Awards: overestimated fog covers or guarantees of quality?
On the night between Sunday and Monday, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s (HFPA) Golden Globes Awards will be presented. It is a mystery how these awards offered by an association of less than 90 people (many of them no longer active in the media) have become such desired trophies by the global film industry and a sensation among the general public. Starting from them and their questionable relevance, here is an exploration of a universal problem regarding the perception of cinema in general, more precisely the public’s belief that the awards are some sort of guarantee of quality …
The Golden Globes gala has become extremely popular mostly due to a marketing strategy. First, the Association nominates mostly celebrities, often ignoring the newcomers in the industry. Hundreds of big names accept the invitation to attend the gala (the famous gift bags worth at least $ 10,000 definitely contribute to this effect), turning it into a legitimate and glamorous event. Secondly, the Golden Globes is the biggest event of its kind where comedies and musicals, the “Cinderellas” of the Oscars, receive equal attention with dramas. Even when HFPA’s judgement misfires (the Sci-Fi The Martian won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy in 2015, for example), the fact that it offers awards to everyone makes the ceremony much more accommodating.
Personally, the fact that a movie, miniseries or series receives a Golden Globes nomination doesn’t grant the title a higher spot on the watchlist. The Golden Globes place themselves right between two extremes: the awards granted by an authority, such as those offered by a select group of filmmakers at festivals like Cannes, Venice and Berlin, and the industry awards, the awards given by the community. The latter includes the Oscars, whose voting lot consists of approximately 9,900 filmmakers at the moment, the BAFTA awards or the so-called “Romanian Oscars”, the Gopo Awards.
The problem is that neither the authority nor the community awards should be a guarantee of quality for the common moviegoer … As far as the Golden Globes go, I challenge both their authority and their relevance in the community. They are just a smokescreen, and the regular Joe would rather benefit from what other 90 fellows would choose from the long list of nominated titles than from the options of 90 guys whose identity the Association stubbornly refuses to reveal…
The big problem with awards is that they don’t necessarily focus on the artistic value of the film. Beyond the fact that the perception of a film is an eminently subjective act, every voter at awards like the Oscars and every jury member of a festival like Cannes come with their own baggage, their own background, their own political agenda, and so on. Is this background similar to that of the common moviegoer? Almost certainly not. Well, then how relevant is the choosing of these voters or these juries for the regular Joe?
If we look at the Academy Awards, one of the most talked-about controversies regarding their system is that of the profile of the Academy-voting member and the fact that, for a long time, most voters were Caucasian senior men. So it’s not farfetched to think that these voters share certain values and that they will choose their favorite films based on these values.
Every year, The Hollywood Reporter takes us by surprise with the Brutally Honest Oscar Voter Ballot column, where an Academy-voting member reveals anonymously the reasoning behind their vote. Most of the time these arguments are simply from another planet and have more to do with the popularity of a filmmaker or past collaborations. In 2013, for example, the interviewed voter (an elderly director, most likely Caucasian) says that “he doesn’t vote with someone whose name he cannot pronounce”, referring here to the fact that he will not consider Quvenzhané Wallis, the nine-year-old actress nominated for Best Leading Actress for Beasts of the Southern Wild. But if her name was to be Mary Wallis, the voter would have considered her.
At each annual edition of this highly controversial column, you come to the very same conclusion, that the choices of most voters have nothing to do with artistic value, innovation and relevance. True, this column features each year only one voting member at that year’s Oscars, but it’s not hard to imagine that hundreds and hundreds of voters have similar, superficial options. In this context, is it any wonder that nice but terribly conventional movies like Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Spotlight, The Shape of Water and Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture? Were they really the best movies of that year? No, definitely not.
On the opposite side we have the authority awards, offered by a select group of filmmakers, which is usually made of between five and nine people. The jury of the 2021 edition of the Berlin Film Festival consists of six filmmakers (among them the Romanian Adina Pintilie), and the jury of the Cannes Festival usually has nine members. For example, in 2007, when 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d’Or trophy, the jury consisted of British director Stephen Frears, Italian director Marco Bellocchio, actresses Maggie Cheung, Toni Collette, Maria de Medeiros and Sarah Polley, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, French actor Michel Piccoli and Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako.
The prestigious Palme d’Or is chosen by nine people, the prestigious Golden Bear by six people, and the prestigious Golden Lion by seven people. Basically, the films that remain in history as winners of some of the most coveted cinema awards are given by juries that can easily squeeze around a table at any given restaurant.
We all already know that Radu Jude‘s new film Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn will have its world premiere in this year’s Berlinale international competition. Suppose it doesn’t receive any awards. Does this make it a lesser film or a less faithful reflection of Romania? Regardless of the awards it gets, Bad Luck Banging… is a film that should reverberate for a long time in our country, because it brings to the fore some crucial elements that describe our present society: prejudices and hypocrisy, ignorance and racism. A Golden Bear printed in capital letters on the poster at the premiere doesn’t change anything, it’s just a marketing tool and a reward for the film’s team, a reward that the media will praise as a validation of Romania in general, as it does with a victory by Simona Halep.
I am not saying that the Palme d’Or and the Golden Bear are irrelevant awards, but that they should be taken as such, as the equivalent of the individual tastes of a handful of people. At least in the case of Cannes, I find the presence of a film in competition to be more important, and not the award it won. Unfortunately, the desire for keeping a certain image (the chase for celebrities included) affects even major film festivals such as Berlin or Venice, where they also find a way to make room in the official competition for productions unworthy of attention, but recommended by who knows what big name, be it director or actor – and here’s how not even the events that should celebrate innovation can escape the Golden Globes syndrome, this empty shell of the awards universe.
But returning to our regular Joe… What should this audience representative do after being told that neither the Oscars, nor the Golden Globes, nor the Palme d’Or necessarily guarantee that they will watch an unforgettable film? My recommendation is to see the awards and the festival selections as simple viewing suggestions. Those awards and selections only mean that some other people liked those films, for reasons that no one can or want to explain.
It is true that nowadays, when hundreds and thousands of films are produced, most of them ending their movie theater circuit without actually finding an audience, awards and selections may seem like an effective form of triage, but they are nothing more than a simple statement: this movie exists and here’s your chance to watch it. One of today’s givens is that we all expect perfect experiences and we are willing to make an unjustifiably great effort to have the guarantee of this perfection. We’ve all been through this situation, I think, when, during a trip, we check dozens and dozens of restaurant reviews just to make sure that we’ll go with the safest option, a place that offers us the perfect dinner. And in the case of restaurants as in the case of movies, this unjustified and often impossible to fulfill expectation is rather the guarantee of disappointment.
So, I would advise our regular Joe to take a chance and embrace the surprises. I would tell them that the movie trailer is almost always (that’s if the promo team doesn’t go with a marketing trick, see the famous case of the Cannes-selected, Chinese production Long Day’s Journey into Night) a much more useful way to help them decide whether or not they want to spend two hours with the issues and the characters presented in the film. The common moviegoer has their own reasons for appreciating a film, and these reasons are certainly different from those of who knows which famous filmmaker or Academy-voting member.