch the 85 winners leading up to last year’s Argo.  “85 movies?” you ask.  Yes, it’s not as terrible as you think.  How much time do you spend watching TV shows on Netflix every day?  You can supplant this time and instead watch something good.  You can easily watch them all this year without any trouble, and still find time to meet all your deadlines and finish all your projects.  Watch one movie a week, you finish it in a year and a half.  Watch them with friends and family.  Talk about them together.  From analysis and conversation comes true competency in film.  I think that is one reason why I made this blog.  In all this talk about helping the casual movie-goer become a competent one, perhaps I really considered it necessary in my own progression as a film-connoisseur to write about the films and theories to which I had been exposed over the last few years.

In watching these movies, you’ll see the evolution of film over time, including the emergence of sound, the development of frame ratios and camera speeds, and the advent of computers in movie production.  You’ll see comedies (It Happened One Night, The Apartment, Amadeus, and The Artist), romances (Gone With the WindCasablanca, and Shakespeare in Love), musicals (An American in Paris, My Fair Lady, and Chicago), historical epics (Lawrence of Arabia, Dances With Wolves, and Gladiator), intimate dramas (How Green Was My Valley, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Terms of Endearment), crime masterpieces (On the Waterfront, The Godfather,and Mystic River), and war films (All Quiet on the Western Front, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Saving Private Ryan).

Consider this rather dated comment from the screenwriter of The Exorcist, who said, “I get cassettes near Academy Award time of every movie that’s made that thinks it has some kind of chance for a nomination – that’s when I watch my movies.”  If the only movies you ever watched are Academy Award nominees, or Screen Actors Guild award nominees, or BAFTA nominees, you won’t be too bad off.  That’s not say that you won’t be missing out on some key films, but you’ll far better along than most casual movie-goers.  And I will say this, in your quest to educate yourself on a given year’s nominees, you’ll be led to those other “snubbed” and forgotten films that are so deserving of your attention.  That is inevitable.

Now that the opinion part of this chapter has been written, I would now like to spend a little time writing on the various major awards.  When one comes to understand who makes up the voting body for each respective award, that person can better understand what certain awards tend to emphasize.  This is important when it comes to giving awards season its proper dues.  For concision’s sake (I’ve decided to try being concise now…yeah, right) I will only cover five awards.

First and foremost, we will discuss the biggest of all the awards, the plus grand de tous.

The Academy Awards

Known as “The Oscars” for the golden statuettes that are given (which are officially called “Academy Awards of Merit”), the Academy Award Ceremony is often the final awards extravaganza of the awards season.  This makes this particular ceremony the ultimate movie ceremony, the final award, not unlike the championship game after a long post-season in sports.  While all the other awards are great (as a matter of fact, they are all based on the Academy’s premise because the Academy Awards is the oldest awards ceremony in the performing arts), the award movie makers want, particularly the award that American movie makers want, is the Oscar.

The nominees (and ultimate winners) are selected by a voting body which, as of 2012, has 5,783 members.  About 20% of this Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) consists of actors; actors, therefore, make up the largest “demographic” if you want to call it that.  Consider, for a moment, how this effects the movies that are picked.  Also consider the sheer amount of votes involved.  This also makes it difficult for art films and foreign films to get in running, because there will be so much diversity in the ballot results that picking the top 5 must inevitably result in popular films.

This is the most consistent criticism of the Academy.  But, when one considers the nature of the voting, I don’t think the criticism is very worthwhile.  There is nothing wrong, in my eyes, with an ethnocentric award presentation.  Most countries have awards races for their own national releases.  We just have a big problem with that in America because we’re a “melting pot” and we insist that “America the Beautiful” be sung in every foreign language.

There is, however, a legitimate problem with the Academy, and it spawns from a term you’ve probably heard: “Oscar bait.”  Basically, “Oscar bait” is any film that falls under a certain genre that is released in the last three months of a given year so that it’s fresh on everyone’s minds. Which genres are the most “Oscar bait”-ish?  Romantic historical epics, biographical dramas, romantic “dramedies”, and family melodramas.  Perhaps this is born of the fact that the greatest segment of voters are actors and these genres are the most fitting for dominating acting performances.  This gives movies like those made by Robert Bresson—one of my very favorite auteurs—a distinct disadvantage, because, while they are incredibly poignant and moving, they are not as obviously emotional and dramatic as other movies.

The Cannes Film Festival

Film festivals are not part of awards season, but the Cannes Film Festival is not only the most prestigious festival in the world but also awards the most significant movie award of a given year: the Palme d’Or.  I said earlier that American filmmakers want to get the Oscar.  Filmmakers from everywhere else lust for that illustrious Palme d’Or.  Where in 2002, Chicago won the Best Picture Academy Award, it was Roman Polanski’s The Pianist that took home the Palme d’Or.  Ten years later, in 2012, Argo won the Best Picture Academy Award, but Amour was the Palme d’Or-winner.  It is quite obvious that the Palme d’Or is a more art-driven competition that puts quality over popularity because it is singularly involved with first viewings and presentations.

Despite all of its prestige, however, one must recognize the nature of all festival awards.  Whether at Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, or Venice, they all are subject to a certain mob mentality.  That is probably an unfair word usage on my part, but it is inevitable in any group setting for a person to go with the crowd.  Often, these awards are delivered after a single viewing with a powerfully influencing audience.  That they can, at times, be rushed decisions.  However, one should consider the voting body involved.  The films are awarded based on the deliberations of several “juries”, the most prestigious of these juries is the “Competition” jury, which was, this year, presided by Steven Spielberg and included an international body that included Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz, Ang Lee, Daniel Auteuil, Vidya Balan, and three others.  Other juries award other awards, but one can see that festival awards are usually given be a relatively small voting body.  This can be telling, as a general consensus is quite easy to maintain.  A film’s true greatness, therefore, can be difficult to gauge.

The Golden Globes Award

Like the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes is a primarily ethnocentric American awards ceremony, but it is even more focused on popular film than the Academy is, as it does not have awards recognizing cinematography, documentaries, or short films (animated and live action).  Even some very honorable awards, such as foreign English-speaking films, World Film Favorites (known once upon a time as the Henrietta award), and films promoting international harmony have been retired over the years.  The Globes don’t even award technical achievements in film.

The ethnocentricity of the awards can be surprising at the outset when one learns that voting body for these awards is called the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and consists of about ninety members representing 55 countries.  These members are all photographers and journalists in the foreign news press that report primarily on American film.  Therefore, the Golden Globes can be quite telling in regards to how foreign film consumers gauge American movies.  With that being said, however, the exposure to American film in other countries is rooted in popularity, since more obscure films don’t develop much traction overseas.  The American film industry is propelled by the market.
The significance of the Golden Globes in today’s film criticism is its foreshadowing ability: when a movie wins a Golden Globe it becomes the frontrunner for the upcoming Academy Award.  After all, this ceremony occurs at the height of campaign season.  The “Oscar bait” has just been cast and now its time to reel in, as it were.  In this regard, the Golden Globes is significant to observe if only for its ability to sway the Academy every now and again.
British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards
The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (or BAFTA) awards is an important inclusion in this list.  This is because it is, for all intents and purposes, the Academy Awards of Great Britain, demonstrating furthermore that everycountry, not just the United States, has ethnocentrism in their voting paradigms, and, therefore, it is not very fitting to decry American awards systems.  There is no need to go into the awards ceremonies of the various nations, just Google it some.
The BAFTA film awards (you have to specify, because the British Academy also votes for television, games, and children’s entertainment in other ceremonies) have even more that ethnocentrism in common with the United States.  They share all the same awards categories, plus one dedicated solely to the Best British Picture, a “Rising Star” award, and a “Debut” award.  It also has a comparable voting body, only this one is slightly bigger than the United States-based Academy with 6500.  The group is quite House of Lords-y; the Duke of Cambridge is the current acting president.
Therefore, consider these things, the ethnocentrism, the size of the voting party and the nature of awards seasons in general—all considerations that one would also need to take when evaluating the Academy Awards—when seeing the BAFTA results.
The Screen Actors Guild Awards
The Screen Actors Guild was basically the actor’s union based out of Hollywood, but it was dissolved last year into the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, so they are now known by the acronym SAG-AFTRA.  The awards, however, are still called the SAG awards, for continuity’s sake is my guess.
The considerations one must take with the SAG awards are pretty obvious.  The voting body is gigantic, and considering the fact that it is a labor union, the award is almost like an employee of the year competition.  The Screen Actors Guild is made of actors and their agents and their lawyers, and actors do all the voting.  The primary consideration that one should take, therefore, is what sort of acting do actors like.
The political atmosphere of Hollywood is seen definitively in the SAG awards, as actors that are politically active and that give particularly significant time and effort to the union are normally given the top awards.  Just consider the all-time leader in most SAG award victories: Alec Baldwin.  Not Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin.  The SAGs also don’t nominate Best Picture, the nominate Best Ensemble.  This is not a weakness, since the awards do not pretend to consider cinematography, montage, score and other elements of the film making process.  It is important to take into account, however, in case the casual movie-goer doesn’t understand what is going on upon watching his or her first SAG ceremony.
Really, the value of the SAGs is similar to the value of the Golden Globe in that it helps the campaigns for the later Academy awards.  The SAGs, comprising solely actors, and actors making up the largest chunk of the Academy, can be a telling voting body when it comes to determining many of the major awards.  Acting ensembles have become a very important facet of an American film’s success—as a matter of fact, they always have been—and so the SAGs can, again, be very telling.
Like the SAGs, there are other industry-specific award ceremonies: critics, producers, directors, screenwriters, special effects guys and virtually everyone else in the business has their own proprietary award show.  And, like the SAGs, it is important to understand these for what they are: inherently biased, but helpful in terms of finding films and starting conversations.
Anyway, that is my spiel on Awards Season.  Awards contribute to a film’s overall legacy by granting acceptance from peers.  They also are important for the casual movie-goer to follow because they help the casual movie-goer find new films (or old films, most likely) to watch, bettering their exposure to the world of cinema.
In conclusion, a final point is helpful.  Perhaps the most important reason why awards season actually does matter is because it helps incite debate.  From discussion comes true understanding of film conception.  I recall a moment when my best friend and I stayed up late watching No Country for Old Men (winner of Best Picture in 2007).  We spent just as long talking about the movie’s themes as we did watching the movie.  Now, consider the discussion one could have about why it beat out There Will Be Blood.  Should it have?  It’s a question worth asking.
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3 thoughts on “Does Awards Season Matter?

  1. Very, very interesting read. Though I start to doubt the credibility of the Oscars and the Golden Globes as time goes by, I do understand that they are great publicity for films that otherwise might not be noticed. I always feel like I should try to watch the nominees for Best Film because I want to know what everyone is talking about. In that way the awards serve their purpose, and it’s a pretty cool night too, the Oscars. Great article, definitely some food for thought there. Are you currently sharing your work on any other movie/tv platforms?

      • Hi Stanley, no problem at all. Well, if you’re interested, I’d love to introduce you to a platform called Creators. Free free to shoot me an e-mail if you’d like me to expand on that. You can find my contact details on my blog.

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