The internet ruins everything. First it ruined marriage, then it ruined our foreign relations, and now, most gravely, it has ruined the Academy Awards. At least, that’s what Variety would have you believe. In a recent article covering the Telluride Film Festival, senior film critic Peter Debruge notes a recent change in how Oscar races unfold each year. With the rise of the blogosphere, more online journalists have begun attending major film festivals and delivering reports on their favorites for each year’s Best Picture. However, Debruge suggests these so-called “Oscar pundits” are nothing more than cynical handicappers, transforming the Academy Awards into a red-carpet horse race. His imperious dismissal of new media writers reflects the anxiety some traditional journalists have about the future of their craft. Yet rather than sully Oscar coverage, and contrary to Debruge's opinion, film bloggers actually help to popularize the traditionally elitist Academy Awards by allowing a more diverse audience to participate in the annual build-up.
That build-up begins in early September with the Telluride, Venice, and Toronto film festivals. However, even among film aficionados, these are rarefied events: passes cost hundreds – even thousands – of dollars, to say nothing of travel expenses. But to miss out on this opening salvo of the Oscar season, is to miss out on a national, cultural conversation. In recent years these festivals have become cornerstones of the Best Picture contest. Prior to 2006, only four Best Picture winners premiered at film festivals: Annie Hall, Chariots of Fire, The Last Emperor, and American Beauty. Since 2006, the four most recent winners – Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo – have all premiered at the relatively low-publicity Telluride festival. Now, thanks to the blogosphere, you no longer need to buy a plane ticket or a subscription to Variety to stay informed; you only need an internet connection.
Far from ruining the Academy Awards, film bloggers help maintain the appeal of the industry-driven event for a general audience. The Oscars remain one of the most watched broadcasts in America with around 40 million viewers each year. That steady viewership suggests that a significant portion of the population has a vested interest in who wins Best Director or Best Actress, if only to make a more informed decision as to which movie tickets deserve their $12.
Of course, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, along with Hollywood’s major studios, know the Oscars are an invaluable marketing tool: the “Oscar bump” can be measured in millions of dollars. Conversely, the Academy Awards, in maintaining their prestigious position over all other award shows, emphasize the show as directed by Hollywood itself: filmmakers celebrating other filmmakers. There is value in both approaches, and I would likely dismiss a “people’s choice” Oscar as quickly as I would dismiss an award based on box-office performance. But we need a third element – an impartial press – to hold the two disparate forces of creativity and commercialism in balance, so as to keep too much naiveté or too much cynicism from infecting the Oscars.
While traditional outlets like Variety and Entertainment Weekly can provide some evenhanded criticism, their own elitism often aligns them more with Hollywood’s infamously warped sense of self. Instead, writers and critics from established culture blogs, like Vulture or Deadline, down to those with their own Tumblr pages, can provide the kaleidoscope of opinions needed to ensure the Oscar race remains accessible for the average movie-goer. The internet helps us collectively celebrate when the Academy gets it right, and call foul when they get it mind-bogglingly wrong. Adding an element of general participation to the meritocracy of the Oscars does not corrupt the award show, but rather saves it from it’s own insular foundations. It takes a wide range of perspectives, on a scale only the internet can provide, to remind both the Academy and Hollywood that they can hand out all the golden statuettes they would like, but ultimately we decide which film is truly the year’s best picture.