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The hypocrisy of the mainstream film awards scene

By Sara Naqvi, May 28 2021—

The annual film awards season means different things to different people. For some, it’s an excuse to turn on cable for the first time in months and spend an evening marvelling at the extravagance of Hollywood’s finest, while placing bets on obscure movies that sound vaguely intellectual and mainly boring. For others, it’s an exciting opportunity to watch their favourite films from the past year gain the recognition and prestige that they deserve. For most though — if viewership trends from the past few years are any indication — awards season means absolutely nothing at all.

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony amassed a total audience of 10.4 million people, a nearly 56 per cent drop from last year. The Golden Globes took an even bigger hit with only 6.9 million viewers compared to last year’s 18.4 million. Similar trends are observable across the board, which seem to point to one glaring fact — as the years go by, the public only becomes less and less interested in tuning in to watch mainstream award shows.

There was a time when these ceremonies held some semblance of respect — when a film receiving an Oscar or a Golden Globe actually meant something to its audience. There was an era when a selfie taken by a group of A-listers during the Academy Awards had the power to become the most retweeted photo on the Internet and when acceptance speeches still garnered millions of views on YouTube. So what’s changed? What spurred this fall from grace? It all comes down to one word — hypocrisy.

For years now, both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) have been steeped in controversy. Criticisms cover a range of shortcomings, from a continuous and alarming lack of diversity, to their long-term association with known sexual predators — and that’s to say nothing of the generally lacklustre movies being nominated year after year. As time goes by, the veil that hides Hollywood’s grimy underbelly from the prying eyes of the public is being lifted and audiences are starting to notice. Ironically enough, the sea of elites that fills the seats of the Dolby Theatre every year and abets the corruption that fills their coffers is the same group that leaps at any opportunity to preach to their at-home audience about the importance of being morally upright.

There’s something uniquely unsavoury about receiving a fervent lecture on climate change from someone who owns a private jet or being told to stand up against oppression by someone who has been complicit in perpetuating sexual violence in the industry. Ricky Gervais’s monologue at 2020 Golden Globes — a YouTube clip that has more than double the views of this year’s Oscars and Golden Globes combined — provided a refreshingly honest take on the sanctimonious and self-indulgent nature of the ceremony: “If you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public, you know nothing about the real world.”

Gervais’s statement perfectly highlights the very crux of the issue — award shows and the celebrities who frequent them are becoming increasingly out of touch with real people. Nobody wants to hear the upper echelon of American society complain about wealth inequality and nobody wants to watch them celebrate amid a global pandemic. Maybe things would be different if the people in charge of the awards pretended to care about films that audiences relate to and like watching, if the people in charge weren’t just old, white men or if the goody bags that award winners receive didn’t cost enough to pay for someone’s university tuition several times over. The reality is that if things don’t change, the big guns in Hollywood will continue to laud the same formulaic, Oscar-bait movies that nobody really cares about. Audiences will feel increasingly alienated given the lack of adequate representation on-screen and the absence of self-awareness on display during the award shows themselves. 

While the mainstream award scene faces its downfall, the influence of Netflix and other streaming services is ever-growing. Netflix reportedly added 37 million paid memberships in 2020 alone, bringing its total subscriber count to above 203.6 million. The appeal isn’t hard to understand — Netflix’s continuous output of films and TV shows not only provides diverse options in terms of genre and style, but they also bring diversity through the characters that are represented on screen. With a wide selection of media from all parts of the world, Netflix allows viewers to indulge in shows and films that are more nuanced and eye-opening than ever before.

The sway held by increasingly popular streaming services has become significant enough to combat malpractice in the awards industry. Netflix and Amazon Studios recently announced their decision to stop activities with the HFPA due to insufficient reform addressing their lack of diversity. This is an important move, given that several Netflix productions have been nominated for Golden Globes over the past few years. These studios putting pressure on the HFPA is a step towards levelling the playing field for diverse voices and providing opportunities for those who are underrepresented in the industry to claim their place. This is not to say that Netflix or Amazon are perfect by any means, but when it comes to providing some regulation in an industry that’s otherwise rife with inequality, a step towards accountability is a step in the right direction. 

While it’s likely that award shows will continue to fill hypocritical stars with a sense of self-importance, the legitimacy of these awards will continue to plummet — along with their ratings. As further disparities within the industry continue to be exposed, it’s reassuring to know that there’s an increasing sense of awareness of what audiences are owed and to know that people are finally being held accountable. If associations like the Academy and the HFPA can reverse their patterns of bad behaviour, mainstream awards will be able to reclaim the legitimacy that they once had and revive the long-forgotten magic of Hollywood’s film industry. 

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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