As we edge ever so closely to the 100th year of the Oscars, we find ourselves at a crossroads. How movies are watched, how they are evaluated, how they are awarded have all come under intense scrutiny over the past year. There are big changes ahead. We just don’t know what those will be. But we still have to wonder, will they ever be “normal” again?
The short answer is an unequivocal no. The Oscars will never be what they have been for the past 93 years. Neither will the movie industry. Neither will movies. Neither will almost anything you can think about in American cultural life. Welcome to the Fourth Turning. Take a seat. You’re going to be here for a while.
And, if you’re paying attention, you can feel the wheels of society changing. You can feel a disordered reality. This is not just due to the extreme polarization of our country, but there are literally two separate realities running on parallel tracks. Probably these two realities will have to have one ultimate battle and whatever happens after that will be where we end up. Two different countries? Actual civil war? Who knows.
One thing that has fundamentally changed is the Oscar race. With streaming platforms, and now the interruption of COVID, not to mention a cultural revolution bubbling beneath the surface, nothing feels like it did when this site began, way back in 1999.
The Rise of Streaming
It does seem like there is still an effort to battle the inevitable evolution away from theatrical and towards streaming platforms. Filmmakers and studios continue to take their chances with “theater-only” releases. The economic model of streaming platforms has nothing to do with views or popularity but only to do with how many people they can get to subscribe to their platforms. That is how they make their money. They only need to offer a variety of exciting and exclusive content to drive up that subscriber base. Netflix got there first and everyone else is scrambling to keep up.
If you lived through the rise of the internet, as I did, you will recognize a similar shift away from the print model of news to online news, and not for the better, I might add. But to quote No Country for Old Men, “you can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
You can’t stop the evolution away from theaters to streaming because you can’t stop the convenience and ease of streaming. It’s as simple as that. People will do what is easier. An entire generation now has come of age without having been shaped by their experience in movie theaters. Almost every prior generation before Gen-Z has.
Even though I brought my own daughter as young as six months old to the movie theater and brought her back to the movies throughout her life – that was really something more for me, not her. She grew up with social media – the rise of Tumblr, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube. They are already accustomed to having their choice of entertainment right at their fingertips. How do you compete with that?
Streaming is part of their daily experience already. That is never going away. Most of them have no problem waiting until a film hits streaming to watch it anyway. Just ask them. They will tell you. It isn’t their fault. A lot of it can be laid at the feet of the evolution of Hollywood itself, aiming its main products at the same generation that would willingly walk away from them. Now they are competing with themselves for the same demographic. They might have been better off not giving away all of their adult-oriented content to streaming and giving over their theatrical movies to tweens. But you can’t go back and change the past.
When we talk about “Normal” what we mean is a market-based industry where money rules, so the majority rules. The currency is cash. If Jennifer Lawrence, Denzel Washington, or Brad Pitt can open a movie, they are on the A-list and they get priority. Their movies open to a decent reliable box office and that is called a “success.” If they get great reviews they find themselves in the Oscar churn. Their star power is based on their success at the box office because that means they are popular and admired. People turn out to see them. They have status. They have clout. They are winners already and an Oscar is just a great way to leverage all of that power.
Normal also means pre-COVID movie-going. Where even those of us who cover the race didn’t really get online links until recently, last year was 100% virtual. That temporary adjustment to COVID is probably more permanent than anyone wants to believe. The main reason being, even if we can go back to the movies and film festivals and life before COVID, you are still looking at a near dystopian experience of socially distanced seating and mask-wearing for the duration. You might be smiling. You might be laughing. You might be crying and it’s all seen only by the inside of your mask. That means your experience of the film is going to be as diminished as it would be if you are sitting on your couch. At least you won’t be distracted by social media while watching it, so there’s that.
Telluride and Toronto and Venice are going forward with in-person events. Everyone must be vaxxed and PCR tested prior to picking up the badges to attend the fest in Telluride. The already very liberal town full of mostly retirees is likely to be masked 100% of the time, even at outdoor events. Despite being in the clear, the only clean Colorado air one is likely to be smelling will be one’s own breath most of the time. I imagine we will even see masked people hiking in the mountains, completely alone. The only reason this matters is that when you are masked, you are carrying around with you a whiff of fear. Fear of other people. Fear of microbes. And all you can see when you pass people is a pair of eyes darting in your direction, then quickly darting away. Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. Or maybe it IS that bad.
Either way, there is zero chance movie theaters are coming back in the short run. Not in the blue states and that is where most of the people are. Not in Los Angeles and not in New York. The box office numbers tell us this. We can keep hoping things will be back to “normal” but it’s probably best to prepare for a Plan B. And that is an Oscars and film industry not based on the market.
Streaming platforms don’t really care all that much about ratings, or views. They care about subscribers. The view metrics only help them determine whether or not content is helping or hurting their subscriber base. Like every massive corporation now, virtue has to be the message. Otherwise, no one will broadcast to the world their association with a product. Nike, Oreo cookies, Coca Cola – they have to be associated with “Generation Woke.” Ditto streaming platforms. That means they will likely be all in with the left side of America where their bread is mostly buttered.
For most of Oscar’s history, money and prestige matter. Money still matters but “social cred” matters almost more. Film awards simply exist, at this moment in time anyway, to further the changing cultural landscape – the needs of the previously marginalized. The awards will exist in spite of the market. They will award films and television shows that the general public might not even see or watch. It is what the awards will say about progress that will matter more. Understanding this perspective is key to reading the Oscar race, at least this year and for the foreseeable future.
It is a new language that must be learned by older generations not shaped by Critical Theory, which most of Gen-Z, and some millennials, have been. The older generations resist the new way of defining art and quality because we’re all still stuck back in the Boomer-defined era of Jack Nicholson and Frances Ford Coppola. We’re not yet ready to totally dismantle how we define “good” movies.
There is an ongoing fight about “Critical Race Theory” hitting politics. Those who are fighting against it or trying to ban it or block it are about 5, maybe 10 years too late. It is already here. It has already shaped American culture and the generation now coming of age. I know this because my daughter’s high school was based on “Critical Theory” overall with an emphasis on race and culture. You can see her course of study here, which is mostly unchanged from where it was in 2013 or 2014.
Here at Award Daily, I was writing very much in the school of CRT. I just didn’t realize it. I had naturally started to question the Academy and the film industry as an institution of power that favored white people. I spent many years writing about the Oscars through the lens of CRT – it was called “social justice” and is now called “wokeism” but really, it’s very obviously the same sort of thing as looking at American culture with a critical eye, from the perspective of marginalized groups.
My thinking was this: the Oscars don’t matter anyway. They are not about quality. They are about status. Power. And some have access to it and some don’t. My own coverage — and I was the only one doing this, by the way, and loudly criticized for it and lost readers over it — was to “disrupt” the status quo. It felt like progress.
My daughter’s high school magnet was modeling itself after what they were teaching at college campuses across the US. No doubt hers was not the only high school teaching from the non-white perspective. All of this to say – it’s already here. Minds have already been changed. The new generations see the country differently, from different perspectives. The language is here. It is an important language to learn. No one can really reject it or erase it.
So if it’s already everywhere now, an accepted ideology, why is it suddenly on the front lines of the culture war? Because it isn’t really Critical Race Theory that people are fighting against. They call it that but that isn’t what it is. They are fighting against the ideas that took shape throughout 2020 of what it means to be a “white ally” and everything that entails. It has become strident and absolute in terms of judging who is and who isn’t, and it is starting to look an awful lot like the fear of communism. Suddenly “white privilege” is “white people” and “whiteness.” And that is a bad thing or a thing that must be dismantled.
That is what is causing many parents to push back and protest. It has given the right something to use as leverage to help bring down the left. And it might work. Who knows. The immediate problem is that most of American culture, at least on the left, is being directed to not just see race, but at times to ONLY see race. Every movie, every book – none of it can be considered if we aren’t considering the perspective of the storyteller and whether they have a “right” to tell that story, and whether or not they are breaking any rules.
Hollywood, in an effort to be diverse and inclusive, will keep churning out films like, say, The Woman in the Window where Amy Adams’ husband and children were Black – but you’re not supposed to see a power dynamic at play. If you look at HBO’s The White Lotus vs. Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers you’ll see a good example of color-blind vs. non-color blind casting and storytelling. Mike White is definitely aware of race in The White Lotus and definitely cast it deliberately. Nine Perfect Strangers just puts them all together and hopes for the best.
Back when Hollywood was being held to the fire of social justice, back in the 1970s, the idea was most definitely aiming at “color-blind” industry. Integration was the goal, and it was fully immersed in the Oscars. This has been true but perhaps ineffective in terms of moving the needle. And let’s be honest, folks. Dealing with race and social justice has never not been “cringe” for Hollywood.
Though I do love watching the old clips. If you think we haven’t come a long way, it’s always good to take a look back at what things used to be like:
Equality of Opportunity vs. Equality of Outcome
Hollywood and the Oscars were so white for so long – but that’s mainly because they were market-based, popularity-based, star-based, and also that America has, until recently, been a white majority. How to change a market that favors that majority? One of the ways to do that is to subvert that dynamic. Once the Oscars became more insular, and not under the pressure of the public or the market, or even box office, it became much harder to defend why they were still SO WHITE. At that point, minds started to shift away from “equality of opportunity” — awards handed out based on high achievement, or “best” — and “equality of outcome,” making sure everyone wins regardless of achievement.
This is where the left, and Hollywood, and the Oscars are headed right now in an effort to achieve “equity.” The most extreme version of this is Marxist ideology that removes “equality of opportunity” or a meritocracy and replaces it with making sure everyone is equal, taking personal achievement off the table. The war ahead will be about just this – not just in politics but most certainly with the awards race.
You can already see it at play at BAFTA where they added a jury system to compel members to consider 50% female contenders in the directing category. The BAFTA went all in with equity to not leave it up to the voters because the voters would simply repeat the mistakes of the past – they would pick what they thought was best. But a safeguard layer has now been added to nominations process since it was presumed that voters’ “bias” was getting in the way of fairness and leaving out marginalized contenders. So far, only the BAFTA has implemented rules like that. But don’t be surprised if more awards groups move in that direction.
To sum up:
1) No, the Oscars are never going to get back to “normal” because the definition of what is “normal” has changed.
2) We are a country on the path towards some kind of war or battle for its future – with two sides pushing in two opposite extremes and an exhausted middle that would just like some good old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment to escape into.
3) COVID has once again killed off whatever hope we had of having a “normal” Oscar season.
4) The Oscars won’t ever be back to what they once were because films won’t be, at least not for now. The old Hollywood that was market-based was about money and power. The new Hollywood, without the market, is more about virtue and social cred.
5) As with all things in nature, one always has the option to: adapt or die.
Probably there doesn’t seem to be much to be optimistic about but what option do we have? I think ultimately what will come to matter going forward are two things. The first, voices of courage will be sought out in a time of fear, and the second, being a voice of courage simply means being able to face down the moment with truth and humility.