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Why Awards Season Is Bad for Movies

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | December 6, 2013 | Comments ()


award-season.jpg

The New York Film Critics Circle announced their 2013 awards the other day, after hours of debate in a process one member dubbed “arcane.” The National Board of Review soon followed suit, and other critics groups will be making similar announcements in the coming weeks. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association will announce Golden Globe nominations on December 12, with the awards show following on January 12. Four days later, January 16, will mark the announcement of Academy Award nominees, with the Oscar ceremony set for March 2. Film Independent’s Spirit Awards already announced their nominees; those are passed out March 1, the night before the Oscars. The Gotham Awards already happened, too. Film critics on Twitter are making arch jokes about movies most people haven’t had a chance to see yet, and some are issuing “best of the year” lists that similarly feature films that haven’t hit screens in most of the country.

It’s awards season.

This madness happens every year, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get used to. If anything, it feels more chaotic and noisy each time. Part of it is that, for some, awards season never ends. HitFix’s In Contention blog, which writes about awards year-round, has the cheeky tagline “No one needs awards coverage this deep,” which is meant to be a joke but comes across somewhat more desperate and uncertain. There’s Gold Derby, and the Carpetbagger, and the Envelope, and many more blogs devoted solely to the horserace of golden statues and celebrity speeches. Before long, awards coverage becomes the point of seeing movies, not a byproduct of the process. We don’t talk about other media this way, either. New singles or albums aren’t evaluated solely on their likelihood of winning a Grammy; you don’t loan a book to a friend and say, “You should totally read this, it’s a lock for the PEN/Faulkner Award.” Yet for some reason, we often feel compelled to treat films as vehicles for something else, mere stepping stones on the path to the real prize. This, unsurprisingly, leads to a number of problems.

The biggest is that it turns movies into abstract pieces in an eternal game. Films cease to be works of art or entertainment and become interchangeable objects spoken of only in terms of their marketing campaigns or chances to “win” a certain category of award. The coverage could be about anything. The movies themselves become incidental to the discussion, and such coverage trains us to think about films as merely means to an end filled with trophies. This is a tricky area in large part because the people involved with making movies all have different reasons for doing so: those on the creative side might be more driven by vision or expression, while those on the production and distribution side might be more inspired by the possibility of leveraging awards cache to increase their own payout. It’s a continuum of emotion and motivation, and people slide back and forth over time. But it’s troubling when our instinct as viewers is not to try and connect with those creative forces who brought a story to life but to align ourselves with the business interests of the controlling studio. We the people don’t benefit if a given film wins or loses an award. No amount of trophies on a DVD cover can change how a film works on its own.

Worse, awards coverage treats movies as if they exist only for the few weeks at the end of the year when studios put out “prestige” titles that are designed to capture award nominations. There’s no real secret to why they put out these movies at the end of the year: our brains look more fondly on recent experiences, so studios want films to come out as close to the nominating cycle as possible. There’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy involved; since the end of the year is now associated with award contenders or prestige titles, releasing your movie at that time can give you a subconscious boost in the mind of the voter. But movies exist long after a particular awards season has ended. That’s why the notion of “great movie years” is flawed; it assumes that, e.g., Inside Llewyn Davis exists solely as an artifact of 2013 that was created to compete in a few arbitrary competitions, instead of treating it as a film that anyone can watch at any time going forward. It’ll still exist next summer, and the year after, and ten years from now, long after we’ve forgotten every fleeting pop culture story from the 2013 awards.

None of this is news, though. Awards coverage can act like Oscars/Globes/etc. are crucially important, but few people seem to actually think that way. Similarly, though getting swept up in the horserace can mean talking like a studio head for a month, it doesn’t seem likely that readers and viewers will actually make the leap from consumers of entertainment to calculating analysts who only care about box office and nominations. These symptoms don’t seem to be going away, but the disease isn’t totally taking over, either. So what’s the reason? Why do we come back to the inanity of awards chatter year after year?

Because it’s not about the awards. It’s about the hype, the stars, and — most of all — the money. There’s a great moment in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show where an executive (played by Martin Scorsese) is defending the practice of rigging game shows: “Why fix them? Think about it, will ya? You could do exactly the same thing by just making the questions easier. See, the audience didn’t tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.” This is the best way to think about awards season, and awards coverage, and the whole racket in general. Watching the race means watching the money, and tracking trophies brings with it some faint, vicarious thrill of power, as if our focus influenced the outcome. It’s the money that keeps us coming back, the allure of watching an actor or producer soar above their peers and earn even more fame, power, and, inevitably, money. Oscar ratings are roughly tied to the earnings of the nominees, too. It’s a rich, gorgeous, empty circus. The real goal isn’t awards, but to find and share those movies that wind up meaning something to us. The trophies will never matter.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • e jerry powell

    When I start feeling like this, I remind myself that AMPAS was founded by the film studios themselves, and as a marketing tool for the film industry. True, AMPAS did eventually become autonomous, but the awards, however allegedly neutral they claim to be, are still nothing more than the marketing tool they started as.

  • Jennifer Lawrence - she's legal now, right?

  • Robert

    If you actually look at the trends, December has turned into a not great month to release Oscar films. November is better as there is (surprise) more time for the voters to see the films. One week and a gillion Oscar nomination films are done for. And even then, with the exception of January, Oscar voters really have started looking at the full year of film.

    I feel bad for people who only follow critics who frame everything as part of the Oscar race. Even if it's an "Oscar?" question after the review, it's a disservice to film criticism. It's not about awards. It's about the merits of the film. Awards can happen later.

  • Some Guy

    This has been bugging me for some time, but does anyone else out there have a hard time taking 4 out of 5 of those actors featured above seriously because of their specific-to-the-point-of-ridiculous-haircuts?

    I can forgive the clothing the wallpaper, the accents, the music, whatever else dates this film to the time period it's in, but for some reason the hairstyles just make it seem like someone is playing a practical joke on me and dressed them for a Halloween competition by mistake.

    Like this movie can't be for real because it's starring an Emu in a perm and Amy Adams doing her best Gina Montana impersonation?

    Anyone else?

    Please?

  • Those are totally 'movie magic' 70s haircuts that completely fake. The tuxedo bows are trippin' me out more on Renner and Bale.

  • Stu Rat

    They need to go to the awards shows dressed like that.

  • fracas

    Yes. Also, competitive art makes no sense. Art is subjective. Art can't score the most points or cross the finish line first. If art is made well there's no real way to say one is better than another and deserving of a trophy. How can you compare a good drama to a good comedy to a good adventure flick and say which is better at being a movie?

  • Helo

    The biggest harm I feel is when films are made for the express purpose of getting awards attentions (oh, hey, Miramax, what's up?)

    "Prestige" pictures seem to basically tick off some sort of checklist and exist only to advertise with those little olive branches for the first 5 seconds of their trailer. Not that I automatically discount them, some of them can be very good films, I just feel that it leaves little room for appreciating and executing creative work.

  • John G.

    Queen JLaw looks amazing in that dress.

  • HerringGull

    The distance from chin to her boobs looks like a quarter mile!

  • Zen

    Agreed. I just came down to spill out my thoughts of "HOLY AMAZING EVERYTHING" regarding Jennifer.

  • Matt C.

    I agree, but I also feel like awards season is good for movies in some ways. For instance, movies that aren't locks to be blockbusters can still become movie events. If it weren't for awards season, American Hustle may just be some small artsy movie with a couple of stars that people know, but instead Columbia (I think?) gets to market the shit out of it in the hopes that it gets nominated for large awards, bringing it to a more mainstream audience that might not otherwise have seen it.

  • Dan Scott

    American Hustle's not an artsy movie by any standards. It's by David O. Russell for one

  • Matt C.

    Yeah but without the heavy marketing that Russell's movies get nowadays it might seem like it is, ala I Heart Huckabees

  • Guest

    Since most award shows get it wrong anyway, I only look forward to a few good speeches and all the pretty.

    I've never based seeing a movie on how many nominations it gets or awards it's won.

    *Also if Hollywood didn't have an opportunity to back slap itself, they'd only have their money, privileges, and ego to assurance themselves.

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