The true significance of the Oscars

by Jason Madanjian / Beacon Staff • February 20, 2014

When the nominations for the Academy Awards are announced each year, it always feels anticlimactic. Who didn’t expect films like 12 Years A Slave and Her to be a major presence this awards season? After all, every prestigious newspaper in the country gives out their own awards, along with the various guilds in Hollywood, including the Writer’s Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Director’s Guild. Then you have filler awards like the Golden Globes, which seem to exist only to capitalize on the excitement of the Oscars. But the Academy Awards are much more than an awards show that celebrates movies. They save movies.  

Without the Academy Awards, which have been going on for 86 years, the quality of movies would drastically decrease. The Academy Awards are a life-preserver for filmgoers drowning in a sea of mediocre movies. They really serve as a two-hour toy commercial for the younger set that Hollywood likes to call “blockbusters.” It makes sense that studios focus most of their attention on these so-called blockbusters as they bring in an exorbitant amount of money. Compare The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s almost $900 million worldwide gross with 12 Years A Slave’s relatively paltry intake of $109 million. Catching Fire is undoubtedly the preferred business model. But 12 Years A Slave offers studios something that even Katniss Everdeen can’t deliver: prestige. 12 Years A Slave earned nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Catching Fire netted zero. 

It’s the filmgoers who benefit from this prestige. Thanks to the egos of prominent movie moguls like Harvey Weinstein, industry insiders are desperate to make two types of films: those worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and those that can boast they’ve been nominated for nine Academy Awards. Thanks to the Oscars, studios of all size still bother making low–risk, high art gambles. Films like Dallas Buyers Club and Her, which combined have made roughly $50 million, have no practicality in a monetary sense, even with micro budgets. Huge net profits are almost everything in Hollywood. Movie studios would rather pay more to earn more, which is why movies like Catching Fire cost over $100 million dollars. They cost a lot, but they make a lot more too.  Projects like Dallas Buyers Club get the greenlight because of their potential to become critical darlings. 

For film fans, this is a win-win. Hollywood can still rest easy on its money–making franchises while it offers an alternative to filmgoers hungry for movies with a little more meat to them. It’s great that the Oscars force people to watch more artistically intricate movies to stay in the loop. It’s doubtful many of your friends would have seen a film like Nebraska if it weren’t up for an Academy Award this year.

Prominent filmmakers like Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing) have argued in recent years that the Academy Awards have become almost worthless. Sometimes, its hard for movie fans to take the Oscars seriously since the Academy snubs dozens of great films every year. Some of those films, like 1941’s Citizen Kane, go on to be considered some of the best movies of all time. People use that as ammunition for just how uninfluential the Oscars are. But I believe if it weren’t for the Academy Awards, studios would have no incentive to even attempt to make quality pictures. Sometimes the winners, like last year’s Best Picture Argo, don’t quite reach the “classic” status they are promised upon winning. But look at all the other fantastic nominated films last year, like The Master and Lincoln. I don’t think those wonderful works of cinema would have been made if it weren’t for the chance of winning an Oscar. You could argue that when the Academy Awards air March 2, everyone will already be burned out. Maybe that’s true. But maybe that doesn’t even matter. 

I’m not thrilled that the only reason big movie studios still make artistically-challenging films is because they want to win a prize. After all, that’s not how art should be created. But if it’s the only way art is going to be created, I’m glad the trophy exists.