As a rule, I generally don’t watch awards shows. Though I love seeing all the men on the red carpet in their best eveningwear, the silliness that follows which substitutes for entertainment is usually so dumbed down and spread out that I’d rather do something constructive than tune in. The Academy Awards are the most lauded of the bunch yet are also the most egregious offenders. As if the show itself wasn’t bad enough, the process by which award-winners are chosen is so ridiculous and political that it makes the purpose of the award, acknowledging artistic achievement in film, a little dubious. Of course, I realize that if not for the Oscars, the general public wouldn’t know about many of the great movies released the prior year.
So the 2019 Academy Awards show is over. Whether you agree or disagree with their controversial choice for Best Picture, that boat has sailed. Every year seems to stir up new controversies, which is notable for a show that should be bringing people together to celebrate artistic achievement. This year, between having no host, being amused by Lady Gaga’s affection for Bradley Cooper, and getting mad over how the Academy appealed to a racial reconciliation fantasy against its better judgment, it would have been easy to miss another underlying contention: the role of streaming media in the film industry.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, many great movies are being made these days exclusively for streaming platforms. The Salesman, I Am Not Your Negro, The Big Sick, Manchester by the Sea, The Handmaiden, Beasts of No Nation, The Meyerowitz Stories, Mudbound, and Private Life, not to mention 2018’s multiple Oscar-winner Roma, have all been great movies and that’s just skimming the surface. Many of these were first shown at film festivals, then picked up by Amazon or Netflix for distribution. Others were financed by said companies with small releases on the big screen. Either way, there’s no denying the power of these two platforms for their ability to create and distribute films that even the snootiest critics love (yours truly included).
This is why Steven Speilberg’s comments and movement in favor of adding more rules for Oscar consideration leave me a little irritated. Speilberg is proposing the addition of even more rules as a barrier for the award, specifically geared toward keeping streaming movies out. In his mind, the theatrical experience is sacred and can’t be replaced by a television. He feels that the theater is the pinnacle of a director’s career and as such that streaming movies should only be Emmy territory, akin to the made-for-TV movies of old like Parent Trap II or High School Musical. Traditionally, if you wanted to see a good movie, you went to the cinema; if you wanted to see good TV, you turned on the boob tube. But times have changed and those lines are blurred. “You kids get off my lawn!
But seriously though, there are many reasons why Speilberg is (gasp!) wrong. Foremost is the sheer state of the film industry that, like any other, is constantly changing and now doesn’t have to revolve around the cinema. The fact is that many people get a superior experience from their TVs vice a movie screen–better picture, better sound, a more comfortable environment, no one checking their phone or talking in the row in front of you, available 24/7–so more people will choose to watch from home instead of go out. Sure, you lose out on some of the social aspects, which I would argue is essential for any art form to be appreciated, but most people would rather take their chances. The movies being released via streaming are also not made with commercial breaks baked in, so they really aren’t made for network television.
Consumers shouldn’t have to drag themselves to a specific location, which can be halfway around the world, in order to enjoy a movie the “proper” way. Moreover, whether or not a streaming movie was ever viewed via analog means does not degrade its artistic merit or messaging, which is purportedly what the Oscars reward. What we see here with the Academy mirrors what is also taking place in American politics; an organization previously run by rich, old, white men is having to reconcile with a younger, less wealthy, more diverse generation. In both situations, it seems like the old guard has a knee-jerk reaction when they think their relevancy is being threatened. Thus, they dig in their heels to prevent newcomers from completely changing the system they cherish.
Instead, they should come to terms with the change and figure out how to thrive within the shifting landscape. At this point, it’s not a matter of if the Oscars will transform but rather when. With many new streaming services just on the horizon, the award show may have anarchy on its hands within a few years if it doesn’t quickly and correctly adapt its rules to survive. If a large number of objectively great movies are left on the cutting room floor instead of being recognized simply because they didn’t reach a high bar of entry, more and more people will turn away from the show as they realize it is nothing more than a sham for ad dollars.
This is why, in lieu of their proposed Best Popular Film category (What exactly constitutes a “popular” film anyway? And is it something that really needs to be rewarded? Like Prom King?), I propose that the Academy create a Best Streaming Film category. Instead of completely shutting out a viable form of media, the best thing to do is embrace it as an equal artform separated only by its means of distribution. This would also be better for the entire industry as legitimate studios won’t be forced to show their movies unnecessarily in some random theater, film festivals excluded of course.
With the Academy having such a sordid history with diversity and inclusion, combined with ratings that continue to decline, the organization needs to lower the bar to entry, not raise it. Otherwise, people will stop giving the show the small amount of credence it currently receives and it will fade into obscurity. The Academy should go back to the premise of rewarding artistic achievement and build their rules in support of that objective with a much broader definition of the word “film”.