There is always some controversy before every Oscar Show. For the 2015 Award Show we have a diversity debate because all 20 actors nominated happen to be white. Then there is a gender debate because no female is nominated – neither for best director nor screenwriter. And (surprise!) there is a fairness debate because The Lego Movie, despite its success and “everything is awesome” reviews wasn’t even considered. It’s clear that if The Lego Movie had been nominated the film would have owned the favourite position against Big Hero 6 and How To Train Your Dragon 2. So why was The Lego Movie not even nominated by the committee?
To find a possible explanation for that we should take a look at the reasons why we are having this event in the first place. It all began in 1927 with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM who wanted to create an event that would unite the five branches of the film industry (actors, directors, producers, technicians, and writers) and to improve the industry’s image. Mayer himself once said:
“I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards they’d kill them[selves] to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created”.
Pretty interesting, right? The studio system tried to keep its five service providers in control through puffery while at the same time they aimed to improve their own image. That’s what I call killing two birds with one stone. But why did they need to improve their own image? Well, the movie industry was a very different animal in those days. The American film industry wasn’t as dominating as it is today. The sound film was just about to get started and Hollywood still had to stand against many foreign competitors on its domestic markets. In those days the USA had lots of European immigrants and for as long as the majority of the pictures were silent, many Americans also liked to see movies from Europe. Hollywood needed something that set them further apart from their foreign competitors. An American Award Show, celebrating films from Hollywood, seemed like the perfect tool for that.
It should take the Academy until 1959 to come up with an award for the best foreign language film – a time when the American film market did not have to fear any foreign competitors anymore.
When the Academy held their first Award Show in 1929, the US just got hit by a depression of prior unknown proportions. Maybe that’s why the first Oscar event was a rather modest dinner (see picture above), compared to how the show looks today? However, the studios knew that something had to be done. When the depression unfolded, cinema attendances pulled back for the first time. In order to get them up again the studios did not only lower ticket prices, they also increased their glamour factor. At a time when brokers threw themselves out of windows, it was like Hollywood directed the spotlights to themselves and shouted to the world “Look at us! The American dream is still alive! Here – in Hollywood!”. This glamour factor and the sound technology managed to get the US movie industry out of its first serious crisis.
With the Academy Award Show the American studio system found a perfect way to promote their stars, movies and themselves with nothing but glamour and extravaganza. Something that hasn’t changed to this very day. It’s fair to assume that it’s not always the best picture or actor who takes home the Award(s). At a level where all contenders are extremely good and talented it gets very subjective.
In my opinion, this show has become more about which film or actor should get a promotional boost. Blockbusters with their explosions and extravaganza are quite easy to market whereas the non-tentpole films are not. Therefore today Hollywood utilises this show for films that are usually not blockbusters and are still running in theatres. The Actor Awards usually go to someone Hollywood either wants to build up as a big star or needs status “maintenance” for the newest tentpole. That’s what I call an efficient and effective promotion campaign — and it’s working. At least for as long as the world gives the Oscar any artistic significance beyond promotion of the American film industry.
This brings us back to the possible point on why The Lego Movie wasn’t even considered: For one, it is the title. Lego is a Danish company and the movie’s main purpose is nothing but promotion of Lego toys. I can imagine that the Academy wasn’t willing to give the “Lego” brand more promotion than it had already received through the film’s distribution. In addition, the film was an international co-production of the United States, Australia (where the film was produced), and Denmark. So another reason might have been that The Lego Movie was just not American enough, despite all its artistic quality.
George Lucas himself recently said on the diversity controversy that “There’s always controversy. That’s why I’m not a member”. On the question if the show should reflect more diversity, Lucas thought about what to say a little longer than usual, “Well, you’re not talking about the show, you’re talking about Hollywood [aka The Studios]” and “forget what they say and see what they do” he even went further stating “the thing about the Academy, it’s a political campaign. It has nothing to do with artistic endeavour – at all. It’s all political…… Who can you slam? Who can you do this to. ”
Quite some interesting statements about the Academy from an Hollywood insider in retirement! I couldn’t agree more with him. The Award Show is not about honouring the art and the craftsmanship that goes into these films. Instead it’s the biggest and most successful promotional event the Studios have ever launched. They never did it for their artists – from the start they did it for no one else but themselves.
As a side note there has been another Oscar controversy going on for a couple of years now: Yes, I mean the respect VFX controversy. The very reason why Facebook was flooded with so many green profile pictures. It seems like the Academy is still not changing its course on that matter. To convince yourself of that just go to the Oscars’ announcement site. There you can find Hollywood’s respect for VFX in the same place where we are in the movie credits: right at the bottom of the page. Quite a treatment for the film industry’s sixth branch, don’t you think? Considering that we are talking about an industry without which all top grossing 12 movies of 2014 would have been impossible to make.