You’ve probably already heard: By refusing to nominate women directors (who made many of the strongest films of the year), the Golden Globes, as is their tradition, messed up. And arguably the SAGs, too, in ignoring performances by Alfre Woodard in Clemency, Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, Regina King in Watchmen, and Zendaya in Euphoria. But in the midst of these conversations, no matter how well intentioned, art itself gets lost, overtaken by the specter of prestige. And the more our attention trains on the awards cycle, the streaming companies and corporations that increasingly control what kinds of films audiences get to see will benefit.
The eve of awards season is the most momentous time for film releases, precisely because of the potential for reward. This is when film critics and entertainment reporters are deluged with films that the public will actually have an opportunity to see. So, it makes sense that often the value of the releases is conflated with their potential to be rewarded by, for instance, the Academy, the Screen Actors Guild, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or, god forbid (to no avail), the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. If it has awards potential, then by god there will be several pieces about it, often at the cost of ignoring or minimizing deserving films that surely won’t be nominated or rewarded.
The awards frenzy is, at its core, free public relations. Not just PR for the films that are nominated, but PR for the awards system itself, which can cycle back to the production companies’ pocketbooks. When both media and audiences take the trophy-giving seriously, we fortify one of the entertainment industry’s most cynical tools of influence and undermine the value of cinema itself. Of course, this is a vicious cycle that reaps profit even for media outlets, who hope to be at the center of the cultural conversations that awards season becomes a part of. And when fewer people watch the awards, the movies themselves get blamed, and the system readjusts to make sure popular films and actors get nominations. None of it is about art, quality, or conferring opportunities to artists who need them. Still, every year, we get on with it.
As the era of streaming revs up with a dizzying number of platforms now available, the awards system is only going to get louder. As film critic Nick Pinkerton points out in The Guardian, streaming platforms are slowly shuttering the availability of films made before 1980 for their own profit. Only the films that somehow serve these platforms’ current branding and mythology will be preserved and presented to subscribers. So it’s no surprise that Netflix, Apple, and Disney are clamoring for nominations and loudly celebrating the ones they get. They’re already powerful companies, but they’ll seek to justify their methods to the public via the awards they receive. The “original” films they produce that earn the industry stamp of approval will be re-promoted into perpetuity; everything else, specifically the films they themselves do not make and which do not win major awards, will fall into the digital abyss. Netflix has even “saved” the Paris Theater in New York, not to save cinema, but to make sure the films it produces are eligible for awards consideration by having a theatrical release—all part of their brand-forward business strategy.
Awards are, it must be said, an absurdity. It is not only possible but crucial to insist on the importance or value of art without giving it a trophy. For the many who are interested in the arts, both mass-marketability and the potential for conferred prestige (i.e. awards) should be irrelevant. If those markers are your interest above the work itself, you can turn to metrics, algorithms, and trending topics, which have robust and widely-available platforms for consumption and analysis. Instead, in discussing and deciding what’s available to watch, what’s worth or not worth watching, and how movies are shaping our society, we must try to de-emphasize the validating mechanisms the industry itself provides. The possibility to think freely lies within the ability to have experiences untainted by corporate strategy. The more our understandings of art are determined by who wins what, the further away we get from our own minds.