Oscar season is a time for people to appreciate film as an art form in all its different facets, from costume design to editing. This event has occurred for over half a century and therefore it has become normalized, so we do not question its existence. But why is it the most popular art-based award show? What makes 37 million people spend their Sunday night watching an award about movies, but don’t bat an eye when the National Arts Awards occur? For the answer, we need to rewind history a bit.
When film was first created it instantly became a big hit. The idea that one could slice together pictures to form one that moved was groundbreaking. This new technology caused quite a stir in society. People had to go see what it was all about and when they did, they had an experience they would never forget. One of the first films, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896), contained a straight-on shot of a train moving at full speed. People in the audience were so frightened that it was going to hit them that they screamed and jumped to the back of the theater. This intense reaction allowed the industry to make a name for itself, and thus it’s popularity began to spread.
Then, during the First World War, movies were a means of propaganda. The industry was flooded with ads that attempted to ignite a patriotic fire in those who were able to enlist. Once again, by catering towards a strong emotional response, the industry expanded even more. The timing of this allowed for the industry to then ride on the coat tails of the cultural boom that took the 1920’s by storm. It was during that decade where movie stars and directors took center stage in society. People became infatuated with them and the glamour that their lives seemed to encapsulate. Then in 1929 the first Oscars occurred. Originally, it was a nonprofit to raise money for the creation of new films. Though the film industry was not in the red like others during that time period, new technology, like the implementation of sound, and the rise of stars were increasing the price of production. Therefore the studios needed more funding. At that point, the Oscars weren’t a huge event. They even announced the winners before the night of the actual award show. It was more about the 250 guests who donated money to attend the dinner.
Soon the great depression hit and people were left with hungry stomachs and empty wallets. So when they spent what little money they had on a movie, they were trying to escape their harsh realities to boost their moral. Even at the worst points during the depression, 60 to 80 million people still attended the movies. They found solitude and understanding within the theater’s four walls. It became the pastime that the average American could take part in. It was also an extremely accessible art form because people did not have to waste money on travel to see a movie.
With the need for escapism peaking, Hollywood glamour took center stage. People wanted to know more about public figures like Carey Grant and Rita Hayworth. The boom of new technology and film stars in the 1930’s and 1940’s then enhanced the intimacy of film. As the decades passed and society morphed, so did movies. They continued to reflect, not every aspect of society, but just enough for people to latch on to and relate to. For example, when the conservative revolution occurred during the 1950’s it was reflected in films through the portrayal of nuclear families. Unfortunately, there are large pieces of history and cultures that have been left out of the film world. When you have a certain race and gender running an industry that’s supposed to be built on relatability, they get stuck on what’s relatable to them as appose to what’s relatable to people outside of their mindset. The 1960’s and 1970’s where thought of as the time to be daring. The artists behind the films took more chances and really tried to understand which thing caused what feeling and how different viewpoints affected the audience, but they were only daring with technique. During a time of civil rights and revolution, storylines remained whitewashed and the Oscars reflected that. Breakout hits like West Side Story made headlines and won an astounding 10 Oscars, but a big reason why the movie, which is about an interracial couple, was made was because it was already a hit musical. The men in charage saw little risk at all because the fan base was already there. Today there are a few more roles with diverse casts, but the Oscars are still run by people who don’t always see beyond their own race/gender’s relatability and therefore they don’t want to take a risk on who they nominate. It does a huge disservice to anyone outside of the white male category and it encapsulates the idea that a certain group of people isn’t worthy enough to gain the recognition that others are privy to. Such a problem has gone on too long and has yet to be changed.
All types of art have gone through evolutions such as this, but what makes the Oscars so popular is the combination of two aspects that the film industry has always kept the same. The first is the ability to capture relatability. People go to the movies to feel something and to be transported into another life story that they are taught to care about and root for. When a film gets put up for an award in some way or another, people care because they aren’t just rooting for a film, they’re rooting for the actual characters that they fell in love with. Filmmakers have mastered the ability of making the audience identify with the fictional characters. So when it’s up for an award, it’s almost a sense of validation for the piece in the audiences’ lives that allows them to relate to the movie. This is why it’s important to represent all cultures in a respectful way. If people turn to film to find something to relate to, but can’t seem to find anyone who shares their likeness, it becomes demoralizing and down-putting. Then, if they do find someone, but that someone is passed over by their peers at things like the Oscars, it tells audiences that they too aren’t worthy enough, and that is a huge problem in the film industry. The second is the availability of films. Throughout history films have been something for all classes to enjoy. That hasn’t always been the case with other art forms. Not everyone has the money to travel to museums or to study the history that the art represents. But films have always been in reach and they have always been something for the average person to enjoy no matter what their educational background is or where they lived. So when you marry relatability with availability, you gain the biggest audience forming strong bonds with the work. Therefore, a larger population is more engrossed with the Oscars than with other art awards.