A century ago, America’s film industry was like our telecoms industry, a gold rush enabled by exciting technology and unbridled greed. The workers at the bottom—carpenters, electricians, painters—had already unionized. The prospect of the more expensive talent—writers, directors, actors—demanding huge pensions, health benefits and residuals threatened to stem the obscene flow of profits.
What MGM head Louis B Mayer and the other movie moguls needed was a way to prevent another union, some kind of pre-emptive organization that would solve labour disputes internally. Plus, this body could pump out good public relations to counterbalance the scandalous headlines for which the famous were infamous. But how to get the creative egomaniacs to join? What bait would prove irresistible?
Thus the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was born (named to fake a permanence it has since realized), along with their annual awards ceremony, first held as a private dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929. The presentations lasted all of 15 minutes.
What began so long ago as a bunch of old rich white men from California has morphed over the decades into… a bunch of old rich white men from California. The Los Angeles Times sniffed out almost all of the 6,000 Academy members in 2012, discovering that fully half are over 60, three-quarters are men, and a shocking 94% are white. If you assembled them all in a room today, it would look like the most racist, sexist, parochial organization in America.
These are the people who vote on the movies each year. Sorry to ruin the magic, but when a movie gets nominated, it has more to do with idiosyncrasies than excellence. The nominations are occupationally segregated—writers nod writers, editors nod editors, and so on. If you’re an unloved genius (and since geniuses make everyone else look stupid, most are), you can languish without recognition. Daring but obscure films get overlooked, because nobody nominates a film they haven’t seen. And biases persist because membership is by invite only, so existing members naturally invite like-minded friends. Good luck, young black women.
If the Academy Awards really are a backward, haphazard affair, how did it become such a big deal, behind only the Super Bowl in American television viewership? Simple. Because the TV networks and the movie studios are the same companies, with a shared profit motive. Fox and 20th Century Fox share a parent. CBS is part of National Amusements Inc, which also controls Paramount. NBC and Universal are sister companies. And ABC, current Oscars telecaster, is housed under The Walt Disney Company. They pull out the stops at the awards so you pull out your wallet at the cineplex. As for the global audience, cable TV has proved a far more insidious occupying force than any general’s wet dream, pulsing America’s soft power into every living room.
The Oscars, far from the movie Olympics they’re inflated to be, are more like your local Sports Day, with the same aging guardians, traditional beliefs and meaningless trophies. It’s a big ad for Hollywood interrupted by smaller ads. That’s fine for Americans, but you should know better. There’s a whole world of cinema out there, every bit as emotive, explosive and exhilarating as the latest Yankee fare.
India makes more movies and sells more tickets than the US (easy with 1.2 billion people), and its stars, like Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor, are just as arresting—check out ‘Talaash’. Nigerian films dominate the Saharan subcontinent. Japan, Hong Kong, China, Britain, France, Italy and Scandinavia all regularly produce high-quality films, which Hollywood pilfers and remakes, literally banking on your ignorance. Best Picture winner ‘The Departed’? That was the kick-ass Hong Kong action flick ‘Infernal Affairs’. Trade in this year’s nominated ‘Captain Phillips’ for the superior Danish suspense, ‘A Hijacking’. And don’t even bother with the pending American version—see the Norwegian thriller ‘Headhunters’ now.
Film critic Andrew O’Hehir says it best: “Most people… consume a limited range of entertainment products, sold to them by a few large corporations, for the same reason they eat food that makes them sick. It’s all they know about. Beneath an umbrella of unlimited freedom, they are offered a constricted array of predigested selections, and persuaded that they do not like things they have not tried.”
This Sunday, don’t fall for the ‘American Hustle’. Skip the Oscars, hop onto Netflix, and let ‘The Hunt’ begin.