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The Oscars: Hollywood’s greatest deception

Yesterday the world’s most impressive array of frocked up celebrities congregated, as they do every year, to distribute prizes around a glorious looking room and watch show reels celebrating the work of themselves and their peers.

The fact that Oscar presenters are also often nominees – sometimes, the smile they take to the stage isn’t acting, it comes from the knowledge they’ve already won – says something about the ethos underpinning the event.

What goes around comes around, and more important than one person’s triumph is faith the institution lives on. If a big player didn’t win one year, there’s plenty more opportunity where that came from. While Hollywood can be a harsh and unforgiving place, spotted with burn-outs, has-beens and drop-offs, approval from the Academy is a hot meal ticket: when you’re in with the in crowd, you’re in with the in crowd, and the industry will keep moving chairs to accommodate you.

In any of the major categories, it is rare to see more than one unfamiliar nominee. More often than not, all are notable stars. The reason we watch the same faces every year isn’t because the most famous people produce the most impressive work. Like any competitive organisation, the Academy must survive by playing to its strengths, which in their case is celebrity recognition. Take that away and the whole thing goes belly up.

Whatever “may the best person win” kind of innocence associated with the voting process was demolished in the 1990s, when Miramax and the Weinstein brothers decided they would stop at virtually nothing to obtain cabinets full of gongs.

They amped up the strategic element, the politicking, vote-luring and wining and dining, going to great lengths to entice voters and smear opponents. Other companies caught on and cranked their dials to 11 too, which eventually returned the system to a weird equilibrium: if everybody is playing the same vicious game, with the same kind of deep pockets and ruthless tenacity, everybody is again on a more or less even keel.

In 1998, Miramax shelled out $5 million to nudge Shakespeare in Love ahead of favourite Saving Private Ryan. Their tactics included hiring a fleet of veteran publicists to schmooze voters and staging a party that should have disqualified them from the race. It was worth it: Shakespeare in Love won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

In the lead-up to this year’s ceremony, David O. Russell’s American Hustle (which received a whopping 10 nominations) was said to have “lost momentum.” The fact those words are commonly used in conjunction with a film awards ceremony says something about the political nature of it. More telling, still, is the fact it proved true. American Hustle didn’t win a thing.

If we look at the Academy Awards as a battle of corporate interests, who really won last night? Was it Warner Bros, who collected seven Oscars for Gravity? Was it Twentieth Century Fox, which got three gongs (including Best Picture) for 12 Years a Slave? The real victor was the same victor every ceremony: Hollywood itself.

Simply extending the shelf life of its products (including celebrities and the films they star in) isn’t the core reason the Academy exists. Year after year, it plays a key role in perpetuating an important illusion: that the industry it represents is defined by quality and predominantly adult content. Yesterday a representative of the Academy mentioned that in 2013, the American film industry generated over five billion sales at the box office.

The vast majority of those ticket stubs didn’t go to the high quality films promoted yesterday. The reality is that Hollywood’s business model is youth-oriented, dependent on ancillary markets and reliant on the provision of another kind of illusion — that cinemas exist to show audiences moving pictures. In reality they are huge auditoriums attached to fast food outlets; the purpose of the screen is to get people through the door.

Exhibitors live or die not on the strength of ticket sales but on selling heavily marked up products loaded with sugar and salt. Author Jay Epstein describes this as “the popcorn economy.”

There’s no doubt the Oscars celebrate quality filmmaking, and that is precisely the point. Marquee releases that arrive lacquered with the pedigree of awards season buzz are crucial in sustaining the idea, perpetuated during Hollywood’s annual back-slapping routines, that the soul of the industry is built on serious art rather than expendable kiddish shenanigans.

Like big budget movies, the Academy Awards ceremony is smoke and mirrors. There’s no shame in enjoying the spectacle: it’s pretty, loud, funny and entertainingly out of sync with reality.

19 responses to “The Oscars: Hollywood’s greatest deception

  1. Last night I watched Blue Jasmine. I do not like scripted films but I thought I better have a look at this to see why Cate won. Uhmmmmm whenever an attractive woman plays ugly or wears a prosthetic nose people think it’s ‘amazing’ acting. I found her performance no better than any soap star and playing ‘mental and drunk’ is easy to do.
    As Luke writes it’s pretty obvious that it was ‘celebrity endorsement’, this time the chosen one being Cate.
    Also a really boring movie – how many times do we have to see the same old story of exasperated woman lurching through an imagined life. The exasperated woman always a good looking actor so the audience doesn’t turn off – so, so dull.

  2. Spot on mate! But the Oscars, as we all know, are like political elections, they’re cooked long before the results are revealed and we unwashed masses will never know the real story of all the skulldugery behind the scenes.Cheers!

  3. It’s a pity there isn’t an Award for worst Art critic working in Australian Online subscription media, because Luke BuckMaster would win every year. Yes, Luke, the house always wins. What a power of insight you have at your disposal. I suggest you use this to explicate the arcane mysteries of the semicolon.

    Azreal the cat, your post is excellent. I’m waving one a big foam finger for you from this point onwards.

    1. Mr Starling – Dude!!!! – why so personal? I suggest you spend your time on forums about Australia’s Next Top Model.

      Azreal The Cat – the ‘woolly’ manner of your script is tiresome to read – get to the point please.

  4. I agree with almost everything in this article….except the oversimplification of its central example of Shakespeare in Love’s campaign.

    Certainly the production company engaged in a PR campaign with the specific intention of boosting the film’s Oscar chances. However, this was hardly a new phenomenon (the campaign was veritably low-key compared to the overt Oscar campaigns before the collapse of the golden era’s ‘studio system’), and the $5 million price tag is notably mostly for how paltry a sum it was – mere loose change for a major Hollywood picture, and an insignificant portion of the average film’s marketing budget, let alone relative to the total production costs.

    More importantly, we should always be skeptical of the PR industry’s claims about its own effectiveness. It is integral to their business to convince people that such campaigns have massive influence, and whilst it is likely that they have some effectiveness, psychological and business studies consistently demonstrate that their influence is greatly overstated. The effectiveness of PR campaigns of the ‘schmooze and booze’ variety are particularly questionable – when called upon to demonstrate their supposed effectiveness, the best the PR firms can do is point to how much money their clients have spent on similar campaigns – they squeeze millions out of their clients on the basis of saying ‘look, your competitors are spending millions on this, so you must too, or you’ll be left behind.’

    It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, devoid of objective supporting evidence, perpetuated by those whose business it is to sell PR as a product, based more on the fear that others’ PR campaigns ‘might’ be working than any solid evidence that their own have actually worked to the extent that the PR salesfolk claim.

    Shakespeare in Love is a case in point. Despite the miniscule PR expenditure relative to the overall marketing budget, it has entered the public consciousness as ‘evidence’ of PR expenditure having great influence, and perpetuates further PR expenditure (like homeopathy, its advocates rarely discuss the many cases where PR campaigns don’t correlate with commercial success). Yet let’s look back to some other notable features of the film. Most importantly, that its script was revised by Tom Stoppard, who the studio then listed as ‘the’ writer (yes, as part of its PR campaign, but a part that didn’t cost them any money). Anyone who has studied Stoppard’s work closely is aware that with rare exceptions he has always treated film work as ‘jobbing’ work, leaving his artistic efforts for the stage. Yet it’s an incredibly rare occurrence to have a Hollywood film be able to claim the writing talents of one of the most studied 20th century playwrights in both high schools and universities, in drama and literature alike. David Mamet might share some comparison, but he’s a very long 2nd place at best – at the very least, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, and Arcadia stand with Death of a Salesman, Ionesco’s absurdism and Oscar Wilde’s best works as critical parts of the modern English language theatre canon.

    No amount of PR money was ever going to have more influence than the simple act of exagerating Stoppard’s involvement, giving Academy voters the belief that they were voting on a film written by the same literary great whom they had studied at high school and university. Not a very good reason for granting an award – even Shakespeare bombed with Titus Andronicus….but if Shakespeare was found alive today, ‘Elvis-style’ and wrote Titus Andronicus, do you think any amount of PR money would have a significant effect in comparison to the mere fact that we’d be asking judges to compare Shakespeare to ‘prdinary film-makers’? Now obviously it’s an overstatement to compare Stoppard to Shakespeare, but he still falls within that realm of ‘great writers’, against which the ‘mere mortals’ (aka writers who are still actively working, and whose lesser works have faded into obscurity while their literary greats are studied around the world) don’t stand a chance.

    Then keep in mind that this wasn’t a strong year for ‘Oscar-bait’ films (not using the term perjoratively – plenty of great films fall into the oscar-bait category, but see David Mamet’s ‘True and False – Heresy for the Actor’ for an excellent account of how making films for Oscars can often be antithetical to the simplicity of many good performances). Saving Private Ryan came out at a time when Spielberg’s commercial star was soaring….but at the cost of no longer being taken seriously as a ‘great’ director (Amistad was profitable, but disappeared rapidly from the pulblic consciousness in a way that seems inexplicable but for the fact that people weren’t willing then to see Spielberg as anything but popcorn blockbuster fodder, no matter how many Amistads and Schlinder’s Lists he mixed in among his special effects bonanzas).

    Yes. the PR probably did help. But only because it could play upon the mood of the time. When you hear stories of how vital PR was to ‘shaping events’, always think about all the cases where it tried to go up against the public mood and failed miserably, and ask whether its successes were anything more than keeping alive pre-existing public sentiments. And most of all, remember that they’re trying to sell you something – no, not the film, they’re trying to sell you on the idea that you need to buy more PR.

  5. Luke, excellent work. Like the country it’s part of, Hollywood is receding. Savvy times mean a lot of us are not fooled by the shimmering celluloid as the bad acting and boring scripts shine through. I mean, Nicole Kidman won Best Actress one time, and so did Gwyneth. Say no more.

  6. I was hoping your “Oscars Live Blog” would be a blow-by-blow coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial – a great modern day Shakespearian tragedy. Much more interesting than that boringly predictable display of celebrity narcissism.

  7. BollyHooooo!!!!!!

    The next James Bond film may well be coming out of Crimea/Ukraine and Russia
    I believe it already has a working title:
    Putin up ya nukes
    is it

    Putin in a Klitscho

  8. Two comments:

    I note that the confirmed ‘actor’ Cate Blanchette has again accepted the award for best ‘actress’……really….she’s an ‘actor’ you know

    Second – who cares what this bunch of Hollywood thugs think about each others work….these awards have no credibility whatsoever, and are bought & sold like real estate. I can’t wait til Bollywood takes these sleazes to the cleaners…which they will within 20 years.

    1. +1

      And now it comes out that Ellen de Generes’ spontaneous selfie was actually a calculated promo for Samsung, a big Awards sponsor.

      Kevin Spacey’s character said in “The Usual Suspects” the Devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world that he doesn’t exist. Perhaps Hollywood’s greatest trick is to convince viewers that manipulation doesn’t exist in that particular LA suburb (or industry).

  9. Good point. The “stars” hardly have a monopoly on acting. There should be new faces every year. Yet the same crowd keep popping up.

    1. Ummm… Steve. You DO REALISE that this is the Arts and Entertainment section don’t you? I mean, OK, the Academy Awards hold little appeal to me either apart from a kind schadenfreude… But if you are expecting an in depth analysis of the political, social and military maneuvers currently taking place in the former Soviet Union in the film review pages I think you may need to adjust your expectations.

  10. The Oscars?

    Yawn zzzz

    Who really cares at this point in time

    None of my staff do

    Lightweight “actors” performing for “lightweight” movies

    Who cares.. really


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