What is an Oscar for?

Art or commerce: what the Oscars stand for

Is the Oscars about art or about commerce? Mostly about the intersection between the two. Sometimes the barometer points more in one direction, then in the other. The top blockbusters of the year, measured by box office results, are honored at the Oscars only every few years - in the last 20 years these have been "Titanic", "Avatar", "Lord of the Rings" - and are otherwise except for the technical ones Categories rather poorly represented.

The same applies, however, to real artistic daring, which is just as seldom directly represented. It takes a little time before the word gets around to Hollywood. A better barometer for exceptional artistic achievements are, for example, the Cannes Film Festival, which does not rely so heavily on the established when it comes to awarding prizes. At the Oscars, an innovative director is often not honored for the first works that have a lasting impact on the art of film, but is only honored years later when he is considered established. Candidates for this honor this year would be Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater, for example. In the almost 100-year history of the Oscars, by the way, only once (!) Has a woman won an Oscar for directing: Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker".

"Arthouse mainstream" is nominated

What can be found in the selection of the Oscar nominations can best be summed up as "art house mainstream". In the list of the most successful films of the year at the American box office, most of the favorites are in the midfield. The distance to the real box office hits is already enormous in some cases: The film "Birdman", which is considered the big favorite, is certainly not a niche product with gross revenues of around 36 million dollars, but it only has around a tenth of the most successful film (the current part of the " Hunger Games "with about 336 million dollars) recorded.

Marketing tool for films and stars

The Oscars are also a marketing tool for films as well as for stars, and from this point of view, of course, commerce. Most of all, the Oscars are about politics - the politics of the film industry. The prizes reflect the zeitgeist, they show power structures, which innovations and newcomers the film industry honors, who can be considered "established" and which horse one would like to bet on.

Who awards the Oscars?

The Academy of Motions Picture Arts and Sciences, which is basically an association of American filmmakers, awards the Oscars. So the American film industry celebrates itself at the Oscars. And because it is still the most productive and important in the world, the Oscars are considered the most important film award in the world.

Nevertheless, they actually only represent part of the film system, which functions through an interplay of three pillars:

  • The Filmmakers (Studios, producers, directors, through to costume and sound design),
  • the Film mediators (Film critics, cinema operators, distribution and sales) and last but not least
  • the Film recipients.

The film critics have their own prizes - the Golden Globes or the Critics ’Choice Awards - and the audience gives their awards primarily at the box office, i.e. at the box office.

How do you get nominated for an Oscar?

Eligible for participation are all films that were shown in Los Angeles County for the first time in the past year and for at least seven days in a public cinema for a fee. From the list of all of these films, the Academy will select five nominations in each category and up to ten nominations for the "Best Picture" category.

The representatives of their own professional field in the Academy decide on the nominations, i.e. the costume designers only decide on the five nominees in their own category. For the most important category "Best Film", which goes to the producers of the film, all members can submit a list of favorites.

The nomination process is not preceded by its own screenings. For the "Best Film" category in particular, this means that those films that have the most audience in their own industry have the greatest chance of being nominated - the aforementioned "Art House Mainstream". Because, of course, none of the members can have seen all of the films that qualified for the list. On the other hand, one can assume that filmmakers particularly watch films that are of particular interest to their own professional field and that the nominations in their own categories therefore have a certain accuracy.

Campaigning of the film studios

The nominations are preceded by massive "campaigning" carried out by the film studios. Advertisements are placed in industry journals such as "Vanity Fair" or "Variety", which propose films "for your consideration" in order to raise the awareness of the industry. The big studios often choose a few films that they propagate in order not to cannibalize their own products. They like to play it safe and prefer the quoted "arthouse mainstream". Many a good film has to believe in it even in this process and can only hope for luck. On the other hand, outsiders sometimes have a chance if someone in power works for them. A film like "The Artist", the big 2012 winner, a French, black and white neo-silent film, might not have stood a chance if super-producer Harvey Weinstein hadn't thrown all his weight into the ring.

Who will choose the winners?

The winners of each category are chosen by all members of the Academy. Which of the five nominated actresses will win the trophy is also decided by costume designers, producers, etc., and thus possibly also members who have little specialist knowledge in the respective category.

The Academy consists of over 6000 members. You can only become part of the jury through an invitation, some of which the Academy sends out every year. In order to be invited, it is helpful to have won an Oscar yourself, but not mandatory, and there is no automatism. It can be assumed that the most famous and powerful personalities in Hollywood are all members of the jury. The Academy was founded in 1927 mainly by the great studio bosses - it can be assumed that they still have a lot of power behind the scenes.

Of course, the campaign continues between the nomination and the voting: Now the task is to convince the members of the jury to cast the "right" vote. DVDs, "screeners", are sent out to jury members for each nominated film, often in combination with gift packages. Because still not all jury members have seen all films. Distributors are trying to remedy this by staging luxurious screenings in which jury members are pampered with personal "meets and greets" with the stars who bring their skin to the market.

Dirty campaigning

Negative campaigns are also part of the game. In 2009, for example, it was rumored that the indigenous population was ruthlessly exploited while filming "Slumdog Millionaire" in India. Despite this hype, one can assume that some jury members, especially in the secondary categories, like to rely on hearsay. The great art of the PR machinery is therefore to keep a nominee, a nominee in conversation. As with political elections, the mood barometer can of course also turn out to be to the disadvantage of nominees whose votes are believed to be "lost".

Which films are preferred by the procedure?

The Academy also has a short-term memory: Films that were released in the first half of the year are traditionally underrepresented in the nominations. Anyone who is seriously aiming for an Oscar nomination will set a US theatrical release in the second half of the year.

Genre films are still having a hard time at the Oscars, they still have a bit of the smell of speculatively produced cheap goods. In the eyes of the established Oscar jury, they lack the seriousness for an artistic profile. Exceptions like "The Silence of the Lambs" or "Gravity" confirm the rule. Horror or slapstick hardly stand a chance, only romantic comedy seems to have a bonus.

Even pioneering genre films in film history went without a nomination, such as "The Shining", "Terminator", "Blade Runner" or "Scarface". A curious detail on the side: "Scarface" and "Shining" were even nominated for the "Golden Raspberry" award, the latter even "won" it.

Even the garish doesn't go down well at the Academy, so it's clear that audience favorites like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", "Starship Troopers" or "Hairspray" aren't even touched at the Oscars, which doesn't make them any less relevant.

The most glaring thing about this year's Oscars

Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel", this year's favorite in the race, is perhaps the harshest thing the Oscars can take right now. So-called American independent films have a far better chance of achieving this today than they used to, mainly because they hardly exist any more. The big studios have increasingly incorporated most of the independent productions in recent years, at least through distribution.

Sociopolitical messages

The liberal film industry likes to link its rain of prizes at regular intervals with a socio-political message, for example in the direction of freedom of expression, American politics, gay rights, anti-racism. This year's list of nominees has often been criticized for not having a single African American woman or a single African American in the main categories - although "Selma" was nominated for best film. This suggests that sometimes the political message is just as important as the artistic "achievement". And that's a good thing at a high-profile event like the Oscars.

For obvious reasons, the industry also likes films that are about the industry itself. This year "Birdman" is at the front of the race, in 2012 "The Artist" won.

There is a lot of speculation about why individual actors, like Leonardo DiCaprio or Jake Gyllenhaal, who are considered the best of their generation, are repeatedly ignored. In connection with the often strange mechanisms of "campaigning", it does not seem unlikely that they simply messed with the wrong people.

"Citizen Cane", which today is considered to be one of the classic films par excellence, was able to win only one award (original script) despite nine nominations. Every mention of the film, as well as Orson Welles' acceptance speech, was accompanied by boos from the audience at the award ceremony. This was attributed by evil tongues to a negative campaign by media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the role model for the character in "Citizen Cane". If the speculations are wrong, at least they are very glamorous.

What role do foreign films play in the Oscars?

Contrary to popular belief, the original language of a film does not play a role in its nomination. Anyone who wants to be potentially nominable just needs to have been shown in LA in a certain period of time in the public cinema. However, the American (intellectual) public is even more sluggish than the German-speaking: unsynchronized films have little chance of a theatrical release in L.A. (in contrast to New York). Therefore, British films are always prominently represented at the Oscars (most recently "The King's Speech" and "The Queen").

However, a surprising number of foreign-language films still make it to the cinemas of Los Angeles on this sometimes synchronized route. Through this back door, it is also possible for some European films to win nominations beyond the "best foreign language film". In this way, Penelope Cruz for "Volver" and Catherine Deneuve for "Indochine" were nominated as "Best Actresses", Michael Haneke's "Love" made it into five categories. Winning outside of the "Best Foreign Language Film" category, however, has proven very unlikely in the history of the Oscars.

Any country in the world can submit a film for the "best foreign language film". A shortlist will be drawn up from this list, from which a separate "Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee" will select the nominees. The principle is the same again, including lobbying. Strong American sales are helpful.

Do the Oscars write film history?

Every generation has their Oscar appearances that will be remembered. Marlon Brando, who had his Oscar picked up in 1973 on behalf of an Indian woman. Michael Moore's furious political plea in post 9/11 America that was cut off from the orchestra. Cher, who in 1988, after decades of disdain as a slut in the entertainment industry, received her Oscar very dignified in a practically transparent costume. Roberto Benignis hysterical kiss orgy after winning "Life is beautiful".

If you look at the list of winners in the "Best Film" category or the list of films with the most Oscars, as a person interested in cinema you actually remember almost all of them somehow - but not all of them in the best. Some great classics in film history, on the other hand, did not even see the Oscars from behind. This includes not only genre and independent films but also, for example, Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times", David Fincher's "Fight Club" or Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant". Milestones in film history were nominated, but received nothing, such as "Taxi Driver", "Psycho", "The Great Dictator" or "Because they don't know what they are doing". Others were fobbed off with side prizes, such as "Some like it hot" (best costume), "The Wizard of Oz" (best song) and "2001 - A Space Odyssey" (best special effects).

When you look at the nominated competition, the decisions made by the Academy sometimes seem a bit short-sighted in retrospect. In 1999 two costume films entered the race: the undoubtedly nice crowdpleaser "Shakespeare in Love" won seven of thirteen nominations including Gwyneth Paltrow for best actress), while "Elizabeth" with Cate Blanchett in her legendary first role in seven nominations with a consolation prize for the best makeup section. From today's perspective, there can be no longer any doubt as to which of the two films was the more sustainable. Likewise in 1959, when "The Cat on the Hot Tin Roof", nominated six times, came away empty-handed - the big winner of the evening was "Gigi". There is also a long list of great actresses, actors and directors who have never received the Oscars.

Is film history written by the winners?

The Oscars naturally help to bring certain films into the public eye and therefore make a significant contribution to the creation of legends. But what makes film history at the bottom line continues to arise primarily from the collective memory of the conglomerate of filmmakers, film mediators and the audience described above.

What do the Oscars bring?

For the audience, above all, spectacle, glamor and funny betting fun. An Oscar win (and sometimes even a nomination) brings filmmakers a temporary increase in their market value. Which brings us back to the subject of marketing. If a studio or a film distributor wants to advertise on a film poster or even just a DVD cover with the designation "Oscar winner XY", the Academy can be rewarded for every mention with princely royalties. What the winners then do with the career boost is a different matter and does not necessarily lead to a bigger, better career in the long term. The right decisions for follow-up projects are crucial to whether the Oscar hype can be maintained.

If a Meryl Streep wins what feels like the hundredth time, or finally (!) A Cate Blanchett, or this year maybe finally (!) Julianne Moore, that can hardly increase the market value of these actresses, since they are already considered the best and highest paid of their generation. You can of course look forward to the "officially made" recognition and this glamor factor is necessary for the event.

But you should be even more pleased when newcomers or eternal supporting actors are brought into the limelight - for them, winning an Oscar means a real opportunity. Jennifer Lawrence definitely hit the commercial map with Oscar attention for "Winter's Bone", while Colin Firth took his Oscar win for "The King's Speech" from the second row.

The principle can also be applied to films, which of course can expect a further rush of viewers as a result of winning an Oscar. This is certainly also good news for box office hits like "The Lord of the Rings". But the cinephile heart beats faster when small, fine films find a broad audience in this way that would otherwise have been impossible.That's why my heart beats especially for "Boyhood" at this year's Academy Awards - a small film that is actually huge. But how did Oscar winner Helen Mirren once put it so beautifully? "It's very clear in a sprint or marathon who's best. But there is no such thing as 'best' in the world of art. It's not a race." (Paul Ertl, derStandard.at, February 20, 2015)