Would we be better off without Oscar campaigns?

So much of the fall and winter awards season revolves around studios lobbying hard for their films: special screenings and Q&As, trade ads, parties with the stars, and so on. Gold Derby estimates that the average Oscar campaign costs between $3 million and $10 million per film — a bit less for those contenders that don’t advance beyond the nomination phase. In total, Hollywood spends between $70 million to $100 million to win gold-plated statuettes that cost only $400 to manufacture, but, hey, they’re worth it. “The King’s Speech” earned more than $400 million worldwide. How much would it have bagged without that Best Picture win? Two farthings?

The reason campaigning works isn’t because voters are bought into thinking your movie is good – well, unless they’re the Hollywood Foreign Press. Rather, they’re bought into believing they need to watch your movie before voting. That’s why this year’s top eight categories (Picture, Directing, Acting, Writing) represent only 12 films, the fewest in 30 years as Mark Harris recently observed. That’s the effect of campaigning: those 12 movies had the most academy eyeballs on them, so it was inevitably a combination of those that filled most top categories.

But would the Oscars be more fair without campaigning, or just unfair in a different way? Imagine, if you will, a world without the usual awards politics. I think we might see effects like these:

The Oscars would become more like the Grammys.
That is to say, the top categories would probably be filled with the most generally respectable big hits, while independent artists are mostly ignored. The money-makers will be the most publicized, so voters are likelier to be aware of them. That means mainstream hits like “American Hustle” and “Gravity” would be fine in most any year, while films like “The Help” and “The Blind Side” might have done even better. “The Butler” might have stood a chance this year.

It would be harder to unseat the old guard.
This would also be similar to the Grammys, which tend to reward the same artists in the same categories over and over again, simply out of familiarity. When voters like you, they’ll keep liking you until they’re given strong incentive to try something new. So if you’re Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, or Alexander Payne, you needn’t worry. However, if you’re Benh Zeitlin, Michael Haneke, or Steve McQueen, you might have your work cut out for you. Then again …

Critics would have greater influence.
What separates film from music is the influence of its critics, who bring attention to their favorites in highly publicized year-end critics’ awards. If music journalists gathered in a similar way, it’s possible more of their favorites would be recognized; consider that only one of MetaCritic’s top 25 albums of 2013 was nominated in the Grammys’ general field this year (Daft Punk‘s “Random Access Memories“).

As it is, film critics already influence the Oscar conversation, but without studio campaigns their awards would be the only game in town for directing academy voters to quality films they should seek out.

Strategic release dates would be even more important.
Even if critics anoint you, how do voters find you without frequent industry screenings or screeners? That would give the edge to fall films still in theaters when ballots are out, as well as earlier releases whose commercial DVDs hit the market around that time.

Fewer academy members would vote, but those who do might try harder.
The way the Oscars work now, there’s little you have to do as a voter besides wait for the screeners and invites to pour into your mailbox. You don’t even need to buy groceries, because Harvey Weinstein will buy you lunch every day from December and February. But without the guarantee of campaign swag, it’s likely many busy academy members won’t bother. However, if you do plan to vote, chances are you’re more engaged and have seen more movies, which means a more diverse group of nominees.

Then again, this may also skew the awards towards older members who have more free time on their hands, who might sooner pick a comfortable, feel-good “Book Thief” over a tougher “12 Years a Slave” or newfangled “Gravity.”

Would the Oscars would be better or worse without campaigning? Do you think there’s way to reform the campaign machine to make it more inclusive? Predict Best Picture and then comment below:

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