I love the Oscars, America’s night of royal pageantry. On that night, the Academy reminds us that film occupies a sweet spot at the crossroads of commerce and art. That the moving image is society’s chief means of ideological exchange. That the best movies are not merely good and important stories, they are the nexus of every other art form.
But the Oscars suffer a crisis of decreasing relevance. Yes, the nominees are too white and too male; that’s symptom, not disease. The New York Times called this year’s show an elitist echo chamber, citing the drop in TV viewership (the lowest-rated Oscarcast since 2009) as well the gap between award-winning but little-seen prestige pictures and box office winners. Consider American Sniper’s $320 million lifetime gross. Now total the box office returns for all seven of the remaining best pic nominees: $298 million.
While the estrangement of moviegoers from industry aesthetes has been identified, I’m not sure it’s been explained. One problem may be that the Academy’s class of 2015 is beholden to the institution’s original mission statement (articulated to the IRS without revision since 1930):
The purposes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are to:
- advance the arts and sciences of motion pictures,
- foster cooperation among creative leaders for cultural, educational and technical research and improvement of methods and equipment,
- provide a common forum and meeting ground for various branches and crafts,
- represent the viewpoint of actual creators of the motion picture, and
- foster educational activities between the community and the public-at-large.
In 1915, motion pictures were essentially bitch-slapped by a 9-0 Supreme Court decision affirming the censorious actions of the Industrial Commission of Ohio. The centerpiece of Justice McKenna’s opinion was that “…the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded… as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.”
The Court’s withholding of First Amendment protection explains some of the mission statement’s most noble language. Helping Americans to think and speak of movies as art, science, and culture, eventually led to 1952’s Burstyn decision. In its unanimous opinion, the court reversed its 1915 position on movie censorship.
But censorship wasn’t the institution’s only targeted ill. From the 1920s to the 1940s, union enforcers like Willie Bioff and George Brown extorted millions from Hollywood studios. M-G-M bigwig Louis B. Mayer (first among AMPAS founders) hoped the Academy might forestall strong-armed corruption by providing a union alternative. Thus, sections two and three offer the AMPAS clubhouse as a place where camera operators from Universal might swap stories and trade secrets with Paramount camera ops.
In 1945, the issue of Hollywood labor unions came to a head during a bloody riot at the Warner Brothers’ main gate. It was the culmination of a seven-month, 10,000-man strike that led to an overhaul of studio agreements with an alphabet soup of unions, as well as to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.
Cedric Gibbons’ iconic statue design is a sword-wielding crusader, armed for battle against censorship and corrupt labor bosses. But history has rendered those forces largely toothless. What remain are educational activities (spearheaded by a 1929 joint venture with the University of Southern California to create America’s first film school) and the representation of “the viewpoint of actual creators of the motion picture.”
It’s at this point that AMPAS is failing most miserably. The majority of “actual creators” post their art on YouTube and Vimeo. Their work is screened at the world’s 5000-odd film festivals. They broker distribution deals with iTunes or other streaming services, bypassing theatrical exhibition entirely. Filmmaking’s plummeting costs have democratized the art, offering minority voices a megaphone they’ve never before enjoyed.
If the Academy refuses to notice or can’t acknowledge these seismic shifts in the zeitgeist, its awards show risks becoming the collection of legacy montages and commemorative production numbers we saw Sunday night.