Wake me when awards season is over

January 10, 2014

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Awards season is a phrase that makes it sound as though everyone is armed with shotguns, combing an empty cornfield in hopes of flushing statuettes from the brush. It implies a hunt, a focused pursuit whose sole goal is to return with an armful of trophies.

Awards season is also one of the reasons I’m glad not to work for a newspaper, or any organization that takes that phrase – “awards season” – seriously.

Toward the end of my tenure as a staff writer at a daily paper, “awards season” meant that period from the beginning of January until mid-to-late March, when the Oscars are awarded. It meant finding something every week – now it would be everyday – to write about the Oscar race. That meant thinking of something new to write about movies I’d written full reviews of anywhere from three to six months earlier (when, presumably, I said all I had to say).

These days, awards season is a year-round thing. Even as my colleagues spend the next eight weeks writing about the Academy Awards, they’ll also be writing about each of the weekly – soon to be daily, no doubt – awards shows that serve as a run-up to (and deflater of) the Oscars.

Nothing they write, of course, has any effect on the outcome. And all of it, unfortunately, serves to minimize the movies themselves, in favor of the horse race.

An example: a recent column by a colleague of mine noted that “it stinks when the conversation about a film gets boiled down to ‘Will it win?’ but that’s the business we’ve chosen.” That he’s chosen, perhaps.

He went on to note that, because year-end films are viewed as the big guns aiming at Oscar, any film that doesn’t become part of that particular conversation is a loser: “That’s why ‘August: Osage County,’ while a very good movie, will likely be remembered as a failure. It’s Oscar bait that doesn’t seem to want to take.”

Yes, well, you could fill a library with great films that weren’t Oscar bait. It doesn’t impinge on their greatness.

This, unfortunately, is the mindset that has taken over most of entertainment writing – and which dominates this part of the year. The movie itself doesn’t matter – it’s how it performs during awards season that is the important thing.

I’ve written before about the scourge that is movie punditry (as opposed to movie criticism, a very different thing). While I do vote with a couple of critics groups, I find this whole horse-race aspect as depressing as the way the same mindset is applied to politics. It is never about substance; it is always about what’s happening on the surface.

Which leads to the current state of movies: nine months of studio product (as opposed to anything inspired or original), occasionally punctuated by entries that are about creativity, as opposed to back-end profits (usually from the independent world). Then a three-month tidal wave (and three-week tsunami) of strong work – much of which is slagged off if it doesn’t immediately spark awards furor.

So let me take this a step further and say this:

If you love awards season, you probably don’t love movies.

If you’re focused on what will and won’t win, what can and can’t expect Oscar voters’ sympathy or antipathy, you are empowering and enabling the viewpoint that awards (and box-office success) are the true measure of a movie’s worth.

Which, of course, is bullshit.

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