Are the Oscars Still Relevant? Film, Television and Digital Media Faculty Weigh In

Image of a golden trophy with a clapboard and camera in the background.Most of us can imagine sitting down to watch a movie in a darkened theater or in the comfort of our living room. Films, and the stories they tell, can profoundly impact our lives. So it makes sense that we want to celebrate these achievements, but why does it matter?

Each march, film fans everywhere gather across the globe to watch film’s biggest stars gather in a three-hour spectacle to honor the best and brightest in the industry. The Academy Awards, better known as the Oscars, is touted as one of the film industry’s biggest nights as it is meant to celebrate the highest achievements in filmmaking. This year, The Academy Awards, run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, celebrates 95 years of honoring filmmakers. However, the Oscar awards can be subjective, and many loved and beloved films never even make it to the nominations. We spoke with faculty in Film, Television and Digital Media about the Oscars and their relevance to the film industry.

Why Do the Oscars Matter?

The Oscars have been part of the film industry for 95 years, celebrating what is supposed to be the best in film. As such, they have significantly impacted the industry. How much? Richard Allen, M.F.A., points out that this is a topic that has been studied and discussed throughout film theory, “in short, I’d say that the Oscars impact both the commercial and artistic direction of the film industry…but the selection process can lead to very questionable choices, and so the awards and nominations themselves are not necessarily a measure of quality.”

One example is the impact on small-scale films, Anne Major, Ph.D., said, “The Academy Awards have been particularly important for smaller-scale and independent studios and distributors to finance projects that are more boundary-pushing or appeal to more specialized audiences than major studio blockbusters. In the 1990s, Miramax aggressively campaigned for films like My Left Foot, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient and Good Will Hunting (among others), and all were nominated for or won Best Picture. Although in recent years, tech giants like Netflix and Apple have spent copious amounts of money to campaign for their films—Apple’s CODA won last year’s Best Picture—the Academy Awards are still crucial for more boutique film distributors to gain mainstream publicity and exposure.” The Oscars offer independent films and studios a great chance to make their mark on the industry.

What Makes an Oscar-Winning Film?

What does a film need to do to win the best picture? “The cynical but honest answer is that the film ‘needs’ to get the most votes from the Academy members. Period,” Allen said—the Academy votes for who they think is the best. The only people the film must impress are them.

However, there does seem to be a specific formula that works. Jordan Schonig, Ph.D., added, “Most viewers with even the smallest dose of cynicism will admit that even if the Oscars are somewhat an index of quality or aesthetic value, they tend to be awarded to certain kinds of movies. When we talk about “Oscar bait” today—films that seem to have the right set of characteristics to win an Oscar—we might list a few stereotypical attributes:

  • That it be a serious “drama” (bonus points for a period piece) rather than a popular genre (action, fantasy, horror, romantic comedy);
  • That it be longer than two hours; that it be adapted from a famous source material or a true story (bonus points for biopics);
  • That it feature performances that seem harrowing or effortful (most members of the Academy are actors!);
  • That it be reviewed well by critics.”

However, it isn’t just about how “good” a film is.

It’s All About the Money

A film can be “Oscar bait” and still not be nominated to win. Why? Money. According to Schonig, many Oscar-winning films also engage in multimillion-dollar Oscar campaigns to reach the coveted nominee status. However, unlike high-grossing films, these films are targeted at getting to the Oscars.

Why go through all the trouble? Oscar wins can have real-world business implications, Joel Timmer, Ph.D., explains as “audience members may be interested in checking out the nominated or winning films. Oscar-winning films may see a box office bump (an uptick in ticket sales following the win). However, due to the timing of the Oscars, winning films may no longer be playing in theaters and/or may already be available on other platforms, such as streaming services.”

However, as interest in the Oscars wanes, this may change. Schonig points out, “what I’m less sure about is how effective a Best Picture win has been at increasing ticket sales in the last 10 years. Back in 2011, The King’s Speech made so much more money after its Best Picture win. But the Oscars have been losing cultural relevance since then, and people are watching the awards less and less, so I just don’t know the numbers on how awards affect ticket sales more recently.”

Watch this year’s Academy Awards on ABC.