Why We Need the ‘Elitism’ of the Oscars

Mathematically speaking, the odds are that if you A) purchased a ticket to a movie in 2015 and B) watch the upcoming Academy Awards telecast on Sunday night, you C) won’t see your favorite movies from last year win…well, anything. The New York Times observed last year that the Oscars still represent a startlingly large discontinuity between the films honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and those honored with the almighty dollar by the American public. Case in point from last year: Whereas nominee American Sniper earned over $300 million domestically and only earned a technical award at the 2015 show,  Best Picture-winner Birdman grossed less than a tenth of that. Put those facts together and you get a sparsely-watched telecast and Oscar elitism:

“It’s sad, but most people have to finally accept that the Oscars have become, well, elitist and not in step with anything that is actually popular,” said Philip Hallman, a film studies librarian at the University of Michigan. “No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time…”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: In 2009, Academy officials increased their field of best picture nominees, from five to a maximum of 10, in a bid to embrace large, world-spanning films — “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” — that are the pinnacle of populist art. The plan was to shift the Oscars back toward relevancy, “a history where most of the winning films were also popular with the audience,” as Mr. Hallman put it on Monday.

That strategy failed, of course, because it was perfunctory. If you see your job, as Academy voters do, as rewarding the year’s very best-made and most artistically compelling films, increasing the number of nominees you *must* have is merely spreading the vegetables around on your plate before ignoring them again. There was never any reason to believe that five slots in the Best Picture category were excluding movies that ought to win; as this article says, the purpose of the change was to tell the American public, “Hey, we’re watching the same movies as you–we promise!”

But is this reassurance even a good thing?

The Oscars are indeed “elitist” and have been for a very long time, if by “elitist” you mean “Consciously choosing to not see the film industry the way most Americans see it.” But such “elitism” is actually the heart of why the Oscars still matter. For the awards to not be elitist in a meaningful way would be for them to become utterly meaningless.

Unlike the Grammys and Emmys, the Academy Awards frequently honors work that isn’t “successful” by popular industry standards. Oscar-winning films can lack both the power of distribution and rich marketing funds that major pictures–the kind you’re likely to see a huge cardboard display for at your local mall theater–thrive on.

In other words, the Oscars don’t just reward studios with market research teams and lavish PR campaigns. They honor filmmakers and films. Call it elitism if you want, but that is exactly what every industry needs–incentive for innovation that goes beyond corporatism.

That’s not the only good thing about the Academy’s”elitism” either. A healthy dose of film snobbery is welcome if it even slightly punctures the asphyxiating creative stagnation that characterizes Hollywood right now. For more than a decade now, the American box office has become a practical altar to the franchise, the sequel and the recycled comic book story. It’s worse than you think; since 2002, only two non-franchise, non-sequel movies have topped the yearly box office. The two films? James Cameron’s highly derivative Avatar and Disney’s Frozen, both of which have sequels currently in development. Also since 2002, the Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman franchises have each been rebooted twice, and Pirates of the Caribbean and the intolerable Transformers series have each had *four* installments, all of them major hits (Transformers: Age of Extinction topped the entire box office in 2014 despite scoring a Rob Schneider-like 18% at Rotten Tomatoes). And of course, the box office will now continue to be dominated by the Star Wars franchise, after The Force Awakens obliterated records and proved to the film industry once again the financial wisdom of repackaging twice-told tales.

The American public simply isn’t very good at going to movies right now. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, in one of 2014’s most important essays, contemplated the infantilizing of both our entertainment and our lifestyles. Scott characterized the current generation of pop culture as the “unassailable ascendency of the fan,” through which serious (=adult) consideration of meaning and symbolism are replaced with childlike loyalty to never-ending franchises that are essentially live-action cartoons. What’s lost in this phase is a realistic sense of what our world is like, and how to respond to it through art.

Even if you don’t pine for the years of “gritty,” existentially harsh films like Raging Bull and Midnight Cowboy, there’s something to be said for films that don’t need superhero paradigms in order to tell a rich story. This year’s list of Best Picture contenders is a particularly rich palate: Human perseverance against nature in The Martian and The Revenant, or the quest for truth and justice in Spotlight and Bridge of Spies. Most Americans would never think to dedicate a Saturday to a film like Brooklyn or Room if it weren’t for a healthy critical culture that highlights great storytelling in a dim commercial context.

The Oscars serve our culture by recognizing stories and storytellers. Film critics provide the public with a small yet often effective antidote to the monotony and meaninglessness of Memorial Day weekend openings. It is good for the everyday, working class moviegoer to know that there are alternatives to the blockbusters. Call it elitism if you want. It’s the good kind.

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