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Dear Academy

Shane Steinberg | Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Oh how you disappoint me … No, I’m not another Avatar-obsessed junkie feeling jilted by the fact that you didn’t give this year’s grand prize to the “Pocahontas” rip-off, or some pretentious film buff trashing mainstream Hollywood and proclaiming Sundance as my life-blood.
I understand that this is a business. I don’t need reminding that money and not integrity drive your decisions, or that your voting system is inherently flawed, or that politics — no, I’m not Monique writing under an alias — lie at the heart of every golden statuette you give out. And I don’t need you chiming in with a “please calm down, sir” which I’m sure, if you were actually reading this, you’d be already doing as you ready yourself to turn the page and yet again turn your back on the problem that you’ve gotten oh so good at ignoring. Let’s think of that four-hour blip you call an awards show as your preemptive hack of an answer to this letter (rant? Ode to your terribleness?), and this letter as my answer to you. So on March 7 you put on the 82nd annual Oscars. Please allow me to retort.
   Dear Academy, does it strike you as odd that of the last 10 films you’ve deemed to be the “Best Picture,” only three of them have been in the top five best reviewed films in their respective year? Or that, if you want to look at your process as a democratic one “for the people” (come on, who are we kidding here?), only one of those pictures was the highest rated by viewers in its respective year? Doesn’t it seem weird to you that while many of your esteemed members cast votes in various other awards shows/film critic circles/festivals, your results are often far different than those of the same awards shows/film critics circles/festivals that your members vote for? Perhaps they all have a change of heart sometime after they cast their previous votes, or maybe they’re conspiring (against what?), or maybe it’s your system … just maybe. Maybe it’s that up until this year’s Oscars you’ve gone with an instant run-off system that more often than not awards films that, let’s face it, even without the statistical data to back it up (because you refuse to release that data), don’t receive the most favorable votes. In your system (the same system that’s probably older than Larry King), a film with 20 first place votes cast by Brutus and the crew but with 80 last place votes beats out a film with 19 first place votes and 81 second place votes. Dear Academy, I ask you: Is that really the best picture? Or to be more precise, let me ask this with a more direct example: Was “Crash” really better than “Capote” or “Brokeback Mountain?”
But wait! Alas, you’ve fixed you’re sys    tem! You’ve … Wait, you’ve added five more films to the best picture category? Bigger is better (lucrative) in the movies isn’t it? Just like how a huge tub of popcorn is always better or how you now need 3-D glasses to feel like you’re really in the movie as opposed to at the movies? Let’s take a closer look at this though. You say you want to generate more exposure for films that otherwise wouldn’t be nominated for the top prize and might get overlooked. Well I’m sure everyone rushed to theaters to see all 10 movies, but I digress.
Dear Academy, I’m sure you meant all   the best, and I’m sure someone pitched the move to 10 films by saying “bigger is better,” but based on this year’s show, I have a slight revision to that statement: You’re not bigger, you’re obese. Perhaps the move was a socially conscious one. Perhaps you thought making people wish your Fat Albert version of an awards show would end already was your way of joining the fight against obesity. Well, how about instead of doing that, you trim the fat, cut the films that don’t deserve to be nominated (they get attention anyway based on other nominations) and make the whole experience less bloated, confusing and to make use of a word commonly dreaded in critic reviews, overlong. If you’re really concerned with exposure for smaller films how about you nominate the ones that deserve to be nominated (at least find a better balance of films), and establish a couple of categories that successfully achieve that noble goal and are in fact awards season staples: best newcomer (actor/actress), best debut feature, and maybe even a best festival circuit film.
Dear Academy, do you think you’re running a political campaign? Why is it that so many ads have to be put in the trades, or that lobbying goes on in Hollywood, or that some studios spend as much money promoting their films come awards season as they do actually making their films? Don’t feel like you need to answer that though, because I realize it’s not entirely your fault nor can you really do anything about it. But I ask this: Isn’t the film itself lobbying/advertising/promoting enough? Some films are seen and some are not, but all (at least in a few categories), are supposed to be seen by your voting members, so why is it that so much money, lobbying and politics go on to determine who is the best actor/actress or what film is the best? This is not Washington D.C. This is not McCain v. Obama. These are the movies. And I guess that’s why I’m so ticked off. Yes it’s a business, but what is film really about? Is it just a business, or did the Spielbergs and Day-Lewises pursue this for another reason? Why do we spend the $10 to go to the movies? What is it about the movies that invokes such awe in us and inspires such interest that we sit down in the millions each year and celebrate the accomplishments of those who entertain us?
Answer that … I mean truly answer that, and you’ll see that your awards show, an annual coming together meant to celebrate the best in film, has become lost in something that I don’t think you meant for it to get lost in. Why does Sean Penn (a dear friend and favorite of the Academy) win for “Milk” when Mickey Rourke’s iconic, mesmerizing performance in “The Wrestler” got shut out after winning at almost every other awards show? Why is it that 2007’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 days,” one of the top-rated films of all-time (97 on Metacritic.com), but a film nonetheless about abortion, didn’t even receive a nomination?! How is it that after basically sweeping the entire awards season, Israel’s “Waltz with Bashir,” gets snubbed in favor of a far inferior yet much less touchy Japanese film about a violinist? And how do you explain this year’s foreign film snub? “The White Ribbon” won Cannes, was proclaimed as an instant masterpiece by many a critic but was passed up in favor of a much milder film (“El Secreto de sus Ojos”) that after seeing I can safely comes nowhere close to “The White Ribbon.” And there’s A LOT more where that came from. Favors, lobbying, politics and the insatiable desire to eke out an extra buck in lieu of actually awarding the films deserving of awards is what runs the Oscars. Deny me that, or say that it’s not a black-and-white world, but really, when you’ve got the facts (as you do) and you take a long moment to stand back and take a look at it all (especially in the Best Picture and Best Foreign Film departments), are you really awarding the “best films”?
Dear Academy, your system is broken, so fix it. Surely you must realize, even if you think I am wrong or a lone rebel fighting a lost cause by throwing punches at the air, something about the Oscars has gone awry. Viewership is down, sponsors are reluctant to go all-in, profits are steadily declining and you’re losing your grip on your target audience. Having realized that you’re standing in a slowly but surely burning room, you’re scrambling, finally, to fix it, for which as a lover of film, I thank you. I realize, and others fed up with you should be civil and realize this too, that this is a business, and that the key to your show is finding an ideal balance between the business side of things and the side of things that makes film so wonderful and worth every bit of the price of admission. But you have stuck to your failing ways, only to see the Oscars fall into limbo, and for that, as I said at the very beginning, you’ve disappointed me, and many others. The scene has been set, the crew ready and the director has cued the cameraman to zoom in to a close-up shot of you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so fix the Oscars.
Action!