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EDITORIAL 20/12/2012: USE-BY DATE IS HERE FOR MOVIE AWARDS

As the movie award season gets under way, Andrew L. Urban argues that it’s time for a major overhaul.

I think the use-by date for film awards has arrived. To launch my argument, here is an excerpt from the latest press release from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the body which presents the most revered awards in (at least commercial) cinema, the Oscars: 

“Beverly Hills, CA, December 14, 2012: Two hundred eighty-two feature films are eligible for the 2012 Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced today. 

"must open in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County"

To be eligible for 85th Academy Awards consideration, feature films must open in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County by midnight, December 31, and begin a minimum run of seven consecutive days. 

Under Academy rules, a feature-length motion picture must have a running time of more than 40 minutes and must have been exhibited theatrically on 35mm or 70mm film, or in a qualifying digital format. 

Feature films that receive their first public exhibition or distribution in any manner other than as a theatrical motion picture release are not eligible for Academy Awards in any category.” 

I probably don’t need to draw your attention to the last sentence because it screams WTF?! in this digital age. 

You will also have stubbed your observant toe on the bit which restricts eligibility to films that get a seven day run in Los Angeles County. Clearly, the original and quite parochial ambit of the Oscars has been lovingly retained for all of these past 85 years. 

But these outdated and old world restrictions are just the tip of the awards irrelevance iceberg, which includes all film awards; given that they are all modelled on the Oscars, I’ll stick with the AMPAS model for the purposes of this argument. 

"to hang medals all over them"

Louis B. Meyer was the originator of the Awards in 1927, with the creation of AMPAS. On the creation of the awards, he said: "I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them . . .” And that pretty well sums up every awards platform ever since. We recently reported on winners of a newly created screen award and when I asked for details of the jury, I was told the jury would not be named. Nobody seemed to care. The value of an award surely depends on who makes the crucial assessments. 

In the case of the Academy, the 5,865 voting members will have begun the voting process on Monday December 17, which ends at 5pm on January 3, 2013. The nominations will be announced a week later, on January 10 and the awards presentation will be on Sunday, February 24 in the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. 

As noted in the above press release, 282 feature films have passed the eligibility requirements to compete for the Best Picture award. They range from Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. (There are another 71 entries for the Foreign Language Oscar, including Kate Shortland’s German language Australian film, Lore.) 

Even within the geographical limitations of Los Angeles County, cinema has expanded in every way since the early days of the Oscars, when it was a celebration for ‘the town’ where everyone worked alongside each other – not always happily, of course. It is remarkable how creaky and inadequate the Oscar categories now seem, even if we accept Louis B. Meyer’s rationale for creating them. Indeed, especially if we do, because (as the Hollywood Foreign Press understands perfectly) the more stars you can put on nominations lists, the more will turn up – and the more stars you attract, the more public interest and TV (money) you can command. So their gongs, the Golden Globes, offer two major categories: drama and comedy/musical. 

"chops out the differentiation"

But even the HFPA doesn’t take this notion to its logical conclusion, and chops out the differentiation after the lead actor and actress categories. As I say, it’s all about the stars. 

There really is no rational way to argue that 282 films made in 2012 can be assessed for a single Best Picture award, nor that there is only one contribution in all the other categories that deserves the ‘Best’ stamp. Given that the emphasis is on WINNING the Best … anything, the awards become little more than a parody of the industry’s natural tendency to bubble and fizz and show off, be seen, be admired, be shiny. 

If the Oscars still seem insular and condescending (with a token category for Foreign Language films) it’s because the Academy is slow to change – some say because it is run by old men. And while the Awards show continues to be one of the world’s major TV events, they are not likely to change anything, unless some visionary TV producer asks them to. 

The structure is unsophisticated and narrow; it is exclusionary and inflexible. But so far, no awards body has managed to find an effective alternative system to the template: the nominees & winner formula remains cast in concrete. The theory that underpins this system is that we human beings like to be declared ‘best’ and therefore the triumphalist structure must prevail. 

"people with vision and imagination"

In a more sophisticated world where people with vision and imagination manage such things, there may be a system that recognises and encourages excellence without demanding that there be one ‘winner’ a few also rans and hundreds of ‘losers’. Such a system may offer recognition and kudos to even more practitioners than the present system – wouldn’t that be something to celebrate! More winners! 

One way to overcome some of the major limitations and strictures of old awards systems might be to discard the old nomination/winners construct and instead to recognise ‘Outstanding Achievement’ in the various award categories. In other words to give equal value to all the work that has been peer-judged as outstanding. The number of such awards may still be limited to ensure they are highly prized, but it elevates the accolade for each and avoids having to compare apples with oranges. 

An example of how that sort of award structure might look in practice, here is a sample - the inaugural Urban Cinefile Birthday Honours (2001)

In Australia the AACTA Awards are campaigning to raise funds to enable the organisers to introduce 10 new awards, seven in television (to match departments recognised in feature films) and one each in feature films, documentary and new media. The Oscars have a history of adding new award categories, but adding new categories doesn’t address all the issues. Still, it highlights the need to keep awards evolving as the screen content industry evolves.

"an unfortunate ‘class system’"

I have often argued – and will continue to do so – that Australia’s film and TV awards must be presented at two separate presentations – not the two that currently makes a messy distinction between what’s good for the telecast and what isn’t. That arrangement creates an unfortunate ‘class system’ of award categories which is demeaning.

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Andrew L. Urban

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