Why It’s Good That the Oscars Matter

The Oscars may often overlook the innovative mainstream, the best of the arthouse, genre fare, and innovative non-fiction, but on the flip side of this coin we may need the Oscars now more than ever. There was a time when mass audiences were invested in the Academy Awards, hoping that their favorite film of the year would win. Mainstream American cinema mostly aligned with cultivated audience interests. But somewhere down the line, producers got the impression that their “quality” release films couldn’t compete with the life-or-death-opening-weekend blockbuster mentality. So with the platform release they distributed awards hopefuls in the exact opposite fashion, saturating the limited release market every November and December. Many of these titles reach wider markets after the awards and buzz machine has made several rounds. Many audiences see nominated films because of the nomination, critical reviews, and buzz, and thus don’t go into the ceremony with a film they’ve already advocated for and invested in independently.

Look at the top 10 highest grossing films of 2011: all are entries in franchises (with one . Without the Oscars, this is the extent of the mainstream cinematic landscape.

Certain types of films have become critic-proof. Audiences seem to want to see the same film, or some version of it, time and again. But the Oscars are still broadcast to around 40 million households in our country alone. While the ratings have declined in recent years, it’s still a socially shared televised event in an era in which fewer and fewer people actually watch live TV. In many ways, the Oscars represent one of the very few bulwarks against an even more ubiquitous franchise-driven Hollywood economy.

Beyond cultural capital, there are clear economic benefits of an Oscar nomination or win. Just ask the Weinsteins, or the producers of any of the films that get a bump after nominations and later winners are announced. The Oscars do not make a blockbuster from thin air (e.g., The Hurt Locker), but there is a reason that studios whose bottom line is profit spend so much money campaigning their films every winter.

Even more importantly, the Academy Awards do have secondary categories that – let’s leave cynicism aside for a second – actually do celebrate the art of film in a substantive way. Yes, it looks pretty awful when the show’s producers have forced Best Documentary winners in the past to give their speeches from the aisle, and yes it’s unfair that clips are rarely shown of the Best Foreign Language film nominees, but the fact that these non-fiction films and foreign films are, at least for a moment, on the radar of all the homes who primarily tuned in to see Angelina Jolie’s dress is a testament to the Awards ceremony. Tom Shone at Slate recently argued that the Golden Globes has a better track record in terms of major nominations and wins, but the Globes don’t honor documentaries or short films, and their Foreign Language category (which includes any film in a foreign language, like Apocalypto) is readily capable of not actually honoring films produced abroad.

The Oscars’s Foreign Language category has become notably less conservative in recent years. Instead of simply honoring the latest European movie about a historical war, they’ve recognized innovative, strange, challenging, and great works from around the world like Dogtooth, A Prophet, The White Ribbon, and Waltz with Bashir. This year, the nominee pool couldn’t be more inspiring and varied, with the first Iranian nominee in thirteen years (A Separation), an Israeli comedy about competing father-son academics (Footnote), and, most surprisingly, a gritty, dark, and strangely brilliant movie about the illegal world of beef hormone trading (Bullhead).

Yes, even the Best Foreign Language film category is riddled with political problems. But somewhere between a boring montage and wealthy actors clapping for each other, it’s good to remember that, amidst the excess, there’s something nice, even important, about a mainstream Hollywood institution in which Twilight is nowhere to be seen.

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