A SPECIAL INVESTIGATION INTO AWARDS SEASON
There should be no doubt in the mind of any citizen with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the entertainment industry that the Awards Season is a complete and utter sham. The Golden Globes, the Academy Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, the National Board of Review, et al: marketing facades, promotional escapades, grand farces that help to calcify the institution of certain films and—more importantly—film companies in the mind’s eye of the general public during this modern era of dangerously gross media oversaturation.
In 1927, Louis B. Mayer gathered a contingent of Hollywood’s elite at a very special Ambassador Hotel luncheon. It was here that Mayer inaugurated what would become known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a fair and impartial mediator between the studios and the artists, a kind of objective arbitrating body that would deal with contractual concerns. Of course, due to the fact that the Academy was made up of the studio heads themselves, one can only imagine how “objective” of an arbitrator they would/could be.
Mayer and the other studio heads had an emerging problem in the 1920’s, as this was the period in which the wailing infant of cinema became an obstreperous teenager who demanded a later curfew. The Academy’s real purpose was to curtail cinema unions and guilds that were beginning to form at the time. When Mayer offered up his “impartial mediator” to the artists, suggesting that unions were therefore unnecessary, the monocle’d filmmakers balked.
That is until Mayer and the Academy came up with the ingenious idea of legitimizing his nascent organization by giving some kind of meaningless remuneration to the artists. Two years later, in 1929, we had our first Academy Awards Ceremony. The unions and guilds developed anyway—and, quite immediately, became the fascistic monster tyrants they’re known as today—but the Academy Awards stuck it out to become what the general public has come to believe to be the Industry Standard in what is or is not a “well-made movie.”
Strangely, the Academy Awards Ceremony—as with the Academy itself—was about as necessary as agents, managers, lawyers, and publicists during the birth of cinema. There already was a relatively established body that performed the so-called task of the Academy Awards. In 1909—only ten years after cinema’s genesis—the National Board of Review was founded and later became the first critical organization to announce its annual awarding of what they believed to be the top movies of the year.
The NBR, nevertheless, were no less guilty of playing make-believe than the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. In fact, the National Board of Review quite early on became more of an early precursor to the censoring bureau of the MPAA. Beginning as early as 1915 and going well into the 1950’s, producers would submit their films to the NBR in order to receive a “yay” or “nay” so that they could print the coveted “Passed by the National Board of Review” (similar to today’s Rating System, a kind of bona fide “this movie is OK by us, folks” branding) on their celluloid opuses. Often was the case that the producer, upon receiving a “nay,” would literally re-cut the film until he was granted the thumbs-up by the NBR. As with a totaled car, if the film proved to be far too objectionable to the National Board of Review, it was not unheard of for said producer to simply dump the project altogether.
In a thinly veiled attempt at both flexing their powers and masquerading as a more diverse body, the National Board of Review became a kind of umbrella for its underling auxiliaries, namely the New York Film Critics Circle (est. 1935) and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (est. 1975). Many consider the encomiums garnered by these bodies to be the second-most significant awards next to the Academy’s, and yet, anyone, anywhere in the world can be a member as long as he or she is willing to pay the $250/year dues and sit through about 200 screenings a year.
Since their respective inceptions, professional critics themselves have been baffled by the presence and validity of the NY Film Critics and LA Film Critics associations. A few years back, Roger Ebert was quoted as saying that, after 27 years of being a professional film critic, he had no idea (nor knew of any other professional critic who could tell him) exactly who these people were or what purpose they served. Jack Mathews, a writer for USA Today, in his The Battle of Brazil very clearly follows the lineage of the NBR, NY Film Critics, and Los Angeles Film Critics groups, and tells of how being a professional is not a requirement in the least, that he himself had attended a number of screenings with the groups and never once saw a familiar face. Whoever these people are who vote for “the top ten movies of the year,” they definitely don’t make a living as critics.
If this sounds outrageous, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. In fact, having to be a professional at the trade of criticism—you know, intricately knowing and understanding the craft and nuances of cinema—is not a prerequisite in the least to be a voter for the Golden Globes either. The Hollywood Foreign Press, established in 1943 as a mode of delivering “Hollywood news” to the world outside of the States, held its first Golden Globe Awards in 1954 at 20th Century Fox Studios (how’s that for “objective”?). As of 2005, there was a scant membership of less than 100 voting members—a group comprised of “part-time” journalists who live only in Hollywood or outside of the country.
And just who votes for the Academy Awards? They’ve a bit larger basin of members, now totaling at about 6000. Keep in mind, though, that almost 1500 voting members—approximately one-fourth of their body—are actors. This might make some sense to a Martian visiting Earth for the first time when he discovers the overwhelming majority of actors in the industry versus, say, directors or editors (well…), but anyone with half of a brain can run his fingers over the award categories, and proclaim, “What the fuck? What would a bunch of actors know about Best Sound Editing?”. Not that it matters much, anyway. After all, except for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Film, the voting members are not required to watch each movie nominated for the other categories. You read right: Academy members can vote on nominated movies without having seen all, or any, for that matter.
Hence the notion of the whole thing being one giant commercial. Especially when you start putting together how much money is spent on the Oscar campaign, and just what happens behind closed doors. Hey, actors are a vain bunch of people who will stop at nothing to play a nice game of quid pro quo.
This does bring up a good point about the Oscars and who they’re really for in the first place. In a recent Entertainment Today interview, we had multi-award winning The Queen scribe Peter Morgan tell our reporter Jonathan W. Hickman that he never understood the Awards Season, that these outwardly vainglorious ceremonies were certainly not for writers, who are traditionally introverted and many times almost reclusive. The ceremonies are for actors, Morgan feels; oh, and the fact that The Queen’s profits rose 10% after Morgan won a Golden Globe for his efforts, the fact that ticket sales went up another 40% after its Academy Award nominations made Morgan realize that besides patting obnoxious actors on the back for being as amazing as they’ve been made to believe by their PR people, the Awards are for: money, money, money.
When I was a young boy, I remember always wondering why Coke and Pepsi and other ubiquitous brands even bothered spending money (or time) on commercials. “Coke” is in fact the most recognized word in the world, so why the hell should they be advertising themselves? Today, I feel the same way about Martin Scorsese. Besides being the worst year of movies in the history of cinema, this was also the most preeeeedictable year at the Oscars. Obviously Sunshine would win for Best Screenplay (wholly unoriginal, derivative drek), The Departed (don’t get me started) would win for Best Picture, and Marty would finally take the hands of his good buddies Tom, Frank, Stevie, and MC Lucas, and be given a golden-wrapped chocolate statuette that would rest nicely atop his urn containing the ashes of John Cassavetes.
So, why advertise? You can’t not have heard about The Departed or Little Miss Sunshine, and certainly not of Mr. Martin Scorsese, the so-called best director in the universe. But, really, the more you stare at Marty, the more you keep saying The Departed, the more you compare Little Miss Sunshine to American Beauty, the more you’re not spending your time or money seeing Mutual Appreciation or Flannel Pajamas. It’s the same Nazi propaganda process I’ve learned Coke uses to make sure not so much that you choose Coke over Pepsi; but that you don’t ever stop thinking about Coke for even a brief moment.
Ah, but what about the Independent Spirit Awards? Aren’t they the harbinger of… Shut up. I’m running out of space already, so here we go right into it. I had the enormous misfortune of attending the Awards, which date back to 1984 (when they were known as the FINDIES: “Friends of Independents”) and are traditionally held on the day before the Oscars. On my way to the Awards held in an auspicious tent in Venice Beach, an aging surfer dude asked me, “What are the Independent Spirit Awards?” I answered in kind: “They’re a fake awards ceremony held for ‘independent’ films.” It was the blood-red Netflix banners blanketing the whole area that told me I was close to the Awards, and indeed there I was…suddenly being pushed and prodded on the Red Carpet by other journalists from around the world who were bloodthirsty for an interview with people who they couldn’t recognize on a bet.
It was in the press area that I learned Dawn Hudson, Executive Director of Film Independent—the “non-profit” organization that puts on the Spirit Awards—rakes in such a prodigious yearly draw, that if I wrote the amount now, no one would believe me. Let’s just say that if she gave half of her salary to a fund for independent filmmakers, we’d be able to produce at least four or five. Not bad for a freelance magazine writer with a degree in political science. To dear Dawn’s credit, Film Independent’s revenues have gone up 25% per year since her installment in 1991, after which time, the organization also acquired the Los Angeles Film Festival, the most widely attended film festival in Southern California (which is saying a lot).
In addition to this information about Madame President, I was also introduced to a company called On Three Productions that puts on a “gift lounge” at the Spirit Awards in which another four indie movie budgets worth of products are completely wasted and marvelously marketed to the winners behind the stage in a kind of circus of product giveaways that makes the independence of the Spirit Awards seem all the more fallacious.
So, who heads the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences—that esteemed body that inculcates the unknowing public with the determination of which movies are venerable, indelible masterpieces (Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love) and which movies are merely so-so (Pulp Fiction, Citizen Kane)? His name is Sid Ganis, one hell of a marketing and PR guru. And he’s had his hands in a few movies to date—Deuce Bigalow, Big Daddy, The Master of Disguise, and the Mr. Deeds remake (as well as Akeelah and the Bee, which was really less of a movie and more of a large-scale marketing experiment on the part of Starbucks Coffee).
Does it really matter that the only movies Ganis has directly had his hand in are a bunch of flops and pablum that received neither critical nor commercial acclaim? Not really, because he knows marketing and he knows PR. As with his predecessor, he knows, for instance, that a new award category for Best Animated Feature is so much more profitable than, say, a Best Stunt category. Ganis and his clan are smart in saying, “Hey, with a whopping five or so major animated features that come out every year, let’s just give the finger to those thousands of technicians and stunt people who risk their lives and develop new technology to help movies seem that much more realistic!”
Which brings us back to where we started. Reality. What is Awards Season all about in reality? Is it more than just a reason for tubby, radish-faced publicists with bad toupees and plastic-faced, middle-aged wives to traipse around ostentacious Oscar parties held at Beverly Hills hotels, feeling included in an industry to which they’ve never before and never will contribute? Is it something more than a forum for actors to outdo each other with their obnoxious entourages and garish clothing? Is it more of a way for bodies of non-professionals who refuse to publicly identify their members and who have nothing to do with the legitimate entertainment industry to be bought and sold in order to help further promulgate certain movies in some kind of mass coup born of media and advertising agencies?
Yeah, that’s all these awards are about. But, it’s cool. It’s been this way for a century now.