Art, ego and shiny objects

Timothy M. Gray muses on the motivations that drive awards season.

C ertain phrases are outdated — “You sound like a broken record,” “He’s burning the midnight oil” — but we all understand what they mean, even though very few people are using phonograph records or oil lamps. Other phrases, like “head over heels,” make no sense.

And then there are phrases that are familiar but misleading, such as “awards season.”

In Hollywood, you hear those two words and you immediately understand the reference: a few months of intense film awards campaigning and events. In truth, the Grammys and many TV awards are handed out during that timeframe, but “awards season” still has become synonymous with film.

A lot of people gripe about awards season, but I like it. There is a convergence of money, ego, art and pride in a job well done — in short, everything that drives this industry (and, I suppose, every other industry; it’s just that showbiz is more fun than the worlds of insurance or waste management, for example).

If you’re the type of person who enjoyed shining a magnifying glass on an anthill just to watch the insects scramble, awards season is a joy to behold. Rarely have so few gone so crazy for so long.

This is the time of year when actors berate publicists because they were booked on only three talkshows in a day, while someone else in their category appeared on four . Agents call rivals’ clients to say, “If your agency really cared about you, wouldn’t they be doing a more aggressive campaign? At our agency, we’d know how to take care of you.”

Awards strategists study each other’s actions with the furtive intensity of Kremlin spies, taking note of what they’re doing (a DVD launch party! an “in honor of” cocktail reception! a visit to the Motion Picture and Television Fund Home!) and how much they’re spend ing, and whom they’re inviting. Journalists at this time of year handicap awards potential of films they haven’t seen, then later make predictions (Who will win/who should win), with the “should” based solely on their own tastes.

Does it all sound petty and venal? Actually, it’s kinda fun and, in a way, honorable: If someone even comes close to an Academy infraction, a rival awards strategist will immediately notify AMPAS officials. So during awards season, contenders and their handlers are usually observant of the rules — not because these people are upright but because they don’t want to get caught.

During “awards season,” all roads lead to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. With no disrespect to the other kudos, Oscar is still the gold standard (excuse the pun). And there’s a reason for that. The Academy kind of invented the whole awards DNA.

For one thing, the March 19, 1953, Oscarcast set the template for all televised awards shows — the spontaneity! the glamour! the confusion as producers try to figure out whether to cater the show to a few thousand black-tie folks sitting in a theater or to millions of TV viewers! Even though technology has changed drastically since the first televised ceremony, the format has been faithfully followed by everything from the BAFTAs to the Tonys to the MTV Movie Awards. So, for better or for worse, we can thank the Academy for that.

Maybe just as important, Oscar and AM PAS initiated the idea of the secret ballot, which has been followed by nearly every other showbiz awards show. Yes, we know who the nominees and winners are, but the org doesn’t reveal the tallies on their voting.

In a way, the secrecy makes sense: Who wants to go down in pop culture history as the director who only earned three votes out of 6,000? It’d be better not to be nominated.

However, the secrecy has led to all sorts of conspiracy theories. Oscar pundits say with authority, “Academy voters don’t like comedies” or “They resent box office hits” or “They could vote this film into the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ best-pic slot.”

These pundits talk about “they” as if the Academy members had a Vulcan mind meld and vote in unison. In truth, it’s entirely possible that many films won the top prize with less than 50% of the vote (and with five nominees in most categories, a contender could win with only 21% — not likely, but possible). But the entire world somehow believes that every single person in Hollywood voted for the winner. Secret ballots encourage they-vote-as-a-unit misconceptions, and they also cause many onlookers to believe that Acad voters are ageless. In trying to describe Academy voters’ current mindset, pundits will bring up the fact that “Annie Hall” won instead of “Star Wars,” for example, or “How Green Was My Valley” won over “Citizen Kane” — without acknowledging that many of today’s voters weren’t alive back then. Some Oscar theorists seem to think the Academy headquarters is like the hotel in “The Shining,” housing ghostly spirits who have always dwelt there, and always will …

That’s why I love awards season: Money, ego, art and pride — as well as secrecy, gossip, paranoia and crackpot theories. Ladies and gents, this IS showbiz!

In other news: Variety would like to extend good wishes to our colleagues at the Hollywood Reporter as they begin one of the most significant shifts in the paper’s long history. It’s a new world, as journalism and entertainment undergo cataclysmic shifts and reinventions. No cheap shots here, no wisecracks, no mood of rivalry — just a sincere “good luck” to the THR team as it heads in a new direction.

With all the changes afoot, readers sometimes ask Variety staffers if we plan a similar overhaul. The answer is no. Our motto is: Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, but do it better. While Variety , like many others, remains a constant online presence, we are now the only showbiz trade to print daily — and we’re aware of the honor and the responsibility in that. Yup, the times, they are a changin’. I hope for the better, for all of us.

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