In defence of the Oscars and movie awards

Awards season is upon us, and many are rolling their eyes. But the Oscars do serve some purpose, argues Simon.

This weekend, the Academy Of Motion Picture Art And Sciences – AMPAS – hand out their annual gongs, or as more people most commonly know them, the Oscars. You can tell this, because statistically, 11.3% (give or take) of websites are devoted to making predictions, denouncing them, talking about what clothes people are going to wear, or raking up anything vaguely related. This site included.

I should be clear from the off: I don’t really like movie awards anymore. But I still think the pros of them outweigh the cons. And I am going to defend them, just through slightly gritted teeth at times.

Because as years have gone by, I’ve come out of the other side of my fascination with the Oscars, still bewildered by the night that I stayed up to try and wrap my head around why L.A. Confidential kept losing to Titanic. Anyone who’s sat through any awards show ever has generally been dissatisfied with the outcome. That someone’s determination of what’s ‘best’ doesn’t tally with their own. We attended an awards show once and saw Liz Jones of the Daily Mail being given a best columnist prize. To this day, it’s the only time we’ve ever done a full cavity search of ourselves to see if we weren’t hiding drugs somewhere. Because something in the universe had gone clearly very, very wrong.

Furthermore, whilst I wouldn’t say I’m award show-phobic, I’m at a point now where I think a mantelpiece full of awards is recognition for making a good film, but rarely the best reward for it. Making a film that’s still appreciated ten or 20 years down the line? That’s something I’d argue is worth more than any prize.

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Still, awards season is a major part of the movie calendar, and it stretched back to just before Christmas through to this weekend. That’s a quarter of the year where, by most criteria, the quality of films that get released into cinemas tends to be better than for the other nine months. That’s a big, crude assumption certainly, but I can’t be alone in eagerly awaiting the releases we get in the UK every December through to February. That’s when the Oscar bait tends to arrive on these shores anyway, and when around three quarters of the eventual nominated films come to the big screen in Britain.

So for a start, having the biggest range of films in cinemas for a few months is a firm tick in the plus column for movie awards. And furthermore, you can’t help but stretch that back to earlier in development. Just because a bunch of films were nominated, a whole other host of them got greenlit with a possible awards campaign potentially the tipping point to getting them financed. Thus whilst you get the depressing collection of films that have been given the go ahead seemingly purely with the idea of getting Oscar attention (I’m looking at you, August: Osage County), there are others where the opportunity of getting some publicity via awards suddenly makes a project at least financially worth a risk.

For not only do awards help in the greenlighting of films, they can also help draw attention to smaller projects that otherwise may fall off people’s radars. If they were ever on them. The Artist is the best possible example of this: if awards didn’t exist, how many people would truly have gone off to see a near-silent black and white film? As it turned out, the film took over $130m at the worldwide box office. That’s some achievement.

It’s the headline example though, and there are lots of smaller, lower profile projects that have gained exposure via the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the Oscars and such like. That they help get good films made, seen and appreciated is the very best side of awards.

The downsides, of course, we’re going to see a lot of over the next week. I’ve seen all of the nominated best actor performances this year for instance, and I’ve yet to hear an argument that convinces me that any are better than the work that Robert Redford delivered in All Is Lost. Because that didn’t fit the Oscar bill though, because a big awards push wasn’t behind it, and ultimately because its face didn’t fit, Redford got snubbed.

Furthermore, to award something the ‘Best’ of anything, let alone film of the year, is clearly subjective. To dilute it further by subjecting it to democracy? To then further attack it by having the politics of a film, or controversies surrounding those involved, influence said choice goes against the whole principal. If then people feel, as they probably will, that Cate Blancett gave the best leading performance from an actress all year, then that’s the only criteria required to secure a vote for her. Anything else takes the award from being about film.

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That said, the Oscars and such like have only partly been about film for some time. You don’t need us to tell you that awards season is about business first, given the dramatic financial impact on a movie’s takings that an armful of prizes can make.

Awards are, by their very nature, a flawed beast. Just because Titanic won best picture back in March 1998, I’ve long since appreciated that it didn’t make it a better film than L.A. Confidential in my eyes, so in that sense, nothing has changed. Your favourite films are ultimately still your favourite films, no matter what anyone else has to say about them.

But still, while I can’t get excited about awards in the way I once did – and I’ve not even touched on the award shows themselves – I’m at the ‘acceptance’ stage of my relationship with them. I think, on balance, they’re a good thing, particularly when approached with fully open eyes. The kind of open eyes that appreciate that Before Midnight would have more than one Oscar nomination if Harvey Weinstein had been running its awards campaign.

Thus, you don’t have to like the movie awards circus, but cinema might just be – on balance – a tiny bit better for it.

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