Friday, January 16, 2009

How to make the Oscars Less Predictable and Why this is a Necessity

Few people probably know that once upon a time, the Academy would issue press releases to the newspapers announcing the winners before the Oscars were presented but in 1939 when some of the greatest films ever created up to that date (Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, and Wizard of Oz) were locked in a tight race and the results got leaked to the press, some complained that this ruined a considerable amount of the suspense and excitement of the night. In 1940, the Academy decided to go with a policy of complete secrecy. The policy has remained to this very day.

Today, however, the Oscars have reverted to the 1930s where the winners are basically known in advance and that's a good reason why they're considerably less exciting. In the previous Oscars for the 2007 film season, 59 out of 63 film critics correctly predicted the best picture winner according to Oscarcentral. In addition, 61 out of 63 predicted the best actor, 61 of 63 picked best supporting actor, 60 of 63 film critics picked best director, 57 of 59 picked best original screenplay, and 47 out of 59 picked best adapted screenplay. Two years ago, best picture was up in the air and the best supporting actor category was an upset, but Mirren, Whitaker, Scorsese, William Moynahan (for Departed) and Michael Ardnt (for Little Miss Sunshine) were pretty much locks.

It's true that this is better than in the 1930's because the studios aren't announcing the winners beforehand, but is that really much of an improvement? Today an army of Oscar bloggers and prediction-oriented websites analyze historical trends and trace the momentum of awards season so they can virtually guarantee who will win in some race. Even the Los Angeles Times (theenvelope), Toronto Star (Peter Howell's blog), and the New York Times (carpetbagger) have joined in the phenomenon with highly popular websites dedicated to the Oscars and other awards races that utilize Hollywood connections to enhance their predictions. Are these online Oscar trackers perfectly accurate? No, but they are all usually very similar which makes the case that the sheer number of them is excessive. When the Oscar bloggers are wrong, they're usually all wrong together as well, so it's little improvement. For best actress, all but 10 of the Oscar pundits predicted Julie Christie.

The only one of the major races that was truly exciting to follow this past year was best supporting actress, because Ruby Dee of American Gangster, Amy Ryan of Gone Baby Gone, Tilda Swenton of Michael Clayton, and Cate Blanchett of I'm Not There all had legitimate chances at winning and when my preferred choice Tilda Swenton won it, that was the highlight of the night for me because there was genuine suspense and subsequent joy. I would have imagined that thirty or forty years ago that sense of suspense existed in every race. I remember loving last year's race much more than the the years that preceded it because I didn't bother to read the suspiciously accurate Entertainment Weekly Oscar Prediction issue.

I think this excitement-diminishing epidemic is spreading to the casual viewer as well. Your average casual viewer will probably involuntarily come across three or four of these sources telling them who will probably win by the time Oscar time comes around. A special Oscar section will be printed at least two or three times before the ceremony in USA Today and their daily newspaper, they'll probably see the Golden Globe Results on the CNN ticker and their Morning news program will feature the entertainment correspondent telling them who will win. When it all adds up, you're average viewer will already have as good of an idea as I do over who will win.

Solutions I am proposing?
1. Guild awards should not take place or if they do, that should happen after the Oscars. It's a fairly dead giveaway who will win when a great number of the same people are voting in both contests.

Revolutionary thought: Just because you have a guild doesn't mean you have to have an awards ceremony. I'm sure other professional organizations like the American Institute of Engineers or the Meatpackers' Union doesn't give annual awards with nominees and a red carpet celebration. Your writing, cinematography, acting, directing and producing professions are already honored through the Golden Globes and Oscars, this is clearly redundant. Especially, the producers guild. If anything, I question whether producers even need a guild. Guilds stemmed from the Middle Ages as a way of protecting the interests of the artisan class, not upper-level management. You guys own movie studios, you make millions of dollars, you have the town of Hollywood at your hands, do you really need statues and awards to make you feel pretty?

2. Critics awards groups, the Golden Globes should make efforts to present different awards: Best family comedy, best breakout performance, best low budget film, best ensemble. The Golden Globe adds suspense to the ceremony because it nominates 10-12 actors, movies, and actresses, and sometimes an additional supporting actors, supporting actress, or director so that they will give you a broad field but narrow enough that you know who is likely to win.

3. I thoroughly enjoy some of the sites which revolve primarily around Oscarbuzz so I say with much love for these people that there is a definite oversaturation of Oscar buzz-oriented sites out there. Writers on these sites need to avoid focusing solely on predictions for the Oscars. They treat the preidction of the Oscar nominees and winners as if they were trying to decipher the passcode to a nuclear missile silo and are missing site of the opportunity for meaningful analysis. Besides, using historical progressions (i.e. 9 out of the last 10 best supporting actresses won the BAFTA award and got a nomination for the Chicago film critics award, so we can count on Actress B to win) to try to trace down the nominees does not make for particularly interesting writing anyway. To avoid redundance, there should be more emphasis on who should win or more emphasis on the "precursor awards" as if they were a means to their own end. This also prevents quality films from being invalidated because they didn't make the final five as A.O. Scott recently wrote.

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