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Why the Oscars Matter

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | February 22, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | February 22, 2010 |

The 82nd Annual Academy Awards are set to air in two weeks and it seems that, of the cynical among us (read: all of you), the usual array of apathetic and outraged expressions will be making their annual appearance: “Awards shows are meaningless,” “Why should we care?” “Another Hollywood circle jerk,” “Why would I watch four hours of rich white people congratulating themselves?” and, of course, “The Oscars are completely irrelevant.”

We will all feign disinterest, even as our remotes inexplicably steer us toward the ceremony, where we will likely sit, captivated by boredom, hoping for a fun unscripted moment or a rare upset among the winners. Because that’s what we do, right? We’re too cool for the Oscars, that bourgeois bullshit, the fancy gowns, and the all too frequent cutaways to Brad Pitt. Never mind that the Oscar telecast is almost always the second-highest rated network program of the year (after the Super Bowl), where mainstream America tunes in to hear about a lot of movies they’ve never heard of, if only to make out briefly with the spectacle. And how dare they call it the female Super Bowl! What kind of sexist bullshit is that?

But here’s the God’s honest: The Oscars do matter, and not just because they generate whopping ratings and huge advertising revenue for the airing network. It’s because the Oscars validate everything we believe about the Academy, and if you’re a fan of movies, and of talking about movies, it’s validation that we all crave. The Best Picture nomination for the biggest blockbuster of all time, Avatar, is the perfect example: If you loved Avatar, then that Oscar nomination (and likely win) will validate your belief that Avatar was a great movie. If you hated Avatar, then the nomination validates your belief that the Academy doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing (see also: The Blind Side nomination).

For quality films, the Oscars are a benchmark that all of our serious movie conversations revolve around: Great films are either Oscar winners, or they were robbed of Oscars. There’s the Oscar boost (see Slumdog Millionaire) and there’s the Oscar backlash (see Juno). Thanks to the Oscars, we heap attention — often unwanted — on nominated films, or we redouble our word-of-mouth efforts for those films that are slighted. When our favorite films don’t win or aren’t even nominated, we express outrage. When they do win, we express satisfaction, at least for a couple of weeks before we begin the chants of “Overrated.” But in either respect, we express something, and that’s because the Oscars matter. We are a nation of deeply opinionated people, and those little gold statues, they reinforce our opinions, either one way (that a film deserved that recognition) or another (that the Academy is cocobananas for not recognizing it).

The Oscars also matter in a more important way, too. We love to express disdain for Oscar-baiting films, but you know what’s worse than an Oscar grab? Transformers or G.I. Joe. There’s an entire category of films that are developed with awards recognition in mind, and we can express all the cynicism we want about that. But in a way, Oscar-grabbing is more noble than simple money grabs. I’ll take a great script, a great performance, and great direction over a big-ass explosion any day, even if I can feel Sean Penn’s phantom spit spraying all over me from the big screen above.

It’s that awards recognition, too, that compels many of us to see films we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. If you’ve seen An Education, it’s probably because you heard that Carey Mulligan gave an Oscar-caliber performance. It’s because of that awards recognition that Crazy Heart is being seen at all — an Oscar nomination is great marketing for a film that couldn’t otherwise afford it. The Hurt Locker made a meager $12 million at the box office, but it’s going to double or triple than on DVD, thanks to the Oscar attention. And it’s a movie that deserves it. As does Kathryn Bigelow, whose career fortunes have soared thanks to that awards attention. In the next few years, when we all get to see great Bigelow directing efforts, it’ll be because of the Oscars.

Now tell me that doesn’t matter.

The 2006 Academy Awards were the perfect encapsulation of why the Oscars matter. The Best Picture win for Crash validated so many of our opinions that the Academy has a serious case of headupass. Brokeback Mountain will go down as one of the biggest Oscar robs in Academy history, which garnered it even more attention than it might have gotten with a win. Meanwhile, the nomination of Munich validated our opinion that it was a great film, but that the Academy is a conservative institution that sticks to what it knows, namely Steven Spielberg. Meanwhile, all the attention that the nominations of Capote and Good Night and Good Luck received allowed them both to fetch nearly $30 million apiece, on $7 million budgets, ensuring that similar types of Oscar grabs (which also happen to be great films) will continue to be made because a studio’s desire for prestige is often worth the financial risk (see also, Frost/Nixon).

We can express a lot of negativity about the Oscars, and God knows we have. But the one thing that we can’t say is that they don’t matter. And on March 7th, I fully intend to sit down in front of my television with an alcoholic beverage — I may even invite some people over — and boo and applaud and suffer through all the commercials, the boredom, the tedium, the cheesy numbers, the bad gags, and the injustice of certain films receiving accolades over much better ones. I’ll probably stay up a few hours after the overlong telecast writing a commentary on the ceremony (probably expressing disappointment), or maybe even put together another seriously random list inspired by it.

All the while, I’ll be doing my damdnest to pretend not to care.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.