Oscar Bait: Why the Oscars are Overrated

Illustration by Rachelle Lee


Annually, the Academy Awards return to centre stage for film enthusiasts and fashion diehards across the world. The awards bring all of our favourite celebrities with them, igniting storms of gossip over seemingly budding relationships, outrageous fashion designs and the occasional tid-bit of debate over the awards themselves. Yet despite the glitz and glam that surrounds the ceremony, the Oscars have consistently failed to select the most deserving nominees and winners of various categories, favouring popular sentiment over the most dynamic and artistic films.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences bears the annual burden of both nominating and selecting the winner from the pool of films that qualify yearly. With more than 7,000 members, the voting for the nomination is split into sections (i.e., actors can only nominate actors and not directors) whereas the voting for the winner is polled from all members regardless of your occupation. This method, whilst arguably one of the best for all award shows, is intrinsically flawed.

Take last year’s ‘Academy’s Whitest’ award night, where the show and members were criticised for not selecting people from different ethnicities. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite became a trending Twitter topic and boycotts were staged by numerous actors and filmmakers. In response, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences culled its previously much larger membership, in an attempt to diversify nominations. In doing so, they also took the opportunity to change the system of voting, creating a system to favour a ‘consensus’ best film, rather than a simple ‘most votes’ scheme (only voting for Best Picture has been changed so far).

When the Academy looks to determine the winner of the Best Picture race, they first check to see if one film has over fifty percent of the number one votes (voting is from one to six). In the probable likelihood that no film has a majority, they eliminate the film with the fewest number one votes, even if they were to have the most cumulative votes overall. They then take the number two votes on those ballots, and reassign them as number one votes. If one film then has more than fifty percent of the number one votes, it becomes the winner. If not, the process continues until one film has over fifty percent of the votes. In this method, the Academy is potentially forgoing the overall votes in return for what has been described as an Electoral College-like system (and we know how well that can turn out). Surely the film with the most accumulated votes should be the winner?

Among other issues plaguing the Oscars, there is also the incredible lack of consistency with the awards. American Hustle in 2013 was nominated for ten awards, including all six major categories (Actor, Actress, both Supporting roles, Best Film and Director). It failed to win even a single award. Yes, maybe that speaks to individual performances above all else, but how can a film so highly rated in all ten diverse nominations not win a single award? Whilst, I do not necessarily believe the film deserved to win Best Picture, or the other categories, the logical flaws are evident when something is so widely acclaimed and nominated and yet fails to win over films with fewer nominations.

Take Martin Scorsese’s filmography as another example. Despite his film Taxi Driver being recognised by the US Library of Congress as ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically’ significant, it lost the Oscar for Best Picture to Rocky, and failed to win a single award in its year of contention. How can something so culturally significant and revered be so overlooked? Scorsese was was not even nominated for best director. Seemingly, the awards mean little in retrospect, with numerous award winners being overshadowed by those which failed to win. Similarly, Scorsese’s Best Picture win came with The Departed in 2006. Whilst, no doubt an entertaining movie it lacked the artistic qualities of fellow nominated films such as The Last King of Scotland or Letters to Iwo Jima.

Not only this, but to even be in contention for an Oscar, a film must be globally marketable. What independent, arthouse film manages to reach the same scope of audience as one that is backed by a well-known production company and containing box-office bankable stars? It cannot possibly hope to compete, leaving the awards cycle full of only those films which contain the same generic formulae: star power, massive production companies and deep pockets for marketing. Would a film like The Revenant have been as widely released had Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson not starred? Probably not. Would it have then garnered enough attention to win the awards? Definitely not. To win an award, a film needs this global recognition, which means smaller budget and more artistic films are often left unrepresented and forgotten in ceremonies like the Academy Awards.
In light of the recent Oscar ceremony and the low-budget film Moonlight winning Best Picture, I do acknowledge that there are exceptions to this rule, yet the dominant narrative still plays out in favour of star-powered films.

Even further, how are we categorising what a ‘Best Picture’ even is? As I have suggested, the Oscars do not typically select the most artistic films, and don’t get me started on foreign films, which are largely ignored in the main categories (with a slight exception for Elle this year). So what is the best film? Should the ‘best’ not be the film that the most people enjoy and flock to see?  Star Wars: Rogue One, or Captain America Civil War, or Finding Dory all topped the box office in 2016. Yet we ignore the fact that these films have been the most successful by global attention to focus on slightly more artistic films, and yet only include the bankable, Hollywood films that fall into the category of semi-arthouse productions. There is an underlying discrepancy in the way that the award shows – particularly the Oscars – operate, allowing them to pick various films that in no way meet either two main categories for success (artistic measure and financial success).

The Oscars are fun, they are bright and they do provide some direction into popular and entertaining films that contrast with the box-office-powerhouse superhero genre. Let’s just not hide from what they are: a bright and loud way of annually showcasing some good films and performances – just not always the year’s finest.


Nick Jarrett

The author Nick Jarrett

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