Alumni Spotlight: Zach Powell


Should we care about the Oscars?

The awards industry has grown like the world’s population in the last hundred years. Every field has its awards—advertising, aerospace, automobiles. Living also has its own: the Stinky Shoe Award, the Stella award, and of course the Guinness Book of World Records. Even dying has its own award in the Darwin.

For primates in need of recognition, this all makes sense. In the business of capitalism, it makes cents. Awards add prestige to companies. They sell copies of things. They manufacture importance. In the realm of Hollywood, all these things matter.

The first Oscars ceremony occurred on May 16th, 1929. It was not broadcast. It lasted about 15 minutes, giving out awards for the two previous years and honoring the 1927 WWI film Wings as the first Best Picture. The industry of film awards was born.

But in judging film as art, what should win? And what’s really at stake?

For your consideration, movie attendance in 2018 is up from last year. It’s up significantly since the ’90s. It’s two highest peaks were 2002 and 2012. 1995 saw its lowest point in the last 25 years. Like many markets today, the cinema is volatile—and global. And for all the anger focused at superhero movies by cinephiles, one reason for this bounce back in 2018 was that Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther were the first and second biggest draws. Both are films that focus on the “cinema of attractions” as the main form of spectator engagement, with their CGI, fight sequences, and IMAX and 3-D deliveries. While cinephiles make great cases for how these movies only hold back cinema from achieving something better and other critics warn that they may be bad for democracy and great for neoliberalism, the reality is that they sell tickets. The movies cinephiles triumph are mostly being bankrolled by Amazon and Netflix these days.

For example, Ben Fritz, author of The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies studied the North Korean Sony Hack of 2014 to understand how the business of movies has changed. Using 2016 Best Movie candidate Manchester by the Sea as an example, he states that “getting audiences to buy tickets for a dark indie drama was difficult in the best of times. Now, in the age of Fast and Furious and The Avengers and an endless supply of great dramas on television, it was near impossible” (187). So bemoaning the state of superhero films is to bemoan the state of capitalism and technological “progress” itself. Which is productive, for sure.

This is why the Oscars and other film awards are important. And in lieu of the demand for more popular films being in the Oscars and the creation of a Best Popular Film category, the Oscars’ strongest contribution is to act as an index of films many media consumers have never heard of. The many nominations for The Favourite exemplify this. With overlap dissolves and fisheye cameras, the film creates a technical style that complements its attention to material detail at the same time as it makes clear that it is a costume drama that by no means intends to be historically accurate. But without such a strong show of nominations—or a possible big win—such a movie may never become a household name, relegated only to the memory of film buffs. For critical acclaim by film reviewers often falls on deaf ears (as does their condemnation), but Oscar awards increase value and life to more artistic endeavors.

Of course, there are films that win that are quickly forgotten about years later. And, of course, academy judges make many status quo choices. We all know that a biopic has the best chance of getting its lead actor the best nomination, as it did for Gary Oldman last year. And this is the negotiation the Oscars face: they must work toward a broad appeal while trying to highlight artistic works at the very moment the film industry has largely given up on anything without explosions.

But to some extent, the films that win awards are arbitrary—choices made by judges who may or may not have seen the movie they voted for. And this all matters little because it appears we need awards for their own sake. In the oversaturated market of media products and entertainment materials, awards direct us. More largely, awards are the reason we choose a bottle of wine, buy a certain vacuum, eat at a local restaurant. The too many options of the marketplace are pleasantly reduced to a few. Maybe even one. Awards cut through the subjectivity of taste. They give the weight of authority. Trust us, they say. We are worth it.

And in the years to come—with the vast network of info-media ready to oversaturate and penetrate our minds and bodies—the only thing keeping movies alive might just be the awards bestowed upon them.

Zachary Powell (M.A. ’12)

Zachary Powell is currently an English Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester. Focusing increasingly on the intersection of film, war, the historical past, and politics, he has the two essays forthcoming: “Women at War: The Core Conflict of Wonder Woman (2017)” in the fall issue of JMMLA and “The Form of the White Ethno-State: Dunkirk (2017) Omits Indian Soldiers for White Vulnerable Bodies” out later this year in New Perspectives on the War Film.

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