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The Oscars still matter. But the winners do not

92nd Academy Awards
AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
Oscar gold has little bearing on a film’s legacy.
  • Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Quick: What do Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Taxi Driver have in common?

None of these movies—some of the most influential films in the history of cinema—won the award for Best Picture on Oscar night. Nor were Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, and Ingmar Bergman ever named Best Director. But they didn’t need the Academy Awards to cement their legacies. A film’s cultural staying power is almost never decided by its Oscars showing.

The idea of the Oscars, however, should still matter, even to those who might not count themselves as cinephiles. They can help elevate new talent into more impactful positions. They serve as an important barometer for the industry as a whole, identifying blind spots, and reflecting culture’s best (and worst) impulses back onto itself. They tell us a lot about the art—how it got to be the way it is, and where it’s going.

In more material terms, the awards can boost a film’s ticket sales. Most best picture nominees receive a nontrivial box-office bounce after getting nominated. And while that bounce has decreased in the age of streaming, it still exists. This year, for instance, Little Women got a 21% bounce after its nomination for best picture. Parasite saw its box-office receipts elevated 18%. Regardless of which film wins, the nominations alone help put more eyeballs on great films that might otherwise not get them.

And while the show’s TV ratings are unmistakably trending downward, the Oscars broadcast is still one of the most-watched events in the US each year. The ratings for everything on traditional TV are down, but the Oscars remain one of the only things that can still bring in a large live audience. Nearly 30 million Americans tuned in last year:

So it’s okay to still enjoy the show as pure spectacle, as messy and problematic as it may be. Just don’t worry about which films actually win.

The Oscars carry little longterm cultural weight

Virtually every list of the greatest films of all time published in the last decade confirms that winning (or losing) an Oscar does nothing to guarantee a movie’s legacy. On the BBC’s 2016 list of the 100 best films of just the 21st century (compiled by an international consortium of critics, film curators, and academics), 77 films did not even receive a best picture nomination. Of the 23 that did, just four were best picture winners—meaning 12 of the century’s 16 victors up to that point were not represented on the list.

The 2012 ranking of the best films of all time by British film magazine Sight & Sound, which the late film critic Roger Ebert once said was the only such list “most serious movie people take seriously,” made that divide between the cultural consensus and the Oscars even more apparent. Just 13 of the 100 films listed were nominated for the Oscar for best picture. Only four actually won the award (Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, and The Godfather: Part II).

Though the film Academy—the group that votes on the Oscars—is becoming more diverse, it is still 84% white and 68% male. The type of movies considered an “Oscar movie” are narrow (often American, in English, featuring famous actors or directors), and the group of eventual winners is usually even narrower. If you’ve been unimpressed by the recent best picture winners, it might be because in 2009 the Academy switched to a preferential ballot, which tends to reward the films that the most people liked, but not necessarily the ones they loved or will want to take about years down the line. That’s how Green Book beats films like Roma, BlacKkKlansman, and A Star Is Born. (On occasion, this system has landed on a pleasantly surprising choice, like Moonlight in 2016.)

And that’s to say nothing of how political the voting process has become. Studios now have to campaign for their films like they’re running for office, sending actors and directors around Hollywood to hobnob with other voters while spending millions on elaborate ad campaigns to sway the undecideds. “Oscar season” has turned into a horse race, not unlike the very worst of American politics.

Only one woman has ever won best director in the 100-year history of the Oscars (Kathryn Bigelow). Just five have been nominated. No foreign-language film has ever won best picture (Parasite could be the first this year). Kirk Douglas, Peter O’Toole, Cary Grant, Harrison Ford, Amy Adams, Gene Wilder, Tom Cruise, Annette Bening, Will Smith, and Glenn Close have never won Oscars for acting.

Ultimately, winning an Oscar—Best Picture especially—carries little longterm cultural weight. Some have argued it’s actually better to lose the Oscar, both because the winner faces inevitable backlash and also because it cements your status as an underdog for eternity. The list of best picture winners is a piece of trivia for cinephiles more than it is anything else. The Social Network and Inception are the films we will remember from 2010. Unfortunately for that year’s winner, The King’s Speech, its place in the annals of cinema history is pretty much restricted to that one night, when it was made to feel special.

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