Why award season is bad for movies

Prizes ruin the magic of cinema and make films a means to an end, rather than an end in itself

Published December 8, 2013 8:00PM (EST)


The New York Film Critics Circle announced their 2013 awards the other day, after hours of debate in a process one member dubbed “arcane.” The National Board of Review soon followed suit, and other critics groups will be making similar announcements in the coming weeks. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association will announce Golden Globe nominations on December 12, with the awards show following on January 12. Four days later, January 16, will mark the announcement of Academy Award nominees, with the Oscar ceremony set for March 2. Film Independent’s Spirit Awards already announced their nominees; those are passed out March 1, the night before the Oscars. The Gotham Awards already happened, too. Film critics on Twitter are making arch jokes about movies most people haven’t had a chance to see yet, and some are issuing “best of the year” lists that similarly feature films that haven’t hit screens in most of the country.

It’s awards season.

This madness happens every year, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get used to. If anything, it feels more chaotic and noisy each time. Part of it is that, for some, awards season never ends. HitFix’s In Contention blog, which writes about awards year-round, has the cheeky tagline “No one needs awards coverage this deep,” which is meant to be a joke but comes across somewhat more desperate and uncertain. There’s Gold Derby, and the Carpetbagger, and the Envelope, and many more blogs devoted solely to the horserace of golden statues and celebrity speeches. Before long, awards coverage becomes the point of seeing movies, not a byproduct of the process. We don’t talk about other media this way, either. New singles or albums aren’t evaluated solely on their likelihood of winning a Grammy; you don’t loan a book to a friend and say, “You should totally read this, it’s a lock for the PEN/Faulkner Award.” Yet for some reason, we often feel compelled to treat films as vehicles for something else, mere stepping stones on the path to the real prize. This, unsurprisingly, leads to a number of problems.

The biggest is that it turns movies into abstract pieces in an eternal game. Films cease to be works of art or entertainment and become interchangeable objects spoken of only in terms of their marketing campaigns or chances to “win” a certain category of award. The coverage could be about anything. The movies themselves become incidental to the discussion, and such coverage trains us to think about films as merely means to an end filled with trophies. This is a tricky area in large part because the people involved with making movies all have different reasons for doing so: those on the creative side might be more driven by vision or expression, while those on the production and distribution side might be more inspired by the possibility of leveraging awards cache to increase their own payout. It’s a continuum of emotion and motivation, and people slide back and forth over time. But it’s troubling when our instinct as viewers is not to try and connect with those creative forces who brought a story to life but to align ourselves with the business interests of the controlling studio. We the people don’t benefit if a given film wins or loses an award. No amount of trophies on a DVD cover can change how a film works on its own.

Worse, awards coverage treats movies as if they exist only for the few weeks at the end of the year when studios put out “prestige” titles that are designed to capture award nominations. There’s no real secret to why they put out these movies at the end of the year: our brains look more fondly on recent experiences, so studios want films to come out as close to the nominating cycle as possible. There’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy involved; since the end of the year is now associated with award contenders or prestige titles, releasing your movie at that time can give you a subconscious boost in the mind of the voter. But movies exist long after a particular awards season has ended. That’s why the notion of “great movie years” is flawed; it assumes that, e.g., Inside Llewyn Davis exists solely as an artifact of 2013 that was created to compete in a few arbitrary competitions, instead of treating it as a film that anyone can watch at any time going forward. It’ll still exist next summer, and the year after, and ten years from now, long after we’ve forgotten every fleeting pop culture story from the 2013 awards.

None of this is news, though. Awards coverage can act like Oscars/Globes/etc. are crucially important, but few people seem to actually think that way. Similarly, though getting swept up in the horserace can mean talking like a studio head for a month, it doesn’t seem likely that readers and viewers will actually make the leap from consumers of entertainment to calculating analysts who only care about box office and nominations. These symptoms don’t seem to be going away, but the disease isn’t totally taking over, either. So what’s the reason? Why do we come back to the inanity of awards chatter year after year?

Because it’s not about the awards. It’s about the hype, the stars, and — most of all — the money. There’s a great moment in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show where an executive (played by Martin Scorsese) is defending the practice of rigging game shows: “Why fix them? Think about it, will ya? You could do exactly the same thing by just making the questions easier. See, the audience didn’t tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.” This is the best way to think about awards season, and awards coverage, and the whole racket in general. Watching the race means watching the money, and tracking trophies brings with it some faint, vicarious thrill of power, as if our focus influenced the outcome. It’s the money that keeps us coming back, the allure of watching an actor or producer soar above their peers and earn even more fame, power, and, inevitably, money. Oscar ratings are roughly tied to the earnings of the nominees, too. It’s a rich, gorgeous, empty circus. The real goal isn’t awards, but to find and share those movies that wind up meaning something to us. The trophies will never matter.

By Daniel Carlson

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