Do the Academy Awards Matter?

Yesterday, the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were revealed to the reception of much wailing and gnashing of teeth, a fairly typical response to them every year. The relationship us film writers and the general public at large have to the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and any other entertainment awards show remains something of a mystery. On the one hand, we hope that the films we loved throughout the year receive recognition on a wider scale. It’s nice to have your opinions validated by a gold trophy, even if you are not the one receiving that trophy. When films and people are nominated and win that we do not like, we get upset, as if the film getting an award means it is an objectively good piece of work, even though art is inherently subjective. Once the ceremony is over, we just go back to loving the films we love and forgetting the ones we don’t. Do you remember who won Best Original Score in 2012? I didn’t think so. But I bet you can hum the score to one of your favorite films right now.

The thing we tend to forget about the Academy Awards is that it is just an industry awards ceremony. Yes, it is televised and filled with glamor, but it’s an industry awards show. They have them for real estate agents, accountants, plumbers. Name a profession, and there is probably an awards ceremony for it. Like any business, a whole host of factors go into choosing who to recognize that have absolutely no bearing on the actual work whatsoever. You have personal histories with people, some good and some bad. You have business histories with people, some fruitful and others not. You perhaps want to have business relationships with people. You have been campaigned to effectively. The list goes on and on and on. And none of this ever factors into the minds of the people on the outside looking in who just like movies.

Because of these things that every single member of the Academy has in their brains, consciously or unconsciously, the notion that you will be perfectly satisfied with the slate of nominees is ludicrous. Hell, even if that stuff played zero effect on the voters, subjectivity of art would prevent perfect satisfaction on its face. So, if you are geared up every year for your own ballot to align with the Academy’s, I think it is time to really rethink how you are watching the Oscars. In that sense, the Academy Awards do not matter. You only need yourself to validate the films you love.

But as I said before, this is an industry awards show, and the industry needs, and has needed for a long time, a serious shakeup. The largest complaint leveled at these most recent nominees was that not a single woman was nominated for Best Director, something that happens all too often at the Academy Awards. In fact, only five women in history have ever been nominated for Best Director, and none of those five have been nominated more than once. Think about that. In nearly a century of awarding filmmaking, only five women have been given that kind of respect. One percent of the nominees in history. If that is not an industry issue, I do not know what is.

You see the blowback to that complaint with statements such as “it shouldn’t matter the gender of the director” or “maybe women just didn’t do a good job this year.” These statements are naïve at their most charitable and actively misogynistic at their worst. Let’s take a look at that “it shouldn’t matter the gender of the director” take. In concept, I totally agree. Men, women, nonbinary, and any other gender out there are all equally capable of making excellent, mediocre, and terrible films. No question. The problem beings at the numbers. Women make up roughly half of the world’s population. According to Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, films directed by women made up a mere 13% of the top 250 films at the box office in 2019. And that is the most in recent history. I know math is hard for some, but 13% is a lot less than 50%.

Just in terms getting a film made, those numbers bear out how much more difficult it is for a woman to make a film than a man. And in that small percentage of films, an even smaller percentage of them are going to be good, and an even smaller percentage of those will be considered contenders by the Academy. This year, the hopes of a woman being nominated basically rested solely on the shoulders of Greta Gerwig for her work on Little Women, a completely unfair position to put her in to represent literally half of the world’s population.

So, how does this playing field become level? One good way to help that is with, well, awards. By actively recognizing women filmmakers, it shows the industry at large there is a place for women at the table and show the people with the money that there are different ways of using it. I already hear the cries of, “So we should have just nominated Greta Gerwig because she is a woman?” That is not what would be happening though. Little Women ended up earning six nominations, including Best Picture. For the voter at home, is it so much of a burden to actively prioritize voting for her for a film you like knowing this is probably the only opportunity a woman has at this category? I don’t think so. And just by checking that one name instead of another, you are affecting what could end up being massive change in the industry.

It also goes to the tastes of the Academy. They like, to put it bluntly, show-offs. Long takes, fancy camera moves, etc. They and filmgoers alike have been conditioned to assume that the more technically complicated and grand something is, the better achievement it is. Personally, I sometimes am taken with it too. However, if you look at swath of women filmmakers out there, not many tend to operate with this style of filmmaking.

I don’t like to make generalizations, but men tend to have that braggadocio of wanting to show you how impressive what they’re doing is. And when it becomes this circle of men trying to impress each other, the definition for what a great film is becomes incredibly narrow, ultimately pushing out different kinds of voices. Just think about the one woman who won Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow. The Hurt Locker is a very male, very technically impressive film. The Academy can award that because it’s the kind of film they like. But how many women make that kind of film? Not many. So, when people dismiss things as “chick flicks,” “for girls,” “women’s pictures,” or “it’s not my kind of thing,” you are unconsciously shutting out the opportunity for that expansion, because men have been the arbiters of taste. They have decided what a quality picture is, and if a woman happens to make a film that fits that, good. If they make something that is of a whole different sensibility, is it really that impressive?

And everything I have said about women is an even bigger issue with filmmakers of color, queer filmmakers, and international filmmakers. I mean, with those five women who have been nominated for Best Director, zero of them have been women of color. The film industry relies on results to determine what they will green light in the future. It is amongst one of the most risk averse businesses, as each product they make costs millions and millions of dollars with no guarantee of making it back. So things like the box office and awards play a major factor in who gets their project made next. So, if underrepresented filmmakers do not get the results, they don’t get to make the films, and them not making the films limits their ability to get the results. Then the circle of not changing goes around and around and around.

With all that being said, do the Academy Awards matter? To you and me, not really. None of us are getting trophies. None of us need the validation for work. We hold tight to our movies. Sure, the horse race is fun, and watching the ceremony to cheer on your favorites makes for an entertaining evening. But the next morning, you move on with your life. For the industry, they matter a great deal. The Oscars can make and break careers for people. They can help usher in a push for equity in the industry amongst all different kinds of people. If they do cause that change, we get to enjoy the expansion of what kind of films get made. So, the next time someone bemoans the exclusion of a certain kind of person or story from the nomination slate, really ask yourself why would it be so bad if they got included. Who could use the boost?

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