The Oscars As Affirmative Action

Richard Corliss writes in Time magazine:

In the old days, the Best Picture prize went to box-office hits… The mass audience had seen these movies, and they paid attention to the Oscars. Now when the nominations come out, people try to catch up with the finalists, but it’s almost like homework.


What’s funny is that Hollywood has never been less interested in making the big serious movie: the star-laden, noble-themed, grownup film, of medium budget or higher, that the Oscars used to shower with statuettes. The big studios leave financing of prestige product to their “indie” subsidiaries; hence the proliferation of family dramas that can be made on the cheap, and the near extinction of the Out of Africas. The films Hollywood gives awards to in January and February are precisely the kind it avoids making for most of the year. The Oscars are largely an affirmative-action program where the industry scratches its niche.

Corliss’s point is that the awards shows are losing viewership because they don’t reward popular films. While low ratings would concern the organisers of these award shows, I’m actually quite happy with the Oscars—and other such awards—going to critically-acclaimed films I haven’t heard of. For me, the main function of such awards is that they act as a filter. There are thousands of films I could watch from around the world at any given point in time, and these award shows bring a few of those to my notice.

For that reason, I’m also happy with literature awards like the Booker Prize not awarding bestsellers. Look, I know what the bestsellers are anyway—they’re in my face when I visit my local Landmark or Crossword bookstore. I want something of a high quality that the bookstores would not otherwise display upfront. If the Pulitzer Prize went to John Grisham, what would be the point of the Pulitzer Prize?

Of course, this is not to say that these awards—any awards—reward the best films or books, if any such judgments can be made at all. But they bring a few worthy choices to the spotlight, and I’m happy for that.

As for affirmative action, if it’s voluntary and does not involve taxpayers’ money, I have no problem with it.