If You Want to Save Cinema, Kill the Oscars (Guest Blog)

And while you’re at it, do the same for all the other critics’ polls and awards shows

Oscars illustration
Illustration by Brian Taylor for TheWrap

Sometimes the only path to innovation is through destruction…

As a teen, the Oscars were my Stanley Cup and World Series combined. They were more than exciting — not Super Bowl or NBA Finals exciting, in they had plenty of dull spots, but — to the extent I couldn’t sleep for fear of missing who would win. Now no one seems to care at all about the movies, let alone the Oscars. If we are going to save the former, do we really still need the latter? Could it be the very thing that was once built to promote them is now partially to blame for the virus that’s infecting our love?

If the Oscars are to blame for some of bad blood infecting cinema, who’s to blame for giving the Oscars the infection in the first place? When it comes to viewership, all the award shows have been in free fall for a while, and it’s not only because the shows themselves ain’t so hot that’s the cause. We’ve ruined all the tools that make movies relevant and fun. Posters, trailers, photos, publicity — I once loved every last bit of it. Every tool can be a work of art; it only need to communicate with love for the thing itself. Showing the fun inherent in the product ignites a spark in all of us, but showing the sell cheapens our whole endeavor. The Oscars — like all our industry’s marketing tools now — just blatantly shuck for dollars and adoration. It’s just not how the song should be sung. When I think of Oscars now, I think of Harvey Weinstein and that’s triggering for everyone.

Yeah, even if I benefited from the industry’s previously renewed interest in so-called prestige cinema, I am going to blame Harvey for part of the problem I have with the Oscars now. Why? Because that’s easy. ‘Nuf said. No, really, he’s to blame. He showed how you can pump a ton of money into the end of the year campaigns, and buy your way into the cultural conversation, and maybe just maybe get some of that money back by all the raised awareness, and even if you don’t recoup, he demonstrated how it has a flywheel effect in that the more you spend, the more folks who will want to work with you so they too can have such a campaign lavished upon them (even when you are a horrible monster!). And he was right. EZPZ. So he was copied (at least in the award race tactics). And then copied again. I know I had that page in my strategy doc; we all did. And next thing you know, boats are rising; the dying film trades got a new lease on life with this huge ad rev windfall of the last 30 years. There’s a whole Awards-based Industrial Complex that got such a boost.

Everyone connected to this Awards Industry Apparatus is on top of the Ponzi scheme pyramid — meaning they get theirs, but who is on the bottom? Who is getting suckered? Audiences and the entire rest of cinema ecosystem, that’s who. We ripped the heart out of the medium by removing actual meaning and replacing it with cash. And now it is rotting corpse. And if you are like me, you want that heart to beat strong for the bold and daring, the not easily impressed or the actually oppressed, those that have something to say and in an exciting new way. Beat, rebel heart, beat! But will it? I am not going to bet on that pony. I am going to look for a different race.

While the blood is pumping, let’s be clear: What we’ve allowed the Oscars and all awards shows to become are not celebrations of the art and craft, but childish competitions that demonstrate how deeply narcissistic our industry and culture have become. Winning means nothing, and losing feels stupid. It is no longer about just being seen or recognized or appreciated — as it should — it’s about being on top and getting more toys. That’s how our biggest stars lose themselves. Let’s grow up instead.

Now you understand? It’s not the Oscars I want to kill but the money we spend towards it, the campaigning and the general fact that we now position the Oscars as a competition, losing sight of what really should matter. Everyone in this business is already a winner, baby. Seriously. We get to do something we love. Stop with the feeling that you need to still be on top of that pile. You have enough. We don’t need the competition. Share the love instead.

Instead of trying to celebrate cinema just because there is a big fat broadcast contract, maybe it’s time to first earn back credibility. How long is that contract going to be meaningful if the show not only is mediocre but the former audience knows there’s better things to do? If we give folks something to care about, they will tune in again, but that’s not the show itself, it is our art, our business and how we do it. That’s what we need people to care about. Movies once mattered, and we’ve let them grow meaningless.

Saving The Oscars isn’t as simple as giving a prize to a popular film, or somehow trying to make the jokes hip. We have to recognize the cause of the illness, and instead of amputating a few limbs because it’s easier, cure it once and for all. Our films have little integrity and our industry has even less. If we want to make sure movies don’t fade into oblivion, that’s what needs to be restored first: the integrity of the art form and business. Always take the high road (although Fountain is better generally).

It’s not going to be easy, which is why I think we have to go cold turkey and take The Cure. No one knows what they’ve got until it’s gone. Take The Oscars away for a year or two. It will be like being sent to bed without dinner. We don’t deserve it currently. Losing it for now, will give us all something to think about every time our stomach gurgles.

And then let’s do a deep dive interrogation of why we want the Oscars to matter and design it for that. Because I suspect it’s not really the awards that matter, but the recognition that great art, some of it commercial, is made and we have a chance to celebrate it. Movies are not a sports competition. We should not be handicapping titles, stack ranking them for the world, and speaking cruel about creations that are so brutal to generate just because they didn’t make the list.

Like getting money out of politics, we have to get money out of the Oscar race. Otherwise everything is garbage. Everyone knows money corrupts, right? If we can deliver a truly level playing field, we don’t need to use money to garner attention for good work within the membership that actually votes for a film. And THEN they will mean something again.

What goes with that package? Our industry needs to learn to be humble and modest. And I say that as I stand on the virtual soapbox thinking I have something to say that’s worth your time; we all need to get our houses in order. And yes, telling those that have dedicated their lives to having their likenesses or words or work projected on a colossal scale all over the globe, to be humble and modest may sound like a fool’s errand. But look where we stand. These are times of world-destroying consumption and waste, of great income disparity as well tremendous obstacles towards equal opportunity. We are so privileged, it’s gross. We get to do what we love. We make movies. To us, it’s pretty awesome but it’s all still just movies. The glamour of Hollywood may have helped attract attention, but there’s other places for that now, we need to be artists and entertainers and let the work speak for itself. And give tremendous thanks to those that have helped us and support us.

Why does someone have to be perceived as better than someone else? Isn’t this hierarchical way of looking at things a vestige of capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and general oppression. It’s a tool for subjugation, for grooming, for indoctrination. It’s the old way. It is a legacy bias. It is a penchant for the familiar. It is fruit rotting on the vine.

Awards are a great way to get attention, but who are we fooling in thinking that there is some actual hierarchy of quality? I like what I like and you like what you like; isn’t that enough? Tastes change with the times. What film is the greatest of all time? Whatever your answer is, the consensus will change every decade. Isn’t what we really need is a better method to aid in discovery? In engagement? Isn’t that what curation can do? Isn’t that the best part of an awards race? The ignorant are made aware of the bounty.

We accept falsehoods as truths. We use them to justify our behavior:

  • “You are going to have to campaign.” That’s how you win, right? What’s that say? Not that what you just made matters, but just like any other popularity contest, it says you have to get out there, shake hands and kiss the babies. If you do that well and win the golden guy, does that demonstrate you were the best film, filmmaker or performance? Doesn’t it just show that you are popular? Do we really still need to pursue that? Weren’t we suppose to get over that by the time we reached adulthood?
  • “It’s worth it, because there’s so much money at stake.” Oh, that’s why we should do things?! I get how business works, but you can be profitable without resorting to crass, overreaching techniques. If we divert some of the awards cash flow to actually building a better mousetrap, one that fuels anticipation, aggregates community and amplifies conversation, the boats will rise even higher. We need to put money into love and fun. Cinema is that. We need the Oscars to be that too, but won’t be until we take the sell out of the show.

And of course winning an award is never really about the movie or performance or work that has been done, but really what happened last time out or the time before that. If you want to win, make sure you get slighted first. Aaargh! How can we get back just to the love and not the game playing s—?

Any awards show needs to first and foremost preserve and strengthen cinema’s Unique Attributes. The process leading to any such awards show must be sure to not make each film feel like a corrupt and blatant plea for money and attention. It’s great to hear how artists do their work, why they do their work; that helps to contextualize the film, but generally by the fourth or fifth time they are doing it, we can hear it in their voice and it all becomes shilling. No campaigns. No prizes. Just celebrations.

Here’s the rub though, and you’ve probably thought of it already, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) can be one of the leaders our industry needs to preserve and strengthen the state of cinema worldwide. I mean, it already is. Most of AMPAS’ funding comes from the Oscars and as an event it has some of the highest name recognition on this earth of ours imaginable. AMPAS needs the Oscars to fund itself currently — but does it really have to be that way? If we accept that the Oscars have to significantly change, and perhaps are more likely to die, not only do we need to find appropriate actions to deepen appreciation for cinema, but we also have to come up with new revenue sources to fund AMPAS. Nothing’s easy ever, is it? But do you know how to find answers? You don’t start by sticking your head in the sand. You be the one that’s willing to say the emperor is totally and utterly naked. Some of us are knitting new clothes.

I hope my intentions here are clear. I love celebrations of cinema. I love the organizations, like AMPAS, that support cinema in the many profound ways that it does. I think we all can easily lose focus on what really matters and it takes a slight overstep sometimes to get us back on the tracks.

Over his 35-year career, Ted Hope has produced over 70 films, of which 25 were nominated for Oscars with six wins. Three of his films have won the Sundance Grand Jury Award. Hope also served as the co-head for movies at Amazon Studios. He also wrote the memoir, “Hope for Film.” You can read more from him at https://tedhope.substack.com.