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Why Awards Season Is More Than a Meaningless Horse Race

Awards season has come around once again, and once again the myriad of debates over the meaning of it all are in full swing. With many of the major awards shows playing out in January and the Academy Awards typically waiting until February or March to hold their ceremony, awards season has become a large part of the film, television and entertainment industries and their respective cultures. While it’s easy to underplay and understate the importance of awards shows like the Oscars, the Emmys or the BAFTAs, awards shows such as those have proven to play a crucial role in the overall conversation surrounding film and television as an art form. The Oscars, in particular, have a reputation for being the pinnacle of praise for the film industry.

While the Academy and the award they give out certainly have issues, such as the consistent lack of recognition for women and people of color, the award does still have a significant sway and impact on the industry. The current entertainment industry is becoming increasingly dominated by blockbuster filmmaking and the spectacle that comes with it. While blockbusters and genre films can certainly deliver more than spectacle, just look at this year’s awards darlings like Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water, it is often the smaller and more character-oriented films that really forward the cinematic medium as a whole. As broken as the entertainment awards circuit can be and as meaningless as the competition of it all may seem, there’s an underlying importance in the recognition that it brings to the best films of the year, which often fly under the radar of general audiences.

Related: Every Animated Film Nominated for Best Picture (and a Few that Should’ve Been)

A common complaint about the Oscars in recent years is that they “only nominate movies that nobody has seen.” Overlooking the hyperbole of that statement, when it comes to the Oscars and awards shows in general, it is important to remember that the purpose is not to recognize the movies that are the most popular or bring in the most viewers. The purpose of the award is simple; it’s to recognize the best movies of the year. That is an incredibly difficult task considering the inherent subjectivity of all art, but a good metric that is often used is to find the movies that have the most to say and portray a clear talent, understanding and ambition when it comes to the craft of filmmaking itself. These films are, generally speaking, not going to be blockbusters.

That’s not a diss on blockbusters. There’s no denying the pure entertainment factor of the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars. However, it’s no secret that those films are produced with very different intentions from the likes of The Banshees of Inisherin or Tár. Blockbuster films are created from the ground up to bring in as many viewers as possible. They can certainly still provide outstanding stories and showcases of craft while they’re at it, but that’s not the core motivation for them being financed, shot and released. When talking about the films that typically are celebrated every year during awards season, they are produced with the pure intention of telling such a powerful story or pushing the boundaries of what can be done on film. They are generally more experimental in nature and will push the audience out of their comfort zone. Films that like are, by nature, going to have a smaller audience, which is why you don’t often see major studios lining up to give fund them with giant budgets. Of course, there are exceptions like Babylon, which Paramount produced with an estimated $80 million budget, but that movie was coming from Damien Chazelle, who had previously delivered La La Land, which grossed almost $450 million.

The smaller films that really embrace the artistic expression of film are the ones that more regularly receive nominations come awards season. These films mostly aren’t massive box office successes, but they do leave a lasting impact on the audiences that do check them out. One of the key benefits of awards like the Oscars is that they provide a spotlight to these movies that general audiences will take note of, which can in turn make them into box office hits. Take Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, for example. The movie had gained plenty of acclaim worldwide prior to its Oscar nominations, and domestically it grossed about $25 million domestically in its initial release window from October 2019 to mid-January 2020. However, when the film received six Oscar nominations in mid-January, the number of theaters the film was playing in immediately jumped by 86%. The week after, the theater count increased again to over 1,000 screens nationwide. Over the next few weeks leading up to the ceremony, Parasite’s domestic box office had shot up to $37 million. Then, after the film’s historic Best Picture win, it received another theatrical expansion, jumping to 2,000 screens, with a spike in box office performance coinciding. By the time the movie’s theatrical run in the US had wrapped up by mid-March, Parasite’s North American box office had grown to a whopping $53 million. That’s pretty impressive for a non-English-speaking film out of South Korea, which was produced with a budget of only $12 million.

Related: Do the Oscars Need to Nominate More Popular Films?

Awards season is essentially a film and TV lover’s holiday season. It’s the time of year when everyone is reflecting on what they’ve seen over the last 12 months and having in-depth discussions about what they think was the best and why. It’s a time for widespread appreciation of the arts on every level. While there are indefinitely going to be deserving movies and shows that get unjustly left out of the conversation, that doesn’t mean that the conversation shouldn’t be had.

As for the competitive aspect of the awards season, that is largely just there for the fun of it. It’s pretty simple. People like to compete and debate over which things are better than others. It’s a lot more exciting when there is one Best Picture winner rather than just 10 nominated films. The competition of the season, while it can sometimes undermine the fact that all the nominees are excellent (usually), is an important part of giving the actual awards any sort of esteem, repute, or meaning. If there were a dozen films recognized for Best Picture every year, then the award would start to lose its luster. Only one film will take the top prize every year, which in turn makes it a greater honor for the movies that do win.

There are always going to be people that hold a high appreciation for the arts year-round, but awards season encourages this love from everybody. There have been countless fantastic films from over the years that would not have found any mainstream appeal if they hadn’t been their time in the spotlight that awards season. The awards races encourage general audiences to get caught up on many of the lesser-known great films of the last year, so that they can in turn recognize and appreciate the films that actually end up winning. The awards season allows for a much more widespread appreciation of film, television, and the arts as a whole. It’s a way for die-hard film and TV fans to debate among themselves about which stories were really the standouts of any given year, while also introducing many of those films into the mainstream conversation.



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