The Oscars are Broken, but They Still Matter
The Oscars are broken but amidst all of the negativity and controversy, it's worth remembering why they matter in the first place.
The Oscars are broken. There’s no escaping the fact that the Academy and their system for awarding the best the movie world has to offer is far from perfect. From all of the politicking, positioning and campaigning to the limited scope of the films in the race and of course the startling lack of diversity among the nominees, it’s clear that a lot could be done to fix this very flawed system.
But rather than discuss the issues with the Oscars and the ways they can be fixed – a conversation that’s had all over the internet every year, that the Academy is finally listening to – it seems like a good time to consider something that so many people forget or outright deny: the Oscars matter. They matter, and even in the midst of so much negativity – much of it deserved, particularly in the face of #OscarsSoWhite – we should all take a second to consider why the Oscars are actually important.
One mistake a lot of people seem to make when discussing the Oscars – and it’s one that often serves as a justification for the “who cares about the Oscars?” bandwagon – is assuming that they are in some way a definitive gauge of quality and if that doesn’t align with your own favourites, then they’re wrong and worthless. It’s obvious why that’s incorrect (there’s no ‘best’ in art) but it’s just one of many justifications used by Oscar naysayers – of which there are many – to try to discredit the whole shebang and prove its lack of worth.
Being disinterested in the Oscars is fine of course, but to ignore or deny the positives of this weird, self-congratulatory process smacks of ignorance, especially from the sub-section of Film Twitter who attempt to flaunt their lack of interest in awards season with sneering superiority. It might not be cool to like the Oscars, but their effect on the industry is vital.
Getting an Oscar nomination – especially if that leads to a win – brings a huge boost in exposure, which naturally leads to a big bump in box office receipts. Considering many of the films that wind up in the Best Picture race are smaller and often independent films, the buzz that comes with an Oscar opens them up to a far wider audience than they might have otherwise found.
Looking at the Best Picture winners over the past five years, each one has received a noticeable bump in the week of the nominations being announced and/or the week of the ceremony itself, with only Ben Affleck’s Argo failing to increase its box office takings after winning the statuette.
(Box office stats courtesy of Box Office Mojo)
The King’s Speech
12 Years a Slave
Of these films, only Argo had a budget over $20 million but each one made over $100 million dollars at the worldwide box office (The King’s Speech ended up making over $400 million), thanks in large part to their Oscar success. The Artist, 12 Years a Slave and Birdman in particular are smaller, more ‘difficult’ films that don’t have that crowd-pleasing element that helped make Argo and The King’s Speech in particular such big hits, so their awards buzz was crucial to them getting seen and in turn making big bucks.
It’s also noticeable how awards season contention can extend a film’s run beyond the usual time frame, with 12 Years a Slave, Argo and Birdman – as well as previous Best Picture winners Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed and No Country for Old Men – all opened in October or early November but stuck around at the box office until at least March.
It isn’t just the big winners either. Last year’s Best Picture contenders Boyhood and Whiplash – which took home four Oscars between them but missed out on the big prize – both saw their box office takings jump in the weeks surrounding the Oscars and their run in cinemas greatly extended. In the case of Boyhood, it was enough to keep a film that opened in July 2014 in theatres until March 2015.
These are two very small films with budgets of $4 million for Boyhood and $3.3 million dollars for Whiplash, so the buzz that awards conversations create is vital to them finding a wider audience. Of course, it helps that they are great movies and positive word of mouth will no doubt be a factor but when you compare the results of Oscar winners and nominees to the films that don’t quite make the cut, it solidifies the ‘Oscar effect’.
Take The Judge for example. A mid-budget adult drama with a couple of big stars that seemed perfectly geared towards a run at the Oscars last year but ultimately, it was only Robert Duvall who managed to snag an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. As such, the film’s box office run – starting in the awards-friendly slot in October – fizzled out by January.
That financial boost makes it more viable for studios to make these films but there’s also another incentive for them: prestige. Winning Oscars carries with it a perceived prestige that can be a valuable asset for a producer or a studio. Harvey Weinstein has famously built a reputation as someone who can guarantee the actors in his films a shot at an Oscar and since that’s something most actors want – why wouldn’t they? – he gets the biggest and best names to star in his movies.
If the Oscars didn’t exist, there would be virtually no incentive for studios to finance the mid-budget prestige pics or distribute breakout indie flicks or anything else that isn’t aimed at the widest possible demographics. Dramas aimed at grown-ups would have an even harder time getting made if there wasn’t the awards season end-game that for studios brings in a return on investment and a smattering of prestige. Why bother making a $10 million movie for adults that will struggle to make a profit when you could make a $100 million movie aimed at every demographic imaginable that will bring in five times its budget? The industry is moving more and more towards that as it is; without the Oscars, there’d be very little reason for any of the bigger studios to turn out anything without a superhero or a car chase in it.
Winning an Oscar can also have a significant effect on someone’s career, be that an actor who suddenly has the opportunity to work with better filmmakers and command a higher salary or a director who can now attract a higher class of actors to his or her projects and have a higher budget to work with. Speaking at Cannes in 2014, a mere two months after winning Best Actor for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey said “What has really changed is that I am getting more scripts, I’ve got more choices which is great coming off of that. If anything it’s giving me more opportunities, more things to choose from, which I’m embracing. And in the middle of getting much more, I can more easily now personally ask myself ‘What do I want to do that turns me on? What experience am I going to get out of it?”. That’s a sentiment echoed by many Oscar winners and while not every winner capitalises, these awards can help launch the career of an up and comer, revitalise an aging star’s career or even introduce a foreign star to a wider audience, paving the way to a career in Hollywood.
So you might take issue with the way the awards work – there’s plenty of reason to, that’s for sure – and you might not love the movies that take home the gold. Maybe you just don’t care about any of it. But it’s important to remember that for a lot of reasons and to a lot of people, the Oscars make a big difference – think about films this year like Room, Brooklyn and Mad Max: Fury Road that will benefit – and that’s why they’re worth fixing.