The film industry is perhaps the hardest industry to judge true success. Of course, as a filmmaker becomes increasingly well-known, his goals become more lofty: his initial success of just getting a feature film produced leads to dreams of getting distributed, which soon grows into aspirations of winning awards for his feature film. Too often, however, success is tied to the often unpredictable box office grosses; but as for critical success, it’s an entirely different beast. Granted, every critic has a unique perspective, and there will never be a universally applauded film by every single critic, so let’s use the Academy Awards as our model. Movie trailers and video cases often tout the Oscar pedigree as the only award worth mentioning about a film; it’s the main prize tried for by the majority of Hollywood. As a graduating student moving into the perilous waters of filmmaking, I ask myself if success is possible in an industry where some of my favorite films have been critical and/or commercial flops. How would a filmmaker define success if he were using the Academy Awards as a measuring stick of sorts?
Before we crown James Cameron the king of filmmaking for having won the most Academy Awards ever for Titanic, a thorough analysis of the awards themselves must be considered. Raphael Shargel, in an article about the over-glorification of the Academy Awards, trivializes the “suspense” of such an extravagant ceremony (20). As he deduces in his article, the Academy often prefers flamboyant performances to understated ones; and it honors epic blockbusters with high production values over dramas about the human condition (20). According to Shargel, there were several actors and films that should have been nominated in 1998, but were overlooked (21). From his and many other critics’ observations of the awards, the Oscars seem like a ceremony better known for upsets than deserving tributes. With such uncertain odds of being recognized, the prestige of the Academy Awards’ quickly becomes questionable.
Are the Oscars really honoring the best films? Theories abound on Academy preferences, making the race appear a largely political one. An article in Rolling Stone magazine claims that controversial themes can make a movie ineligible. According to the abstract, “The Academy discriminates against gays, feminists, racial minorities and other ‘troublemakers’” (Travers 56). A similar article from Variety magazine claims that the Academy feels too self-important to honor comedies no matter how well-made (Marx 1). In a more recent article, the same industry magazine, Variety, arouses and refutes common stereotypes of the Academy. The article warns against buying into theories such as, “Academy voters are old, stodgy and sentimental,” or “It’s a popularity contest” (Gray 61). The reality is that every theory can be disproven, because the Academy attitude changes year-to-year. Gray concludes his article saying that every theory about the Academy you’ve heard is wrong, including his own (61).
A question I have begged to ask: who is this “Academy?” From the flimsy theories about their preferences, we would be led to believe that they are a panel of people sitting in a conference room raising their hands to vote for each award’s nominees. According to the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), there are 6404 total members and 5727 voting members. Demographic information proves as hard to obtain as the tallies. What is known: the voting members are working professionals from all areas of the industry, with the general breakdown available. The voting process is handled by secret ballot, much like a government election. Since voters are humans with human tendencies to succumb to media promotions, the Academy issues a warning that its members not be swayed by those trying to solicit their vote. In a pamphlet detailing the list of films from the year and their respective casts as a refresher of the films, the inside of the front cover has the following note…
“…The more emphatically that all of us can convey to the industry and the wider public that excellence in filmmaking is the ONLY factor we consider in casting our Academy votes, the more reason the world will have to respect our judgment” (AMPAS).
Judging by the sincerity of this unadvertised mission statement, it appears that the Academy’s intentions are just, and that any trends of discriminations are completely by chance. An Entertainment Weekly dialogue with three Academy voters showed that this sample of the Academy were thoughtful voters who can have the same inner struggles as any one of us. An anonymous producer admitted, “If I have a dear friend who was nominated and it’s close, I vote for them” (Young 47). He goes on to rightly avow, “it’s impossible to judge [Best Adapted Screenplay] since most voters haven’t read both the source material and the screenplay” (49). The same argument of the voters’ technical amateurism could also be made for the categories of Special Effects, Sound, etcetera. Before long, the voting process is dominated by “industry people” not knowledgeable in a particular award category who could be guided solely by their intuitions. If we deem the Oscars too chancy to make a judgment, perhaps the rest of the critical arena can suggest a model for critical success.
In a study synopsizing the year of movies — everything from Gladiator to Big Momma’s House to Kikujiro — the results of the opinions formed the healthy shape of a bell curve. The study, conducted by Consumers’ Research, compiled data of reviews from every movie that came out in the year 2000 either a “Go,” “No,” or “??” based on the criteria listed below (Consumers’ Research 39). Forty movies filled the list: everything from blockbusters to independents. I have tallied the number of votes in each of the 3 categories with their respective percentages noted.
Go – the film is entertaining, well worth seeing. (106) 29%
?? – the film is flawed, but rewarding. (165) 45%
No – the film is not recommended as entertainment. (97) 26%
A note is made that the Consumers’ Research editors are not judging the films, but simply compiling a sample of movie reviews on TV, magazines, and newspapers (39). If we assume that their “sample” of reviews is accurate of the country’s critical opinion, an answer to our question about critical success may be near.
Although no two critics share the exact same opinion, it seems that the critical arena can be deemed a balanced scale of cheers and jeers. On the other hand, we have to consider that every film on the list was not viewed by the same number of critics. Some lesser-known films only had 2 tallies, like the independent film Kikujiro, while blockbusters like Gladiator had all 19 of the industry’s leading critics giving their opinion. Thus the danger of judging a film by even an objective tally of critical opinion: the number of critics who go to see a smaller film is a roll of the dice, and there’s no guarantee that the 2 people who saw Kikujiro, for example, provide an accurate gauge of critical opinion. Perhaps in-depth reviews are the only solution to this dilemma, but are these analyses still valued in our days of the thumb-wagging critic?
While individual reviewers can be faulted for oversimplified reviews, the truth remains: simple is what the majority of our country demands. Outside of L.A., an in-depth review loses its innate value the further you travel east, with a pickup again at the other end in New York City. In that vast expanse of the middle United States, people are not looking to movies for much beyond a simple night of escapism from their less-than-desirable day job. So, why demand reviews that elevate a film in the same manner a film has elevated the reviewer? Granted, it may be a nice tribute to write a detailed review for a great piece of filmic art, but such journalism still lacks the audience magnitude to be considered mainstream. I think the only fault in this kind of review is for the filmmaking audience give it value.
Janet Maslin, world-renown film reviewer, offers a plausible explanation of our culture’s decline of the thoughtful review. She attributes the rise of the mundane to society’s shortened attention span, which prefers the simplified 5-star rating system the same way it craves the sound bite and quiz show answer over educating themselves with a more grasping knowledge of the world (Maslin 62). Economics is another causal factor she mentions. Instead of evaluating movies for their intrinsic worth, reviewers too often gear their review toward whether or not a movie is a “winner” (62). Critics toil over whether a new release will be the next box-office hit, a mentality which leads the film review to become a glorified stock market prediction.
After 30 years of working in film, Albert Brooks, an actor/director who’s been called “one of America’s natural comedic resources,” has experienced the gamut of emotions within the industry (Psychology Today 26). He comments on his career and, more interestingly, on his idea of success:
“Success is getting what you want–not having an idea and letting 30 people guide you, and winding up someplace you didn’t want to be. So far, I can shove in a videotape, and I’m not embarrassed about anything that I’ve done. It’s important to have as few regrets as possible [when taking suggestions from producers]. . . .because I’m the one who has to live with it” (27).
Although, as the interviewer comments, Brooks has yet to score a film with a huge box office (27), he appears to have achieved success in perhaps the only way possible — on his own terms.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no kind of success as we would imagine from the extravagance seen on the Academy Awards. To be a filmmaker, and to remain sane, requires a level of humility. As school teachers would say, if they can change the life of one child, they’ve done their job. In Hollywood, we often have to survive off of school teacher-sized wages, so this analogy could work on multiple levels. The modesty of a filmmaker is as necessary as the drive, because, with such a diverse audience of filmgoers, you can only hope for the individual cases of approval. Beyond that, any trend of acceptance is probably just money-related or hype-driven. After four years of film school and numerous conversations and panels on the topic of the film industry, I feel I’ve concluded my college experience with wisdom to offer to the next generation of students. To them, I say to give up on being “King of the World,” and relish in the moment of true success when your creation has touched a single person, a judgment measured not by stars or thumbs, but by the excitement in that single person’s eyes. With that in mind, I know that I have already succeeded in this industry.
- AMPAS. “Reminder List of Eligible Releases for Distinguished Achievements During 1997.” USA: 1997
- Big Momma’s House. Dir: Raja Gosnell. 20th Century Fox, 2000.
- Consumers’ Research Magazine. “What the critics say(*) about movies.” July 2000 v83 i7. 39.
- Gladiator. Dir: Ridley Scott. Dreamworks, 2000.
- Gray, Timothy M. “Acad voters offer surprises.” Variety. Feb 28, 2000 v378 i2. 61.
- Kikujiro. Dir: Takeshi Kitano. Sony Pictures Classics, 2000.
- Marx, Andy. “Oscar just can’t seem to cozy up to comedy.” Variety. Feb 7, 1994 v354 n1. 1-2.
- Maslin, Janet. “Films (critical thought).” Nieman Reports. Fall, 1992 v46 n3. 62-63.
- Psychology Today. “Albert Brooks backs into the spotlight.” Jan-Feb, 1997 v30 n1. 26-29.
- Shargel, Raphael. “Hollywood looks at itself (how Oscar nominees reveal entertainment industry’s image of itself).” The New Leader. Feb 23, 1998 v81 n3. 20-21.
- Titanic. Dir: James Cameron. Paramount and 20th Century Fox, 1997.
- Travers, Peter. “Oscar rejects: a racist, sexist and gutless Academy screws up big time.” Rolling Stone. April 1, 1993 n653. 56-58.
- Young, Josh. “Can you count on them?: Our Academy insiders offer a private look at their Oscar-voting process.” Entertainment Weekly. March 23, 2001. 46-49.