oscars, inc.

The Academy Awards don’t reward the best films, nor do they undermine artistry. They celebrate a corporate oligarchy and pacify the filmgoing public.

//philip conklin

 © 2015   Hilary White  ,  "The Old Order is No Longer"

© 2015 Hilary White, "The Old Order is No Longer"

It’s awards season, that interminable stretch of time when the various media industries deliberate on the quality of their products from the past year, and decree with empirical and democratic certainty which were the best. It’s a sacred time, when the hallowed streets of Los Angeles are filled with papal white smoke billowing from the Academies of Motion Picture, Television, and Recording Arts and Sciences, monolithic institutions of cultural excellence.

Of course, it’s not so simple as all that. There are those, would you believe it, who aren’t so convinced of the significance of these awards. Take the Oscars. The basic debate surrounding the Academy Awards is simple enough. On the one hand you’ve got uncritical supporters of middle brow entertainment who treat the Oscars with the seriousness and uninterrupted news coverage they assume it deserves (the New York Times, for example, devotes a daily-updated blog to awards season called The Carpetbagger); on the other hand, you’ve got detractors who claim that the Oscars, among other things, don’t award the best films, are unfairly Americentric, are a giant marketing ploy, etc. The Times in 2010 published the responses of several film critics, scholars, and writers to the question “Do The Oscars Undermine Artistry?” which outlines the typical discourse around the awards.

   Click here   to view our infographic, " Who Wins At Award Season?"

Click here to view our infographic, "Who Wins At Award Season?"

Whatever side of the debate arguments about the Oscars fall on, they all propose cultural explanations, with perhaps a vague air of frustration at Greedy Hollywood. What’s necessary, however, is an economic explanation, or at least a cultural explanation based on the economic realities that drive the system. So in order to try to define what these awards are, rather than add to the speculation on what they might mean, The Periphery has put together an infographic that shows which companies are responsible for the distribution of the movies, music, and TV shows that were nominated for the three major media awards — Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys. Broadly, it shows that these awards disproportionately reward eight multinational media conglomerates: Time Warner, National Amusements, Sony, The Walt Disney Company, 21st Century Fox, Comcast, Vivendi, and Access Industries; of the 398 award nominations we looked at, 290, or 72%, went to these eight companies. [1]

I’m not sure to what extent these results will be surprising. I don’t mean to suggest that these companies are involved in backdoor, under-the-table, or any other manner of shady dealings in order to get their films nominated. The point is, rather, that they don’t have to. While these awards — which give more attention to so-called “independent” and “art” films, music, and television than the general media-buying and -watching population — do allow for some diversity, they’re nothing more than a product of an industry that is dominated by a handful of giant companies. Of the categories we looked at for the 2015 Oscars (all except the short film categories), 78 of 106 nominations (74%) went to the Big Six.

The Big Six conglomerates (Comcast, Sony, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, The Walt Disney Company, and National Amusements) are vertically integrated entertainment giants that control assets in film and television production, theatrical distribution, television distribution, home media distribution, and various other entertainment fields such as theme parks, music production, publishing, video games, and many others. Vivendi and Access Industries hold less sway over the American entertainment landscape but are massive and powerful companies in their own right (see appendix below for a partial list of each company’s assets). These companies have such a firm grasp on the American movie climate that they’re basically able to dictate which films get theatrically released in the US, as well as which movies are available on DVD, TV, and streaming services. While they can’t completely shut out independent distributors in any of these fields, their virtual oligarchy allows them almost free reign to determine what popular movie culture is.

So what can we glean from all this? First of all, we can see that some of the criticisms of the Oscars are correct, that they are, in part, a big marketing ploy. We know that winning an Oscar can lead to a significant surge in profits for the winners; according to a Washington Post article, in one of the leaked Sony emails a studio executive estimated that a best picture win for American Hustle would “translate into a $3 million bump.” With profits like these to be had, these companies put a lot of resources into campaigning for their content. The same Post article says, “In the months leading up to last year’s Academy Awards, Sony executives discussed spending $4.2 million on the 2013 Tom Hanks drama ‘Captain Phillips’ … that included $250,000 to send DVDs of the movie to all 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild, $700,000 for TV and radio ads, and $250,000 on travel for the film’s cast to events meant to promote the film to award voters.” Clearly these big companies are the only ones who can afford these expensive campaigns to get their content nominated. If you need more proof that the Oscars are in large part a marketing strategy designed to benefit the media conglomerates, consider that Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the current president of the Motion Picture Academy, is a former studio marketing executive.

We can also rule out the idea that the Oscars are given to the best films. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, “The point of the awards is industry ratification and promotion, not art appreciation.” This is especially true considering “the various consolation prizes constituting the only Oscars ever given to giants of American cinema like Cary Grant, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock or Buster Keaton; and of course John Cassavetes and Erich von Stroheim never even got that much.” While some films, like Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, probably deserve their best picture nominations, if the Oscars had anything to do with awarding truly the best pictures of the year, I’m sure Godard’s Adieu au langage, or Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, or Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, or any number of other films would have been nominated. Of course, the fact that none of those films received anything close to wide distribution in the US is both a cause and an effect of the bigger problem; movies like these won’t generally be picked up by a major distributor, meaning they won’t get seen by academy members or the public, meaning, no matter how good these films are, there’s no reason for them to be nominated for an Oscar, reinforcing the insularity of the system.

I don’t think, as the New York Times asked, that the Oscars undermine artistry. We can see that artistry has very little to do with it. Whether or not Birdman is better than American Sniper, or Louie is better than The Big Bang Theory, or “Fancy” is a better song than “All About That Bass,” when three-quarters of the nominations have been produced and/or distributed by the same eight companies, we can very quickly forget any kind of argument for subjectivity. At this point I think it’s clear that we can stop arguing whether or not the Oscars discourage innovation, forsake artistry, only serve the needs of the media corporations, et cetera et cetera ad infinitum, and start arguing about what’s to be done about the fact that what we imagine represents the best of the best of filmed entertainment is only a select group of products put forward by the same handful of companies year after year.

And remember that the movies nominated for Oscars still represent a relatively arty niche in the broader scope of the mass entertainment landscape. When you look at the most widely viewed theatrically released films this year, the picture is considerably bleaker. Of the 50 highest-grossing movies at the box office last year, according to Box Office Mojo, only three were not distributed by one of the six major studios (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and Divergent were both distributed by Lionsgate, and The Nut Job was distributed by Open Road Films, which is owned by the two largest theater chains in the US).

Clearly the Oscars nominate a very specific type of film, a type of film that probably wouldn’t do that well in the popular film market were it not for the Oscar Bump, the flood of weekend moviegoers and Netflix browsers who now have a reason to see The Theory of Everything and feel good and culturally relevant about it. Would something like Foxcatcher have any reason to exist, or any reason to be seen by anyone, were it not for the fact that its brand of plodding, overwrought, overlong, pseudo psychological, based-on-a-true-story, comedy-actor-in-a-dramatic-role, stuffy, gray, drama-turd-gical nonsense is exactly the kind of thing that tickles those bourgeois Academy members pink? Would anyone still have occasion to talk about something as mediocre and forgettable as The Imitation Game? Can’t we all stop pretending that Whiplash is worth anyone’s time?

Of course, involving oneself in arguments like these, while they may be valid, implies that the Oscars mean something, are worth arguing about at all.

These awards are, above all, a form of pacification. On top of having entertainment industries that are dominated across the board by the same corporations, whose profit motive constitutes the only determining factor in the distribution of commercial consumer culture, we’re regaled for nearly half the year with these ceremonies of meaningless accolades that drill into us the notion that they objectively reward the most artistically worthy products. On top of that, we have to argue about whether or not some other film should have gotten a best picture nod, or why such and such blockbuster was just as deserving of a nomination as that mediocre period drama, or whether the nominees are diverse enough, or what some other awards show before the Academy Awards can tell us about the probable results of the Oscars.

It seems that this is all designed not only for the placation and self-congratulation of the media companies — one of the reasons these academies were founded — but also of the audience. This, I think, is the reason for their success, for their hold on the popular conscience. It’s reassuring to watch an awards ceremony and see movies and TV shows and albums rewarded that you’ve seen or heard; it’s a little stroke of your cultural ego, a reassurance that the movie playing at your local multiplex or arthouse theater, or the album on the front page of the iTunes store, or the show that’s on HBO tonight is the best there is out there. It’s a continual reassurance that you need not venture beyond the limited purview provided by the insular entertainment landscape we live in, that everything that’s worth anything is easily accessible, converted into palatable bites and offered up for consumption. Hell, even if you don’t see any of the Oscar nominated movies, with minimal effort you could, or you could watch enough awards coverage to have a pretty good idea of what they are, at least enough to have an intelligent conversation about whether you think Boyhood or Birdman deserves the award.

What’s important to realize is that our media industry operates in such a way to limit what we can see and hear. Not only do these companies produce and distribute the entertainment we have access to, some of them also own the means of distributing that content to us. Like Comcast, which, if their proposed merger with Time Warner Cable goes through, will be the sole available broadband Internet service provider for 63% of the American public. Or they own the means of informing us about new content — most of the Big Six own a major TV news station, or even an entertainment news channel (Comcast owns the E! network) that will report on the success of these products at the awards ceremonies, or at the box office, or on the Billboard charts.

Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing anytime soon. There’s no reason to think that these companies will somehow find it in their hearts to advance the values of artistry rather than those of profit. Nor should we expect them to. This is simply a symptom of the broader economic landscape. David Harvey has said that intellectual property rights are crucial to capitalism right now:

What we see is actually a kind of flow of capital into those activities where the earnings are not profit on production; they’re really rents on control over assets, on asset values. And we’re moving more and more into a society that is founded on the principle of the rentier, of a rentier economy. And to the degree that it’s a rentier economy it’s not actually helping us, most of us, live a better life at all. All it’s doing is amassing more and more wealth and power in a very very small group in the population.

He’s describing exactly what these media corporations are involved in. They license intellectual property rights (characters, films, stories, songs, etc.) across as many markets as possible in order to extract as much rent as possible from them; in this light we can understand the Oscars as way to redistribute these products in a different market, to a different audience. The media companies are simply doing what they have to do to, and doing it extremely successfully. And given the size of these companies and their lobbying power (I’m thinking of their ability to sway the current debate about net neutrality rules), there’s no reason to expect any kind of policy change besides one that favors the conglomerates.

 © 2015   Joshua Mulligan ,   "Space Traveler"

© 2015 Joshua Mulligan, "Space Traveler"

However, despite overwhelming momentum in the opposite direction, I like to imagine a future with a more radical approach to the production and distribution of art and entertainment. We already have academies devoted to the art and science of these art forms; what if, instead of continually reinforcing the interests of huge corporations, they were involved in producing and distributing great and relevant art that would otherwise not get made or seen? What if they preserved great films of the past and made them available for everyone to see? What if they sought out and distributed great foreign films that missed the ever-discerning tastes of Sony Pictures Classics? What if we gave proper funding and attention to a publicly owned TV station? What if they had an interest in advancing the possibilities of art and science in this country, rather than advancing a small group of companies’ hold over the culture? Clearly, the free market has proved itself an utterly worthless arbiter of artistic taste. I hope at some point we can try to move beyond this failing system, towards one that will serve the interests of both art and the population.


//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.



Appendix:

Comcast is the world’s largest media company. The company has “23 million cable customers, 17 million internet customers and 8 million mobile customers, which equates to a nationwide market share of roughly 30 percent.” [2] Apart from operating a vast and powerful cable company that provides internet, TV, and phone service to millions of customers, Comcast also owns NBCUniversal, through which they control Universal Pictures, and Focus Features, an “art house” film studio; NBC, one of the major TV networks; cable TV networks Bravo, USA Network, E!, MSNBC, and others; and Universal Studios theme parks. Comcast recently acquired Time Warner Cable, the second-largest cable company in the US, pending regulatory approval. [3]

The Walt Disney Company is “a leading diversified international family entertainment and media enterprise with five business segments: media networks, parks and resorts, studio entertainment, consumer products and interactive media.” [4] Disney owns TV stations ABC, ESPN, ABC family, and others; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Pixar Animation, Marvel Studios, and Touchstone Pictures; 11 parks and resorts across the world; a product merchandising and licensing division; and the game company Disney Interactive.

21st Century Fox was formed when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation split into 21st Century Fox — operating the company’s broadcasting and film assets — and News Corp, which manages the publishing assets. Murdoch remains Executive Chairman of both companies. 21st Century Fox owns or has interest in TV networks Fox, Fox News, FX, The Big Ten Network, and National Geographic Channels; 20th Century Fox, a film production and distribution company, and Fox Searchlight Pictures, a “specialty” film company; Sky, “Europe’s leading entertainment company with 20 million customers;” [5] and STAR India, India's leading media and entertainment company,” which includes “more than thirty channels in seven languages received by over 500 million viewers every week across India and 100 other countries.” [6]

Time Warner has three main divisions — Warner Bros. Entertainment, Home Box Office, and Turner Broadcasting System — through which it owns HBO, the world’s leading premium pay-television and subscription video on demand (SVOD) service,” [7] and Cinemax; cable television networks CNN, HLN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies, Adult Swim, truTV and Turner Sports, as well as cable channels across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America; Warner Bros. Film Studio and Warner Bros. Television Group, which produce and distribute film and television series; and DC Entertainment, which owns DC comics and produces films based on them.

National Amusements is a motion picture exhibition company owned by Sumner Redstone which operates the Showcase SuperLux, Cinema de Lux, Showcase Cinemas, and Multiplex Cinemas brands. National Amusements also owns a controlling stake in Viacom and the CBS Corporation, through which it owns television networks CBS, CBS News, CBS Sports, Showtime, the Smithsonian Channel, the CW, VH1, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, and others; film studio and distributor Paramount Pictures; and publishing company Simon & Schuster.

Sony is a Japanese company with holdings in Electronics, Mobile Communications, Film and Television, Music, Games, Digital Services, and Financial Services. Sony Electronics and Sony Mobile communications produce audio and visual electronics and smartphones; Sony Pictures Entertainment, which owns Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Classics, produces and distributes movies and television shows; Sony produces the Playstation brand of gaming systems, as well as many computer and video games; and although Sony doesn’t own a TV Network or prominent cable channels like the other companies, it owns Sony Music Entertainment, one of the world’s largest music recording and publishing companies.

Vivendi is a French company that was founded by imperial decree in 1853 as a water company called Compagnie Générale des Eaux. [8] The company now known as Vivendi is a transnational media company with interests in television, film, music, and telecommunications across Europe and the rest of the world. They own the Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company; Canal+ Group, “the leading French audiovisual group in France,” which reaches 10.4 million pay-TV subscribers in France, and internationally, including Vietnam, and French-speaking countries in Africa; [9] STUDIOCANAL, a major European film studio involved in “film and TV series production, acquisition, distribution and sales;” [10][11] and GTV, “the leading alternative telecommunications operator for fixed ultra high-speed broadband, fixed-line telecommunications and Pay-TV in Brazil.” [12]

Access Industries is “a privately held industrial group with long-term holdings worldwide” focusing on three areas: natural resources and chemicals, media and telecommunications, and real estate. [13] Access owns the Warner Music Group, one of the “big three” recording companies (the others being Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment). The company has many other holdings in various industries, a list of which can be found on their website.

Note: In the midst of all this there are two smaller companies making the some headway into this gated community: Netflix and AMC Networks, mostly based on the success of their TV series — Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, and AMC’s Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Netflix is obviously known for their popular streaming service, but the company has also been producing original content. AMC Networks owns AMC, IFC, and IFC films, which distributed Boyhood, a favorite to win best picture. What’s interesting is that one can see a sort of alliance emerging between these two companies and Lionsgate Entertainment, a “mini-major” film studio that owns a few small TV channels, produces and theatrically distributes films, and also operates a home entertainment distribution arm. These three companies combined add up to a sort of conglomerate similar to the Big Six: all three produce original content; AMC owns the TV networks that can broadcast TV series and films; AMC and Lionsgate both have theatrical distribution branches, albeit not as powerful as those of the Big Six; Netflix owns a popular online streaming service, providing another key means of distribution for the content; and Lionsgate owns a home distribution arm, meaning that they can produce and distribute DVDs and the like. This is why AMC shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and IFC shows Maron, Comedy Bang Bang, and Portlandia are all available on Netflix; why Lionsgate TV is a producer of Mad Men; why Lionsgate Home Entertainment distributes the DVDs for Mad Men and Orange Is the New Black. Judging by the propensity of media companies to merge, maybe we’ll see a Netflix-Lionsgate-AMC Networks conglomerate in the near future.

Footnotes:

[1] A few notes on the data. For the Oscars, all nominees in all categories are included except for the short film categories, which don’t receive significant distribution. For the Emmys and Grammys, due to the sheer number of awards they give, only a portion of the categories were used. For the Grammys, the categories used were Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best New Artist, and all awards in the Pop, Dance/Electronica, Contemporary Instrumental, Rock, Alternative, R&B, Rap, and Country categories. For the Emmys, all the awards in the Drama, Comedy, and Miniseries/Movie categories were used. Because the Emmys aren’t awarded until August, the 2014 awards were used. For the 2015 Grammys, of the 145 nominations given in the categories we looked at, 135 nominations (93%) went to labels owned by just three companies: Vivendi, Sony, and Access Industries. The Emmys see 99 of 150 (66%) nominations going to the Big Six media giants. 
[2] http://www.mediadb.eu/en/data-base/international-media-corporations/comcastnbcuniversal-llc.html
[3] http://corporate.comcast.com/images/Transaction-Fact-Sheet-2-13-14.pdf
[4] http://thewaltdisneycompany.com/disney-companies
[5] http://www.21cf.com/Business_Segments/Direct_Broadcast_Satellite_Television/BskyB/
[6] http://www.21cf.com/Cable_Network_Programming/Star/
[7] http://www.timewarner.com/company/about-us
[8] http://www.veolia.com/en/veolia-group/profile/history/1853-1900
[9] http://www.vivendi.com/activities/content-media/
[10] http://www.canalplusgroupe.com/studioCanal.html
[11] In terms of this year’s Oscars, the Canal+ Group distributed animated feature film nominees Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kayuga in the UK, and helped produce the Polish foreign language film nominee Ida.
[12] http://www.vivendi.com/activities/telecoms/
[13] http://www.accessindustries.com/about

 

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