Pop Culture

Why do the Oscars matter?

(Illustration by Gabriel Alcala for The Washington Post)

Imperiled, then postponed, the 93rd Academy Awards are finally set to take place this month. Not many know what to expect, save for the dissonance of glitz and glamour against the backdrop of a nation decimated by illness and economic downturn. Perhaps the Oscars will serve as a reprieve. They are, after all, the most extravagant of award shows, considered important enough for an adjacent industry of publicists and marketing experts to devote months to campaigning, and entertaining enough for a broadcast television network to allocate hours of Sunday night airtime to the ceremony.

For every viewer who embraces the romantic ideals of what the Oscars represent, a skeptic wonders whether they’re worth the big to-do. Such is true of most spectacles. But tack onto this one the logistical nightmare of organizing the show during a pandemic, the telecast’s declining ratings and years of growing disillusionment with institutions of all kinds — which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to its credit, has been working to address with an internal reevaluation of its practices — and even some of the most rabid cinephiles are left wondering what significance, exactly, the Oscars continue to hold.

The Washington Post spoke with several Hollywood insiders who noted that although the ceremony itself may be just a fun party, the Academy Awards still serve a few explicit purposes. There’s the honor of peer recognition, as they are at the end of the day industry accolades. But the Oscars are also a moneymaker for studios interested in leveraging prestige to boost ticket sales — in ordinary years, anyway — and to attract bankable artists to work with them, whether established or new.

And if the stars align, a nomination alone can transform a career.

“The question of the value of the Academy Awards is one that’s been around for a long time,” said an awards strategist who has consulted on campaigns for major studios, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the competitive nature of this work. “The talent wants the awards because of their egos and because it helps their careers, and the studios want to help the talent because it helps the studios. It’s all symbiotic. It all feeds into itself.”

Louis B. Mayer, left, presents Carl Laemmle, president of Universal Pictures, with an Oscar on Nov. 1, 1930, for the production of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” (AP)

Boosted profiles, egos and ticket sales

Before Hollywood unions and guilds wielded the influence they do today, the Oscars were established as part of a union-busting effort. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer chief Louis B. Mayer had gotten wind of the fact that organized workers were about to sign contracts with studios, according to film historian David Thomson, and worried that actors, writers and directors would try to do the same. So in 1926, Mayer enlisted folks from across the industry to create the academy, designed to pacify labor issues outside of a union system, as well as to promote a positive view of Hollywood to the public.

That is to say, the Academy Awards were never just about the art. Being honored by peers — as actors vote in the acting categories, directors for best directing and so on — is undoubtedly a career highlight, an Oscar nomination a remarkable achievement given the hundreds of qualified films in contention each year. It’s especially a boost in visibility for those who work in the crafts, such as sound or costume design.

But there’s also an incredible amount of politicking behind the scenes, noted film industry analyst Stephen Follows, who emphasized that Oscar-nominated films may not always be the “best” ones released that year. “The more I look at the data or hear stories and talk to people,” he said, “the more I realize it’s like saying the political leaders in charge are the best people.”

Perhaps the most shrewd Oscar campaigner, producer Harvey Weinstein used that reputation to elevate Miramax and the Weinstein Company. Before Weinstein, a convicted rapist, became the second person ever ousted from the academy as a result of explosive investigations of decades of sexual harassment and assault claims, he treated the Oscars like a political election — allegedly putting out rumors about rival films, and wooing voters however possible within academy guidelines.

His tactics were ultimately effective; consider how John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” distributed by Miramax, upset Steven Spielberg’s best picture front-runner “Saving Private Ryan” at the 1999 ceremony. Although Weinstein has been excommunicated from the industry, some of his less controversial campaigning practices remain. Amanda Lundberg, chief executive of the publicity firm 42West and former Miramax PR chief, noted that the team especially excelled at getting its films to be seen by the widest possible audience, encompassing academy voters, critics and the general public.

Studio marketing departments generally allocate part of their budgets to campaigning, and “when a company can show that it can campaign effectively and put those people and products in the conversation, it is meaningful,” Lundberg said. She pointed out how “The Trial of the Chicago 7” director Aaron Sorkin and star Sacha Baron Cohen appeared earlier this award season on MSNBC, a news spot underscoring the gravity of the film’s subject and “how relevant it is today.” (Miramax alum Lisa Taback leads award strategy for Netflix, which distributed the film.)

Netflix garnered the most Oscar nominations this year of any studio, including 10 for David Fincher’s “Mank” and six for Sorkin’s film. The streamer has won over some skeptics with its ability to score such nods, a symbolic but significant draw for producers hesitant to work with a distributor whose upfront payment system asks them to forfeit their rights to back-end revenue.

“Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, left foreground, and the cast accept the Oscar for best picture on Feb. 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Box-office returns are where the awards ripple effect can be most easily measured; distributors often rerelease films after contenders are announced, taking advantage of their newfound ability to slap an Oscars tag on the posters (or on the packaging for home video releases, back in the day). Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” which at $22 million in domestic ticket sales was one of the lowest-grossing best-picture winners ever, benefited from a considerable Oscars bump; it made $2.3 million more the weekend after the dramatic 2017 ceremony (during which the wrong recipient was announced).

Although A24, the studio behind “Moonlight,” had attracted the likes of Sofia Coppola and Gus Van Sant before the “Moonlight” win, the Academy Awards can be game-changing for companies of that size. A24 carved out a place for itself in the industry after that night. The same has already been said of Neon, the indie distributor behind Bong Joon-ho’s best-picture winner “Parasite,” which boasted a successful expanded release in the weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shut down theaters.

Just as the Oscars can “make the studio a more favorable landing place for agents and writers and producers,” said longtime awards consultant Tony Angellotti, they can “make something of a little-seen picture, and make it more important by virtue of the fact that it’s been recognized by this body of industry professionals. But that’s the end of the story there. Where it goes beyond that is up to the agents and everyone who can parlay their talents into different careers.”

Jennifer Lawrence accepts her Oscar for best actress for “Silver Linings Playbook” on Feb. 24, 2013. She was little-known before landing a best-actress nod for 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Careers catapulted or put on pause

For less-established names, an Oscar nomination can act as an industry stamp of approval: This kid’s going places. Although he had already earned critical acclaim for a previous role, Matt Damon once said it was “nearly indescribable” how the magnitude of his life changed after he and buddy Ben Affleck won best original screenplay for 1997′s “Good Will Hunting.” Jennifer Lawrence was similarly little-known before landing a best-actress nomination for her role in 2010′s “Winter’s Bone,” a feat she followed by booking the Hunger Games film franchise just weeks later.

But the contingencies for making it to the Academy Awards are “so limitless,” Angellotti said, and examining the annual lists of snubs underscores how “factors such as luck can’t be discounted.”

The same goes for how winners fare. Cuba Gooding Jr., who memorably won best supporting actor for 1996′s “Jerry Maguire,” appeared in a string of critical duds he later referred to as “10 years in the wilderness.” Despite how the reportedly $15 million “Shakespeare in Love” campaign affected the Oscars game, it could be argued that best actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s celebrity went on to eclipse her actual acting career. Halle Berry, who became the first — and remains the only — Black best-actress winner with 2002′s “Monster’s Ball,” recently said it got harder to book substantive roles afterward.

“I think it’s largely because there was no place for someone like me,” Berry told Variety last year. “I thought, ‘Oh, all these great scripts are going to come my way; these great directors are going to be banging on my door.’ It didn’t happen. . . . They call it the Oscar curse.”

Fabled curse or not, the experience echoes decades of others just like it. Forty years before Berry’s historic win, Rita Moreno became the first Latina to land an Oscar with her supporting role in “West Side Story.” Speaking to The Post, Moreno recalled a “fabulous” night full of applause, tears and a warm backstage embrace from a tipsy Joan Crawford. But after the ceremony? Crickets.

Halle Berry, who became the first — and only — Black best-actress winner for “Monster’s Ball,” poses with her award on March 24, 2002. She said it got harder to book substantive roles afterward. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)
Rita Moreno became the first Latina to win an Oscar with her supporting role in “West Side Story” on April 9, 1962. But she said the win did “nothing whatsoever” for her career. (AP)
LEFT: Halle Berry, who became the first — and only — Black best-actress winner for “Monster’s Ball,” poses with her award on March 24, 2002. She said it got harder to book substantive roles afterward. (Mark J. Terrill/AP) RIGHT: Rita Moreno became the first Latina to win an Oscar with her supporting role in “West Side Story” on April 9, 1962. But she said the win did “nothing whatsoever” for her career. (AP)

“It did nothing, nothing whatsoever,” Moreno said. “What happened was, I got very few offers for some films, and most of them were about gangs — on a minor scale compared to ‘West Side Story,’ but it was of course extremely disappointing and heartbreaking. It never did a thing for me except for the moment and for, I suppose, the fact that, ‘Oh, look, a member of a minority [group] got an Oscar!’ Normally that would’ve meant more work, but not in my case.”

Those inequities persist, according to Moreno, who clarified that she was “not in any way denigrating awards season” but instead advocating for the system to be more inclusive. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign pushed that conversation into the mainstream. Franklin Leonard, a producer and founder of the Black List, a survey of Hollywood’s top unproduced screenplays, noted that the feedback loop of studios using awards to attract artists, who turn around to work with the studios they perceive as being able to serve their careers, can be a “virtuous or vicious cycle.”

In theory, an Oscar nomination can open doors to more ambitious projects — the kind leading to larger paychecks and budgets, and that make it more likely for artists to be nominated again. But if “there’s an entire class of folks that can’t get access to those nominations,” whether because of personal finances or how the industry tends to treat women and people of color, Leonard continued, “then there’s also a severe disadvantage to the existence of the Oscars.”

“It means that certain communities get shunted off and over time have less access to resources and less access to artistic freedom, having nothing to do with their ability,” he said.

Despite a few notable snubs, this year’s Oscar nominees represent considerable progress in terms of inclusivity, a goal the academy will incorporate into new eligibility standards beginning next year. “Minari” star Steven Yeun, for instance, became the first Asian American nominated for best actor, while “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the first best-picture nominee with an all-Black team of producers. This is also the first time two women have been nominated for best director — one of whom, “Nomadland” helmer Chloé Zhao, is also the category’s first woman of color.

The problems are systemic, said Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of the advocacy organization Women in Film. She pointed to potential hurdles for others who aspire to Zhao’s achievement, from the already difficult task of breaking into the industry, to getting accepted into unions, to continuing to find work until they can reach the budget level of films that most often get nominated for Oscars. Then, they have to actually be nominated — looping in the campaigning conversation.

“There are so many parts to the process,” Schaffer said.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will use Union Station in Los Angeles as one of the venues for this year’s Academy Awards telecast. The ceremony, which normally is held at the Dolby Theatre, had to be partially relocated because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

An ever-evolving business

Thinking about logistics can take away from the razzle-dazzle of a grand production. Consider that the Dolby Theatre, home to the Academy Awards, is located inside a Los Angeles shopping complex. Or that this year’s producers, tasked with coordinating the ceremony amid continually evolving coronavirus-era protocols, expanded beyond that venue to add a second: an active train station (albeit a beautiful one).

Mere feet away from a California Pizza Kitchen or Union Station’s disrupted commuters — or somewhere in Europe, for those abroad — on April 25 will be the latest class of Oscar nominees and their guests, along with an “ensemble cast” of presenters. Producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh have maintained that the ceremony will be shot like a movie, perhaps an effort to mix things up and attract viewers who lost interest in the usual pageantry over the years.

The academy, which declined to comment for this article, and broadcast partner ABC have struggled to hold onto their audience. In 2019, the organization attracted the ire of industry professionals and movie fans when it announced that it would hand out several crafts and technical awards during ad breaks — a decision it swiftly reversed. The same course of events played out the previous year with the controversial “popular film” category, which John Bailey, then president of the academy, and chief executive Dawn Hudson had posed as a way to stay “relevant in a changing world.”

Their reasoning echoes the refrain that “no one has seen the Oscar movies” — hyperbole, of course, but one that gets at how the proliferation of media has affected the awards system. The awards strategist noted that generations ago, films such as “The Graduate” and “The Way We Were” had an easier time seizing the public’s attention. With how fractured the landscape has become — and given how many contenders this season played on streaming platforms with opaque viewership statistics — it can be hard to say how many people have seen the nominated films.

That dynamic is where the academy loses its footing. Although there is financial incentive to put on an attractive show, the Oscars themselves are intended to award artistic achievement in film; box-office success has no bearing on quality.

“Along with that comes the destruction of the idea that there is this holy church of films that know everything,” said Follows, the industry analyst. “The idea that the celebrity is untouchable is bonkers now. The idea that there’s a body of wise men that should be deferred to is an older idea that worked perfectly fine for a long time, but that doesn’t fit as neatly into the culture now.”

The unusual nature of this award season provides the industry with an opportunity to step back and evaluate its practices, to put things into perspective. Lundberg, of 42West, noted that she and many of her peers got into the movie business because of how deeply certain films resonated with them. That sort of connection should be the focus of award season, she continued, adding that “it is often painful to see the lengths that people go to for the sake of winning an award.”

“I think we’re in a place today as a society where the stories that people tell should be solely about connecting with people, connecting with audiences, showing people shoes they would never get to walk in,” Lundberg said. “If awards happen, great. But that should be in service of getting people to embrace the movies.”

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