U. of Pennsylvania's English offers his vision of a very different type of Academy Award

In researching his latest book, “The Economy of Prestige,” the U. of Pennsylvania’s James F. English spent more than three years exploring the world’s most esteemed cultural prizes — from the glamour of the Oscars to the prestige of the Nobels; from the controversy of the Pulitzers to the outrageousness of the Razzies. Just before the 78th annual Academy Awards, he tells Paul Young about his vision of a very different type of Oscar.

Q: How could the Oscars be made better?

A: When you have a large number of people voting, it becomes a popularity contest. It tends to resemble a People’s Choice award, rather than a judged or juried process. The trouble with People’s Choice awards is that they’re extremely predictable. The range of possibilities has been narrowed down to the point where you’re ironing out the surprises or maverick, rogue choices — to the point where, when you look at the nominations, they’re all basically “Oscar films.” So you can’t even get nominated unless you fit this formula.

And surprise is an essential ingredient for a good awards program. When there’s such a long run-up to the show, the emphasis becomes more about the ceremony, about who’s there, what they’re wearing and the events onstage, which is fun, but there’s little emphasis on the judging, on the determination of value, which is where the real interest of prizes lies.

The Pulitzer for fiction jury proposes a winner or a first, second and third choice to the board who oversees them. But the board can just throw it all away and do something else. That’s made for some very divisive decisions over the years.

In the case of the Oscars, the more power you put in the hands of judges, and the fewer the judges, the more interesting the prizes would get. My proposal would be to change what the membership votes on. It would be far more interesting, and perhaps more culturally significant, if the academy, rather than voting on the nominated films, voted for a panel of judges. You really wouldn’t know what was going to happen. A judge could name a totally obscure or deeply controversial film, and obviously there wouldn’t just be polite applause as there is now. People would be outraged. There would be real tension, and it would make for a very different kind of ceremony. And I think it would be great.

In my book I talk about two models of the cultural award. You’ve got the model of the Nobel prize for literature, which epitomizes the philanthropic model: You give money away to somebody because they’ve created such wonderful work. Then you’ve got the business model, where you run the prize as a kind of business operation. And you guard the copyright and trademarks and leverage them in whatever ways you can — and you make money off of the prize. That’s the Oscars, where the Motion Picture Academy is actually making a profit of $1 million for every statuette that it hands out on that night.

I also spent a lot of time trying to work out what the protocols and unwritten rules were for acceptance speeches. (They’re) about strategies of condescension: You accept the award and realize the profit that is available to you as the recipient, but you also want to realize the profit available to those who stand a little bit to the side of the award — you’ve got to show that duplicity. You want to say to the audience, “It’s not just me who’s smarter than the prize, but you guys, too. We’re all in this together, and let’s have some fun. I take you guys seriously, and thank you for taking me seriously, but it’s all a joke really, isn’t it?”

It’s achieving an affinity with the audience around the prize that doesn’t suggest a total buy-in to the prize. It’s a real art. And people like Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman are really great at it.

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