Question: Why is AMPAS so determined to interrupt the natural evolution of cinema?
That’s a blasphemous question, especially at the outset of the annual awards season orgy, but now that I have your attention, hear me out. For Your Consideration, if you will.
This year, the academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold their 90th presentation where they distribute hardware to their favorites-of-the-moment films, performers and technicians. Having been an avid cinephile and Oscar-watcher since the 38th Academy Awards, my first broadcast, I’ve witnessed their struggles with competition from TV, the assault of the independents, the onslaught of home video, accusations of having a lack of membership diversity, and now, the pie fight with streaming services – and all in an environment of collapsing viewership.
In a nutshell, AMPAS was founded in 1927 by Louis B Mayer and 36 buddies to face-off against growing union power. Awards were an afterthought. The gang thought it might also be a good idea to brand the organization as the authority to elevate the image of the movie industry, and what better way to promote that image but to present a dozen awards of merit representing the best of a year’s offerings. The benefits would not only fall on to studios, but would reap increased box office earnings for film exhibitors. And it was so – the Oscars are the most famous and prestigious of all the year-end trade fairs. Like any annual midway fair that features prizes for best bull, fattest pig and yummiest blueberry pie, AMPAS learned that by generating suspense over “who would win/who should win” increased venue attendance prior to the awards – and exploded viewership when the “winners’ were announced. There was no home viewing –no home video and older films on the idiot box, as it was called, were relegated to the late late show. Theatre owners were in control of the board.
Not to dabble too long in the history of the aforementioned conflicts, suffice it to say that television productions were shut out of competition, but independents began to dominate over studio-produced films despite the attempted gimmicks of Sensurround, 3D and Smellovision. Home video proved to be a double-edged sword (increasing studio profits while kneecapping exhibitors). The Academy was then shamed into addressing the diversity issue by expanding its membership.
That leaves us with the current battle with streaming services, in particular, this year with Netflix. The Academy insists, basically, that to qualify for their awards, a film must have played in a movie theatre for a week in New York and Los Angeles within the year of consideration. Originally, this rule ensured that the voting membership would have the chance to view all films that qualified – great idea for the 1930s and 40s, less so when productions moved outside the studios to international locations. Home video allowed for screeners, that magnificent time-saver that pretty much replaced voters needing to trek to the nearest exhibitor’s venue. Just settle into your favorite chair and watch at home.
Enter Netflix, the neophyte streaming service / production house. The fact that they would screen existing Hollywood product into homes was greeted with salivating delight by all except cinema owners, who took a serious hit, and home video, who were given last rights. On the production side, the quality of their product equaled – if not surpassed – that of the mainstream dream factory, but when it was suggested that product from the streaming service be included in the annual trophy grab, it was as though a mouse had scurried across the banquet floor.
There are two primary arguments put forth by AMPAS: “that’s what the Emmys are for” and “films must screen in a theatre to be eligible.”
Firstly, no, the Emmys are for television. Netflix isn’t television. There are no commercials from sponsors interrupting at ten-minute intervals. There’s no news division, no Monday night football and no chat shows. You can’t even get the fucking weather from Netflix. It’s a streaming service, exactly like the local Cineplex, sans bricks and mortar. You pick your show and watch it. The difference is location, that’s it.
“But,” they cry, “Films must be seen on the big screen!”
Does that suggest that the voting members always brave parking their butts on somebody’s gum to try and watch a film though a lightning storm of cellphone flashes?
“Of course not. They have screeners.”
OK, but the film must be exhibited on the big screen, anyway?
“Why, for the great unwashed, of course. It’s the rule” (The rule established decades ago when the only alternative was television and its trademark milquetoast Hallmark Hall of Fame features)
Technology has evolved, considerably, and it’s a lame excuse that, at first glance, this could be the entire reasoning behind the resistance to inclusion that can only increase public interest and participation. Let’s turn this stone over and see what’s underneath.
Netflix has become a mecca for filmmakers of color and gender that were excluded from the boys’ club in production, promotion and distribution. Let’s consider the three recent top-of-the-line offerings that could easily qualify for Oscar and see if we can uncover a pattern:
Beasts of No Nation
- Directed by an Asian American mixed race director with an all black cast
- Powerful performances and riveting storytelling
- Asian director and lead
- A heartwarming and life-affirming tale with state-of-the-art FX
- Directed by a lesbian woman of color
- Presents a complex epic of an era of racial and social repression
It was only during the research for this rant – originally intended to gripe about the baffling discrimination of some worthy feature films – that I noticed this coincidence, but it’s a damning one since none of the other reasons for exclusion of streaming productions don’t hold water.
Maybe it’s one of those outer zones that has yet to be reached by change. Evolution isn’t easy – just ask the dodo – but streaming productions are here to stay. They will grow in popularity. People will watch them and identify with the stories they tell. If AMPAS will not reach out and include them, I suggest they re-qualify the title of the big prize to be “Best Picture Made by a White Man Shown in a Public Building that Sells Popcorn”.
And the Oscar goes to….?