Why we should stop treating Oscars like the finish line

The Oscars are on Feb. 22, a little more than a week from now, but if you cover Oscars like I do, or just read those who cover Oscars – I do that, too – you might be feeling the fatigue of a marathon-runner approaching his 25th mile. It doesn’t have to be that way. We all make the mistake of viewing the Oscars as the finish line of a race, which makes everything else feel like a long, drawn-out prelude.

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The film awards season started back in August during the height of festival season, where films like “Birdman” and “The Imitation Game” made their grand entrances in Venice, Telluride and Toronto.

No, wait, Oscar season really started back at the Cannes Film Festival in May, when art-house contenders like “Two Days, One Night,” “Leviathan,” “Wild Tales,” and “Foxcatcher” bowed.

Actually, come to think of it, Best Picture-nominee “Whiplash” made its first awards appearance last January, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival – that’s January of 2014, which means this Oscar season got underway 13 months ago; the awards calendar stretches back so far we don’t even have the luxury of dealing with one derby at a time. Out of the 2015 Sundance fest last month, there has already been talk about which films look like possible awards contenders for next year.

That’s okay. I love awards. True, no single top-10 list or set of nominations or winners can definitively determine what’s the best, but weighing the relative merits of films by comparing them is a great launchpad for discussion, even films as wildly different as, say, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “American Sniper” – or especially when they’re that different.

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Also, they’re a valuable way to take the temperature of the industry. Consider how clearly this year’s Oscar nominations showed us persistent gender and racial problems in Hollywood, revealing them the way Luminol shows veals blood splatter at a crime scene. As much as we might have liked to see “Selma” or “Gone Girl” better represented at the awards, their absence prompted a necessary conversation that introduced Hollywood to broad, under-served, and angry ticket-buying audiences who made #OscarsSoWhite a trending topic.

But here’s why so many of us are tired by the time the Oscars arrive: we’ve prioritized the Oscars so disproportionately that nothing else seems to matter, not industry kudos like SAG or the Directors Guild, or media prizes like the Golden Globes or Critics’ Choice Awards.

In fact, those precursor awards – which, I admit, we inherently devalue just by defining them by what they precede – organize themselves around the Oscars. It’s a yearly scheduling dance of influence, jockeying for position to appear vital for awards campaigners in the hopes of attracting stars, viewers and prestige.

Consider the BAFTAs: in 2001, for the awards honoring films in 2000, the ceremony was moved up to February from April in order to get ahead of the Oscars. That itself is understandable, I suppose; the awards season is an industry unto itself, and the Oscars are considered its main event, so their British counterpart hoped to raise their own profile by becoming a stepping stone to the Oscars rather than a perceived step down from them.

That doesn’t explain, though, why in 2012 the BAFTAs also decided to change their voting procedure to match the Oscars. Before then, the entire BAFTA membership would vote for nominations, and specific chapters – the equivalent of the American academy’s branches – would decide the winners in their respective fields. But BAFTA reversed their system to almost perfectly fall in line with the Oscars. Now individual chapters decide the nominees – except for Best Film and the four acting races – and an academy-wide vote selects the winners.

So not only did BAFTA move to position itself as an Oscar precursor, it also changed to select winners in a nearly identical way; self-subordination to the Oscars is complete.

But that’s just the thing: why be subordinate to the Oscars?

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I’m not naïve. The Oscars are the industry’s most recognizable brand of excellence, and the show gets big ratings, which means exposure to wider audiences for winners and nominees. For those reasons, the Oscars really are more important to those who win them.

Objectively, though, can we really call them more prestigious? It’s undoubtedly an honor to be recognized by elite members of your industry, but what makes the almost 6,000 members of the American academy more important than the 6,500 members of the British academy? Many of their members even overlap.

And what about SAG? Are the nearly 130,000 working actors who make up its membership chopped liver (SAG-AFTRA combined makes up closer to 160,000)? You’d think so. Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything“) won both SAG and BAFTA this year, but if he doesn’t also win over those few thousand members of the American academy, it will widely be considered a failure.

And what about the critics? The National Society of Film Critics, for instance, includes some of the most prestigious film journalists across the country, but what they lack in numbers – there are fewer than 60 current members – they make up in expertise and broad knowledge. They don’t belong to the industry, per se, but they undoubtedly watch more movies than most industry voters, whose viewing habits are informed as much by targeted studio campaigns as by their own personal tastes.

And shouldn’t it further distinguish the National Society that they don’t care who agrees with them, as evidenced by past Best Picture-winners like “Yi Yi,” “Waltz with Bashir,” and this year’s choice, “Goodbye to Language.” There weren’t a lot of lunches at the Four Seasons to promote “Goodbye to Language.” Heck, director Jean-Luc Godard sometimes doesn’t even show up to his own press conferences.

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None of this is to say we should pretend the Oscars don’t matter. We couldn’t dismiss their importance to the film industry any more than we could dismiss the importance of the Super Bowl to the NFL, but we should stop looking at the Oscars like they’re the only game in town. When we decide the academy’s choices are the only ones that matter and value the various festival juries, critics groups, and industry organizations only for their predictive value – or dismiss them entirely if they have no predictive value – we’re contributing to our own fatigue by investing 13 months into a single three-and-a-half hour anticlimax.

No Hollywood exec worth his salt would green-light a script with such a protracted beginning, saggy middle, and abrupt ending, but the Hollywood awards industrial complex commits to that same story structure every year.

And yes, awards bloggers like me contribute to the problem. I think I may retire the word “precursor” from my awards vocabulary entirely, the same way I already try to avoid claiming certain groups “get it right” by predicting the Oscars – that implies awards voters should aspire to sameness, when I think they should stop worrying so much about who wins the next one, and the one after that.

Besides, we all know the awards groups that really get it right are the ones that pick only the movies I like – that’s just science.

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So imagine if we all flipped the script when discussing the Oscars. Consider: “‘Birdman’ is the big winner at the Oscars! … But they didn’t even nominate European Film Award winner ‘Ida‘ for Best Picture, so it doesn’t really clarify anything about the awards season.”

Julianne Moore finally wins an Oscar for ‘Still Alice‘! … But the academy is really just trying to seem relevant to SAG and the BAFTAs, and this may not be be quite as meaningful as the Emmy she already won a full three years ago for her more famous performance as Sarah Palin in ‘Game Change.'”

Richard Linklater wins the Best Director Oscar for ‘Boyhood‘! … Though it must be cold comfort after losing DGA, the industry’s foremost directing prize.”

“The Oscars are over and the question on everyone’s mind, of course, is how did they measure up to the New York and Los Angeles film critics?”

So who do you think will win Oscar? Will they line up with the Producers Guild for the eighth year in a row, or will this reasonably significant post-cursor event get it wrong this time? Use our drag-and-drop menu below to predict Best Picture, or click here to predict all Oscar races.

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