The Oscars are dead, right? Criticizing the ceremony has been national sport for years, but the vitriol seemed particularly fierce this time around. It seems that everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. Critics hated the telecast and Neil Patrick Harris’s stale hosting job; pundits railed against the winners who introduced politics into their speeches for getting the message wrong; film critics lamented that the wrong movie won Best Picture; and average viewers stayed away altogether, delivering TV ratings that were the lowest in six years. It feels as if, with every passing ceremony, we are inching closer to a future in which the Oscars are no longer wanted at all.
But if that ever happens, it would be an enormous mistake. The Oscars, despite their many flaws, are great for the movies, and I don’t just mean for the industry. Right now, they are keeping the art of cinema afloat. To demonstrate, let’s try to imagine what the landscape of cinema would look like without the Oscars. It is easy to picture: Just take the summer season of formulaic, comic-book-derived and critic-proof blockbusters, and extend it throughout the entire year.
Currently, the hope of winning an Academy Award is the only thing motivating studio execs to greenlight serious films of substance for adults. When a film gets nominated, it is not uncommon for it to double, triple, or even quadruple its theater counts, which obviously equates to higher ticket sales. The Imitation Game had made only $43 million domestically before the Oscar nominations were announced; since then, it has nearly doubled its gross to $81 million. The same goes for Whiplash, which went from $6 to $10 million in the same time span. Were it not for the Oscars, the profit margins on these films would have been significantly smaller, reducing or possibly eliminating the incentive for studios to take a chance on such risky, unproven stories in the future.
And let’s face it: Even with the Oscars, the studios aren’t doing enough of this. Of the top-grossing films of 2014, the only ones that seem remotely intended for adults are American Sniper, Gone Girl, and Interstellar, all of which were nominated for Oscars. The latter two received only a few token nods, but that wasn’t the plan. They were all considered near-certain Best Picture nominees prior to their release, and the potential for Oscar-related publicity surely played a role in their ability to get made in the first place.
And so without the Oscars, even films as commercial as Gone Girl and Interstellar would have a harder time getting greenlit. Do we really want this to happen? Even if you are despondent about the state of the movie industry, it is worth considering how far we have come. In the 1980s, the nominated films were sappy, milquetoast stories for middle-class white people like Terms of Endearment, Chariots of Fire, and Out of Africa. Whether or not you like Birdman (I didn’t), you should still find some joy that a bonkers movie about a middle-aged actor losing his mind is the establishment choice for Best Picture. And that a film as small and personal as Whiplash got on the radar of viewers all over the world because of their multiple wins. And that the name Wes Anderson was stated seemingly dozens of times over the course of the show. And that Selma got nominated by a body that is 94% white with a median age of 62.
Still, the Academy and its awards show certainly have their problems. Diversity remains a major concern (both in the Academy and the industry at large), and, yes, concerns about creative fatigue in the industry are well-founded. But the Oscars are not the problem. While we may never be satisfied with their choices, we should still acknowledge the benefits that come with letting them make them.
The Oscars are dead. Long live the Oscars!