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Oscars 2013 – what’s it really about?

Should there be winners or losers in art? How can you compare Argo and Amour? There may be questions about the value of the Academy Awards for the sake of art, but not for the sake of the industry churning it out.

Film director William Friedkin, himself an Oscar winner for ‘The French Connection,’ described the awards “the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever designed for itself.”

The 2013 Academy Awards are happening right now, and it’s a big night for the studios. Analysis by Box Office Quant on twenty Best Picture winners from 1990-2009 showed that a Best Picture win could be worth over $14 million dollars in additional takings. This helps explain why the campaigns for these awards have ballooned out. Warner Bros. and Disney, the two studios behind ‘Argo’ and ‘Lincoln’ respectively, are engaged in a campaigning arms race estimated to be worth around $10 million dollars each. Suddenly that post-office bump in revenue is less of a bonus and more of a gamble.

In an attempt to restrict this type of spending, the Academy Awards limited the number of parties and events producers could host between nomination and the awards night, although like many a well-intentioned regulation, this has just pushed producers to start holding parties for their films before they’ve even been nominated.

The soaring cost of campaigning probably helps explain why the little guys like foreign film ‘Amour’ and the independent ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ are considered very long odds in the betting markets. Is the Academy rewarding the best films, or just the best campaigns? Apart from generally being unable to afford it, are these films lagging in the betting markets because they’re not spending, or are they not spending because they’re lagging?

American television network ABC also continues to benefit from the proliferation of high-budget advertising during big telecasts. While not quite at the level of the Super Bowl, a mere 30 second spot will still set you back over $1.5 million dollars in the US.

Nate Silver, who correctly predicted the winner of all fifty states in the 2012 US Presidential election, has weighed in with his own predictions for the Oscars. Instead of looking at betting markets, he’s focussing on previous awards, and weighting towards those with significant overlaps with the Academy’s membership. He’s already lost one – Christophe Waltz, who he ranked third, took out the Best Supporting Actor nod. How will he fare the rest of the night? Maybe art is less predictable than elections after all?

Christophe Waltz didn’t cry when accepting his award, which puts him amongst the 79% of other winners who remained dry-eyed. That said, over 70% of crying actors have been in the past couple of decades. This is according to Georgia Institute of Technology graduate student Rebecca Rolfe, whose breakdown of Oscar speeches can be found on this interactive website.

“The audience knows the award is important to you and they want to see you cry, so you give them that,” she told Time.

Considering how closely box office success also lines up with award favourites, it’s worth asking whether the whole ceremony is just a reflection of our preferences more than a measure of art. What are your thoughts? Are the Oscars right? Does it matter?

(P.S. Those who loved ‘Argo’ should check out our animated history of Iran here).