When we think about the Big Oscar movies of the past we think of Titanic, the Godfather, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, even Gladiator. Big Hollywood did Big Oscar movies like no one else. That bigness now dwells in the realm of fantasy and occasionally horror. What is it about the new generations that wants to see fantasy, superheroes and big effects on the big screen? It has to do with what shaped Millennials and Gen-Z growing up. That was when the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter fandoms began to thrive. Return of the King did win Best Picture, so it’s possible for there to be a way to join big-branded effects epics with storytelling that older people can still vote for without feeling embarrassed. Are we ready to start redefining what we think of as “good”?
This article by Joanna Robinson (hat tip Bob Burns) lays out just how dramatically the movie industry changed after the birth of these two multi-part film franchises. You can also see it with the way the box office went after that. Her article lays out how the fandoms of these films eventually dictated what got made. Studios began catering to this fandom. You can kind of see the same thing forming around the Oscars, and not for the better. This bizarre wave of rage and anger on Twitter then prevents them from, say, hiring a host because the host can’t handle the non-stop vetting, mocking, deconstructing that ensues in the days afterward. There is definitely an Oscar fandom but it’s so small it has almost zero economic impact. It doesn’t translate to box office or ratings and yet it persists.
The only way forward for the Academy is to stop paying attention to their fans and start remembering the wider audience out there. Or else move to streaming and just exist in a comforting oasis where box office doesn’t matter and only art does.
The Fourth Turning has arrived
The generations are changing, or turning if you know Neil Howe’s theory on the generations as seasons. We’re in the Fourth Turning now, where every 80 years (your average human life span) turns over and a whole new society is reborn. The Fourth Turning is supposed to be the worst. Gee, you couldn’t tell that, could you. That’s because the old and the new grind against each other like tectonic plates, wreaking all sorts of havoc on the ground above.
Our four generations now are the boomers, Gen-X, millennials and Gen-Z. After Gen-Z, the whole thing cycles around again. Howe posits that each generation symbolizes a necessary component to turning the whole thing around. It is an intricate and complicated theory that has taken me quite some time to wrap my mind around.
The interesting thing about it is that I can feel the generational shift happening in the Oscar race, in how the generations divide and discuss the Oscars. The voters are still very much in the mindset of the boomers and Gen-X. But the voices that cover the Oscars on Twitter, for instance, or in some of the major outlets, or even those who have suddenly become aware of the Oscars are from the millennial generation or even Generation-Z. Some of them have a different idea of what awards should be, and they are less inclined to hold onto the old way, or the way it’s been done for the past 94 years.
The Oscars were formed in 1927 as American culture headed into the last Fourth Turning, which would happen around 1943. Right around then, the Academy shifted down to five Best Picture nominees, where it held until 2009. With five Best Picture nominees, it’s possible to generate the excitement of the majority. When a whole group of people surges towards a movie. That happened in 2019 with Parasite. You could feel it. It wasn’t a split decision that year. It was a surge.
One of the reasons the Oscars have become, I think, more of a muted experience for people is the preferential ballot. We need it because we want more films to be honored for Best Picture. But in opting for this type of ballot we lose the excitement of picking the year’s best. Splitting up the winners across ten Best Picture contenders means no one film can sweep the awards like they used to. So I think that this is not necessarily going to work in the Academy’s favor.
By 2023, we will be hitting the apex of the next Fourth Turning, before everything moves out of the danger zone and into the safe zone. Trust me, at least according to this theory, it isn’t going to be pretty. We can all already feel the ground shifting beneath our feet in how we look at film awards overall.
The Oscars can never be what they once were, but they can embrace how our culture has shifted, and what the upcoming generations might be turned on by. After all, it was scrappers and outsiders way back when who formed the Oscars.
How I envision the Oscars moving forward is on a completely different level than where they are now. It should not be this hard to push a movie on streaming into the Oscar race, for instance. Only the older generations understand the difference. Holding onto the past will lead to extinction.
Once you remove the need for the Oscars to be tied to theatrical release, an entire universe opens up. Some of the guilds have been moving in the direction of new media already, like the Writers Guild. Why can’t the Oscars? Why can’t the Oscars consider short form new media that honors the best of content creators on YouTube or TikTok? Sure, laugh if you want but some of what I see is vastly more inventive, creative, and beautifully made than any feature released in a year.
Jonna Jinton, for instance, all the way in Sweden, brings millions of people onto her YouTube channel for this kind of glorious cinematography and storytelling.
TikTok is even more of a threat and a challenge than YouTube because people make videos that are sometimes just 15 seconds long. There is so much attention and energy generated on that tiny app it is practically its own whole planet. It offers hours upon hours of addictive entertainment, all made by people out there in the world. It’s funny, sad, weird, and seems to be shifting our collective definition of what it means to be entertained. This isn’t even touching on various in-app content being created by production companies, even for sites like Tinder. If you have the eyeballs, people are going to start aiming content at them.
I know nothing about this exploding new ecosystem but I know enough to see there is a massive disconnect between entertainment of the future and what the Oscar race is right now — fighting for relevance. There is a realignment happening right now and a lot of that is to do with the Millennials and Generation-Z making the country, and the entertainment landscape, what they want it to be.
I remember walking into the Academy museum and thinking I was walking through the final resting place of what used to be. Our museums are full of what used to be. Everything has to die to make way for the new. Look at how Modern Art changed things. Look at how music videos changed things. And now, we’re at the dawn of the era where everyone is creating content for everyone else to consume and the competition for attention has never been higher.
Who is on their way out: the Boomers.
Who still decides the Oscars, more or less: The Boomers.
That isn’t really a good combination of factors to take us through the next phase. So in addition to thinking about equity and inclusion, perhaps they should also be thinking about the new mediums. What is turning on the younger generations and how can the Oscars be part of that? How can they continue to set the standard for what defines greatness?
Right now, the Oscars seem to matter to two key groups – the film industry, which still needs the Oscars to show that they still care about quality and are, at heart, artists who still like to make art. There isn’t a single movie in the race right now that is bad. Even the worst of them are still pretty good. They satisfy the requirements of art for an industry that makes its money on big tent poles. There is no need for these movies to make any money. They just have to be artful enough so that those who work in the film industry don’t feel like it has all gone to shit.
The second group are the true believers, the film critics and Oscar fans who comprise Film Twitter, and the odd person out there in the dark who still cares about “Oscar movies.” I was debating one person like this on Twitter who said they were happy that the BAFTA didn’t allow its members to choose the nominees – opting instead for a jury to hand-select more appropriate and inclusive nominees. When I pointed out that they are supposed to be about members of an industry awarding the best of their industry, it didn’t seem to matter. In this person’s mind, that meant that the movies they liked best would be considered. Movies like Titane, for instance.
What I notice among the shift in generations of those who cover the Oscars, or care most about the Oscars, tend to not like traditional storytelling, where voters and audiences still seem to. Even Generation Z and Millennials would respond to traditional storytelling because all humans always have and always will. It just so happens that most of that exists on TV now, not so much in movies.
If you look at any long-form television it is always really good storytelling, like White Lotus or Mare of Easttown or Yellowstone. But when it comes to movies, it always seems like the best storytelling – the films that just work, are punished for being too straightforward. They have to appeal to a consensus of 9,000 people. The more esoteric they are, the harder it is to build a consensus around them. Only the stories that can reach people on a general level can win on a preferential ballot.
I don’t know what the future holds for the Oscars. But I do know as we head into 2022 we can feel things shifting under our feet. The one good thing about the Fourth Turning, according to Howe, is that just as Winter kills everything to make way for Spring, so too does the old world have to collapse for the new one to be reborn. And so it will likely go with the Academy Awards.
So what do you think the answer is as we move out of one generation and into another? Do you have any big ideas? Let me know in the comments.