How Oscars Are Losing Their Sheen

Today, when the entire entertainment world is evolving with modern production, distribution, and marketing systems, the Academy can’t continue working with the traditional, archaic methods.

By Rakesh Raman

Rakesh Raman
Rakesh Raman

Like most of you, I also had great respect for the Academy Awards, the Oscars. I believed that the filmmakers and their films that win the Oscars are the ultimate masterpieces in the world of cinema.

I also believed that the winners are selected with professionally competent processes that follow the highest ethical standards.

Alas, it was not so straight. I tasted this bitter fact after watching the recent Oscar-winning film, Gravity. Gravity won seven Oscars this year out of its 10 nominations in different award categories.

I was shell-shocked after watching Gravity, which is an ordinary film. I felt the selectors shouldn’t have even nominated this film for any award. And if people behind Gravity can win Oscars, then every Tom, Dick, and Harry can hope to win these awards.

[ Also Read: Deconstructing Gravity: Did the Film Deserve the Oscars? ]

Gravity is just an example in the shady trend. There are many films in the past that have won the Oscars, but they never deserved any award.

But why do I think so? To answer this question, I will have to briefly discuss the Academy Awards process. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) holds an American ceremony every year to honor the achievements of people in the worldwide film industry.

Academy Awards – Voters

The Academy has nearly 6,000 voters belonging to the film industry who vote to elect the winners in different award categories. The auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) monitors all aspects of the voting process.

Although the Academy keeps its voters’ list under wraps, it’s believed that majority of them are in New York, San Francisco, and London. Why are the voters mainly located at these places? Only the Academy knows. They vote to elect the winners in 24 award categories such as Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and so on.

Here’s the trouble. With a sample size of just 6,000 people (and whose profiles are not revealed in a transparent manner), the Academy tries to evaluate the quality of films that target millions and millions of consumers all across the world.

And there can be many flaws in this sample selection – including their geographical location, gender, age, experience in the film industry, and so on. The Academy won’t reveal all that data and carry out the awards process in a totally secret manner.

Plus, a small number of 6,000 people can’t decide even about a local theater show in a town. Then how do you expect them to evaluate the quality of a film that is delivered throughout the world?

Academy Awards – Process

Earlier, the Academy members were supposed to vote only for that category to which they belonged. For example, the writers could vote for the best screenplay, directors for direction, etc. But it’s learned that now the voting members can vote for all the 24 categories.

That means, each voter has to see all the nominated films – nearly 50, covering different film formats – on average roughly two films a day after the nominations are announced in late January and before the Awards ceremony in the beginning of March.

It’s not possible for a normal human being to watch two films in a day particularly when they have to judge their quality and then vote on them. Even a magazine’s film critic will find it difficult to watch two films in a day and write their reviews. But the Academy expects its voters to go through this biologically intricate process and vote on the films. Obviously, it can’t be a fair judgment.

Moreover, to speed up the voting process, the Academy even allows its voters to see the films on DVDs, although all films are supposed to be watched in a proper theater to assess every aspect of the film.

Gravity, for example, won an Oscar for “Best visual effects.” A film’s visual effects can only be examined on a theater screen; you can’t evaluate and vote for such effects after watching them on a DVD or a computer screen. The Academy fails to address such issues and declares the winners blindly.

Academy Awards – Reformation

So what should be done? Today, when the entire entertainment world is evolving with modern production, distribution, and marketing systems, the Academy can’t continue working with the traditional, archaic methods.

As a step toward improvement, first of all the Academy should make its nomination and selection process totally transparent. Although in the evaluation process of a product like a film, there will always be a subjective element, you can still choose some content quality parameters which can be measured empirically before selecting a film for an award.

For example, box office collections in a fixed period of time can be one such parameter. While box office success of a film largely depends on the marketing dollars spent on it and small filmmakers can’t do heavy marketing, the box office parameter can be given certain weightage in the film selection formula.

Similarly, consumer feedback can be another parameter. Consumer is the most important stakeholder in the entertainment ecosystem. You can’t afford to ignore the consumer while evaluating a product supposed to be consumed by them.

The Academy – or any other awards agency at this scale – can use Big Data analysis techniques to carry out quantitative as well as qualitative analysis of consumer feedback covering all possible digital channels.

Although today’s digital or online world is replete with all types of frauds such as ad click frauds, fake social media profiles, mobile spam, and so on, you can factor them into your analysis for a fair understanding of the consumer preferences.

As these consumers will come in millions from all parts of the world, you won’t be dependent on a tiny sample of just 6,000 voters. A handful of hidden voters can’t be given full authority to decide the fate of a film and its filmmakers.

The quality evaluation process needs to be broad-based for a mass-market product like a film. Consumer involvement in the process can help you achieve this improvement to a greater extent while you can still continue with your traditional voting system.

As the current system of the Academy’s awards is totally flawed, the Oscars are fast losing their relevance. If the Academy wants to avert any outcome that would affect its credibility, it needs to get its act together and improve its awards process. The sooner the better.

My request to take the Academy’s views for this article fell on deaf ears. The Academy didn’t respond.

By Rakesh Raman, the managing editor of RMN Company

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