Growing up, the Academy Awards were one of the biggest events of the year for me. It was the one night I could wrest control of the television away from my parents and stay up late to see a program. I would dress up in my finest costumes and tune in for not only the broadcast itself but also the red carpet coverage beforehand. There were usually at least a few films I’d actually seen that scored nominations, and I rooted for them passionately against the movies I’d never seen. And it wasn’t just the Oscars – I followed the entire awards season carefully, hoping to predict the winners of the big night.
Times have changed. I only knew the Golden Globes were on earlier this evening because my Tumblr feed blew up over Jennifer Lawrence’s win.
I could go into detail about how these awards shows have always been a somewhat ridiculous idea, rather self-congratulatory events that tries to compare vastly different films to each other and see which ones are “best”. I could admit that they’ve never really mattered and were only orchestrated as a way for Hollywood to give themselves a pat on the back. But that would be missing the point – not to mention cynical. In fact, there’s one very simple reason: the internet.
Before the internet became one of the most integral parts of our culture today, the opinions of critics and Academy members were important – particularly for the first fifty or so years of the Oscars. Culture itself was much more centralized – the studios actually did control the vast majority of filmmaking, and it was highly unlikely that any filmmaker working outside the studio system would find their art approved of or rewarded. The press – and therefore those who controlled the press – acted as the main arbiter of taste for pop culture, and official opinion was the most important.
But the rise of the internet and development into what it is today has completely shifted the old paradigm. Not only are films advertised differently (through viral marketing and social media), but art and films are being talked about in new ways. Criticism has become completely decentralized. Entire online communities are built around discussing, analyzing, and obsessing over films. Creators with blogs and Youtube channels have amassed huge followings by talking about movies. Who needs the Oscars to tell us what films were at the top of their class this year when I have a hundred different Top Ten of the Year lists to read? The online communities – even fandom – that have grown up around all kinds of art have much more important opinions than the critics do. Not only are they the ones who will actually decide whether to see a film or not, they’re the ones who will create buzz and causes successes or failures.
At the end of the day, this cultural shift is beautiful, and it is so important. It’s allowed communities like this one to exist, where people – especially young people – can come and talk about film, television, books, and more. We’ve been able to create our own spaces where we are encouraged think critically about the media put in front of us, something that isn’t often encouraged by those who at one point would have been at the controlling center of culture. Even better still, the proliferation of online communities and art criticism has allowed room for the celebration and support of a hugely diverse range of art. There’s not one group of people deciding what is good – now there’s room for everyone. We don’t need anyone to tell us what the best film of the year was. There’s not much point to deciding that at all.
So what is the place of award shows these days? Simply put, they feed into the cult of celebrity that has survived and thrived due to the internet. You only have to look at the fact that Jennifer Lawrence appearing anywhere can cause an explosion on my Tumblr dashboard to realize how true this is. We want to see the glitz and glamour, even though we know it’s the least important part of filmmaking. Online fandoms are excited as ever for a chance to see their favorite celebrities all dressed up and ready to shine. Either way, awards shows are some of the only places left to watch our favorite celebrities without feeling like we’re invading their private lives. But if the awards shows like the Oscars are going to survive, they’re going to have to make changes. It isn’t surprising that the Academy telecast is losing viewers every year. Many people who might watch either aren’t going to sit through a three hour show or don’t have a television to watch it on. The networks would benefit by having an online live-stream of the events, but even that would likely call for structural changes to the program.
Regardless, the age of the internet has permanently dethroned awards shows and critics. While their opinions are certainly still listened to, people don’t really care what they have to say at the end of the day. I’m much more likely to believe what people in online communities are saying rather than a film critic that I don’t know. But most importantly, myself and many others are more likely and more able than ever to explore a wide range of art and media and make our own critical decisions.
Don’t worry, Oscar – we’ll always want you around for the dresses.