Earlier this week, my very patient and supportive husband asked me this question. He doesn’t really watch movies very much anymore. He’s not that interested in seeing Gary Oldman or James Ivory win Oscars after long and prolific careers. He hasn’t even seen Call Me By Your Name. I’m on the opposite end, obviously – I’ve seen it five times. I live and breathe the Oscars not just on the night of the awards but 365 days a year. But it got me thinking, for the average or casual moviegoer, why should they care about the Oscars? Do they even matter?
If you read my bio you know that I’ve been an Oscar-watching fan since I was a wee kid. Watching the Oscars with my mom, making our lists of who we think is going to win, it was the birth of my love of awards and movies. I started getting really personally invested in who would win. I don’t watch most sports but I liken it to someone who’s a big football or basketball fan. You have your ‘team.’ You use the royal ‘we’ when talking about them. You want them to win because it’s a validation of your fandom and, well, yourself. It’s something you
Let me digress a bit.
All through my early teens and 20s I knew in the back of my head that the Oscars weren’t always about the ‘best’ and sometimes rarely rewarded that, as clearly subjective as the idea of ‘best’ is when you’re comparing movies or music or any pieces of art. Even though I was able to sidestep this fact, I never let the eventual winners upset me. My favorite film or actress may not have won but it wasn’t as if I felt it said anything about me that they lost (why would I?). Then Crash beat Brokeback Mountain. In 2005/2006 it was still pretty easy to predict the Oscars based on precursors. A movie gets precursor A and precursor B and it becomes pretty unbeatable. I was going to get to see my favorite film of the year, a gay movie, win Best Picture. It was going to make history until it didn’t. It broke me. My passion for the Oscars became more academic and I didn’t let myself become attached to a film’s Oscar chances like that again. Until last year. Moonlight’s win changed everything. I cried, and cried, and cried and when I thought I was done, I cried some more. I know, I know, it’s like the Oscars is that relationship that treats you shitty most of the time but buys you flowers once and all is forgiven. But representation matters. I’m not saying that every gay kid watches the Oscars and dreams of seeing a gay film win, but maybe I am. We’re taught that winning is a form of validation. I don’t hesitate to say that Moonlight’s win (which was one year ago yesterday) changed people’s lives; it probably even saved people’s lives. When producer Adele Romanski said she hopes that ‘little black boys and little brown girls and other folks watching at home who feel marginalized take some inspiration’ from the film’s win, that’s what she meant. Some kid who felt unworthy because of their skin color or sexuality or a myriad of other things can see an example to be inspired by. Not just inspired to create art but simply to live and be worthy of life.
When the Oscars changed their Best Picture lineup from five to ten in 2009 it was in response to a backlash that the Academy wasn’t recognizing populist films (even very well reviewed ones like 2008’s The Dark Knight) in the same way as more ‘traditional’ Oscar fare. In 2009 and 2010 the Academy employed a solid 10 Best Picture nominees, something they hadn’t done in many decades. It gave a us a really eclectic group of nominees that might not have otherwise gotten in under the old system. We saw the indie sci-fi District 9 make it in the same year as Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress-winning blockbuster The Blind Side. Up became the first animated film nominated for Best Picture since the creation of the Animated Feature category in 2001 and the first since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Then they changed again for 2011 and employed a balloting process that could generate anywhere from 5-10 nominees. Incidentally, we’ve never had a year of 5, 6, 7 or 10 nominees. We’ve only had 8 or 9. It still got us a wider swath of films than in 5-nominee years. In theory, this would give more viewers more chances to have a favorite to root for, right? Eh, kind of. The Oscars’ ratings have been chipping away year to year. Partly due to diverting avenues of visual media and entertainment, party due to when and if a film is seen by a large audience in time for the Oscars. I do think last year’s envelope snafu might boost this year’s viewership a tick though.
Looking at this year’s batch of Best Picture nominees, it’s a varied group of big hits like Get Out and Dunkirk, both of which premiered long before ‘awards season’ kicked off in the fall. Small critical hits like Call Me By Your Name and Phantom Thread sit beside festival hits like Lady Bird, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards. Their box office ranges from small but respectable to mid-range hits. Darkest Hour and The Post are finding their audiences now long after debuting. Based on the season of precursors and roller coasters of potential backlash or controversy, the general consensus among pro predictors is that Three Billboards, The Shape of Water and Get Out are the Best Picture contenders. But if you ask a random moviegoer what they think is winning they might say something like Dunkirk. Why? Because it might be one of the only films they’ve seen that’s nominated. A movie like Call Me By Your Name might not have ever come to their small town. The sheer volume of late releases angling to get in just under the deadline creates a logjam of movies, sometimes making it hard to know what to even see. They might not follow critics or critics’ awards and don’t know why a ‘horror’ movie is even nominated, much less possibly winning. In the old days of the Oscars, which didn’t air until late March or even April, there was time to see nominated movies. Not just the voters, but the public as well. Movies stayed in theaters longer than two months before being yanked out by the next frontloaded blockbuster that needs butts in seats. The window is now much smaller and it always seems like ‘oh wow, the Oscars are this week?’ starts to fall out of people’s mouths. One benefit from this short window, for the public at least, is that a large portion of films are coming out to home video in the weeks just after the Oscars. I suppose it’s the new way of doing things; foregoing the chance of a larger box office (or even a post-Oscar bump) in hopes of those Blu-ray purchases.
I wonder if my original question ‘Why Should I Care About the Oscars?’ will even hit the right audience. Obviously the majority of my readership is already heavily invested in the Oscar race and loves it and can’t get enough of it. So I hope that this pops up on someone’s feed that maybe feels the Oscars don’t matter to them or they don’t have a horse in this race. Or maybe an Academy voter sees it today, the last day of voting. I hope they see The Shape of Water, Three Billboards and Lady Bird with its strong female leads and want them to win. Or Call Me By Your Name with its antagonist-free coming of age/coming out story. Or the historical importance of The Post, Dunkirk or Darkest Hour. Or the lush weirdness of Phantom Thread. Or Get Out with its socially acute commentary wrapped in a massively entertaining hit. Or any of the nominees that they love and root for. As a viewer we want to be entertained by the show and its winners but it’s great when we can also feel seen. It doesn’t mean that every person must align themselves with a film that they have a personal or emotional stake in, but having a favorite and seeing it succeed is a great feeling.