Thursday, February 23, 2012

Buying the Oscars

The Oscars are the best example of Hollywood prestige, showmanship, and bribery all rolled into one. All year long there is a buzz. Any notable performances, any notable movies, anything with swelling music, and preferably a plot involving World War II or some star taking a turn as an 'abnormal chap' or 'historical' person gets put into the Oscar buzz.

Angeline Joline chops off her hair and frizzes it (read: uglifies herself) playing the wife of a murdered journalist: Oscar pot. Nicole Kidman puts on a prosthetic nose and stares longingly out the window: Oscar pot. Steve Spielberg makes a swelling epic with galloping horses and glamorous corpses: Oscar pot. Downtrodden minority gets trampled on, but then rescued by white protagonist and then offered a glimpse of dignity before more trampling (Gone with the Wind, Glory, The Hurricane, Monster's Ball, Precious, pretty much most movies with minority nominated actors, and now The Help): Oscar pot!!

I don't have a problem with these stories and the preferences of Oscars crowd. Most of the voters fit a certain demographic that is more gray and more conservative than my friends. They like what they like and far be it from me to tell them what movies they should like due to politics or aesthetics. If I am oppose to their decisions or selections, I just tune them out. No harm, no foul.

What's become clear in the last decade is that the buzz is not only due to a certain pat set of roles and movies Oscar voters feel comfortable in watching, but that there is a fair amount of Oscar bribing that goes on. In its heyday. Miramax was the king of purchasing Oscars. A few million in promotion has made their movies extra profit and long-term credibility. How many people would have watched "The English Patient" if it wasn't so acclaimed and awarded? That's not to disparage the movie, but it's a 3-hour art house film that is slow and doesn't involve gratuitous sex. Still millions of people lined up to see "The English Patient" after the awards season because of little gold statues.

Of course, movie awards were invented to promote what the industry thought was the best. After the age of televising the Oscars began, it was no longer a Hollywood insider party. The world was watching and the Academy Awards now felt a duty and responsibility to entertain but putting on a full show. Once the show was in place and rolling along, it was only natural that producers did what they always do to TV shows: use it as a magnet for ads and also a marketing tool future projects.

I was once in the home of an Oscar winner and didn't even know it. My friend was fixing an elderly woman's computer. I came to the penthouse apartment with lunch in tow to keep him company. As I wandered around the palatial 3-floor apartment an entire world unfolded. I asked what the client did and my friend said she was retired, but her deceased husband was in the movie business. Just then I noticed it on the shelf. An actual Oscar. I took down the golden statue. It was surprisingly heavy, and the gold coating hadn't worn off after all these years. The shine was gone but it had somehow become more regal with its dull golden glow. I stared at the inscription plate: Casablanca. It was from a bygone era and carried a gravitational pull to it. The statue, the classic movie, and the casualness of its placement on the shelf (like a queen tossing her crown on a hat rack) added to its glory. It came from a time when Oscar voters were secretive and unknown, the broadcast happened mostly on the radio, and 99% of the world didn't give a flying flip.

Fast forward several decades later and the birth of indie movies in the late 80s and 90s. Academy Awards gave credibility to a new wave of young directors and writers. Once Miramax made a mint from showering gifts on Oscar voters, most studios raced to follow their lead. The Oscar race was on and now takes place for 6 months out of the year. Purchasing 'For Your Consideration" ads in major publications, packaging decorative dvds, and little glittering perks are showered upon the voters. And there is no law against buying awards. No harm, no foul. But then the question becomes how credible are arts awards that weighs heavily on the side of the financially endowed?

Imagine if the Nobel prize voters were flooded with gifts and promotionals each year in their nomination process of chemists and peace laureates: would it reduce its significance? What if the Pulitzer committee were publicly allowed to engage in glad-handing and parties? Wouldn't Broadway producers line up to ensure their play got the gold star of approval? But would theatregoers in the know have less respect for the Pulitzer if they knew its purchasing price?

As I gear up for the Oscar parties, the inevitable anger at the host not being funny enough, and the outrage at how long the show runs (guesstimate: it's going to be longer than my attention span or endurance) I wonder if I'm playing into the parade. Hollywood's biggest marketing parade of the year.

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