When the first Oscars were handed out 90 years ago, the leaders of the Academy decided to hedge their bets: They voted one award for “outstanding picture” (Wings was about fighter pilots) and another for a “unique and artistic picture” (Sunrise was an art film from a German filmmaker). If the founders were around today to review recent Oscar winners, I think they’d regret abandoning their two-film concept. And some of the 1,500 new members who have joined the Academy these past two years might agree with them.
No clear front-runner is emerging in this year’s Oscar race, and critics groups as usual are heaping praise on what I would argue are “unique and artistic pictures” — Lady Bird, The Shape of Water and Call Me by Your Name. The mainstream films the founders might have designated as “outstanding pictures” – Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, The Post or even Wonder Woman – are not feeling the early-season heat. This would suggest that the final Oscar results would follow the pattern of recent years, when the “artistic” nominees overwhelmed the “outstanding” ones. Hence, Moonlight won over La La Land, Spotlight over The Martian, Birdman over American Sniper, 12 Years a Slave over American Hustle, The King’s Speech over The Social Network, Hurt Locker over Avatar, Crash over Brokeback Mountain, Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan, and The English Patient over Jerry Maguire.
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As a longtime Oscar voter, I’ll readily admit I was on the losing side of these results, reflecting, I suppose, the price paid for having spent two decades as a studio executive. The Golden Globes, of course, long ago found a shrewd, if somewhat sneaky, way of honoring mainstream pictures by inventing a Musical or Comedy category. Hence, The Revenent and The Martian shared honors two years ago (yes, Martian was declared a comedy). The Globes’ imaginative definitions, of course, have bolstered TV ratings – past winners have included The Hangover, The Lion King and Mrs. Doubtfire.
To be sure, “definitions” are a sensitive issue for the Academy this year, given the growing importance of such relatively new players as Netflix and Amazon. A committee of governors has been appointed by the Academy to define “what is a movie?” Is a project like War Machine starring Brad Pitt a true movie or just a product Netflix can stream for its members, while buying a short theater release to appease Academy rules? Both Netflix and Amazon have likely spent more on print ads this year to promote their product than have the established distributors, demonstrating a seriousness of purpose. And both companies claim they are interested in making both “outstanding” and “unique” films for their particular audiences. The Big Sick from Amazon has grossed almost $60 million, and Jeff Bezos, the fabled guru of Amazon, has helped lead the promotion effort, hosting parties and screening events.
Given the presence of these formidable newcomers, plus the looming shadows of Apple and Facebook, should the Movie Academy continue to foster primarily the product of indie distributors? Will the preferences of new voters, both at the Academy and at the various guilds, redefine the criteria for selecting the pop culture favorites? The newcomers, we’ve been told, are actually at work turning out today’s product rather than reflecting the taste of past generations. Hence the voting results this year will surely be subjected to both artistic and unique scrutiny and analysis.
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