There Are Too Many Movies For Awards to Mean Anything

By  · Published on January 6th, 2015

Paramount Pictures

Even though exact data is difficult to pin down, it’s gut-level obvious that there were more movies released last year than in 1928, the year leading up to the first Academy Awards presentation at the Roosevelt Hotel. Worldwide releases that year might have come close to 500 (margin of error = wide), but that’s still less than the 659 released, only counting North America, in 2013 (and that’s just the ones the MPAA was tracking (which doesn’t include VOD-only). More importantly, audiences in 1928 wouldn’t have had access to global releases the way we do today, which stretches the data gap even further.

This is one of those things we don’t really need numbers for. We know intimately how much media we have had access to since the dial-up sound stopped stinging our ears. There is always something in the queue and something on the must-see list. Those account balances will never zero out again.

Outside of our own guts, the evolution of award ceremonies is one of the great manifestations of the overwhelming pile of film at our fingertips. There are now so many options for cinematic entertainment that awards have become 1) necessarily unique with a limited scope and 2) ridiculously easy to mock because of it.

A Taxonomy of “Best”

Still the pillar of awards, the Oscars’ predictability and small range of praise has created corrective award ceremonies that have, in turn, become predictable and small in their range of praise.

The Academy Awards are such a known quantity that an industry has built up around how easy it is to guess – if not the ultimate winners – at least the nominees. We know Oscar bait when we see it. We also know when Oscar bait is too Oscar baity to actually bait the Oscars. That’s how well we know those awards. The TV listing for the 2015 Academy Awards might as well say “Rerun.”

But the Independent Spirit Awards are, unfortunately, also a known quantity. Ostensibly an antidote to the back-slapping brigade, they honor the serious work that flies too low to be on Oscar’s radar. However, they still focus mostly on movies from major studio offshoots (further obscuring the definition of “independent”), and we know when we see it come off the festival circuit that a movie is destined for that podium. There are few things as emblematic of the overall problem than an award show which supposedly shines a spotlight outside the mainstream becoming obvious.

In the same vein, critics’ circles have become a known quantity, and there are now close to 700 million of them. (On a personal note, it’s baffling to me how critics can be mostly dynamic during the year, yet lock into step with each other when December 31st draws closer.) They’ve become so predictable that it was considered news when Boyhood didn’t win top honors from one of the groups.

Beyond the monotony, the bottom line is that a similar number of movies are being praised at the end of the year despite the number of movies, worldwide, that we have access to growing all the time. This is our weak, mechanical bias as humans with only so many hours in the day.

So we’ve split off completely into factions, and we can’t even cover all the movies that are out there (or we shouldn’t). Because of this, combined with an unwillingness for certain award group voters to see as much as possible, there will always be a caveat to every award out there: Best Movie of the Year*.

*With enough popular visibility and within the comfortable range of the group of particular voters to be considered.

They are no longer showcases of the superlative (that they occasionally could be), but notes from the medium extremity of the bell curve. After all, those dishing out awards are also trying to get attention, and they won’t do it by listing a lot of movies you’ve never heard of. These rosters – especially something as high profile as the Oscars – demand recognizability in order to be marketable.

Even the “worst” movies of the year fall into this category. The Razzies – a one-liner that’s dragged on 35 years – are yet another known quantity that laughably offer up the worst movie of the year that’s always also one of the biggest of the year. Yet stuff like this (make no mistake) is released every year and will never make those lists. Granted, The Razzies are even more of an attention-seeking stepchild than the Oscars, so they have to lock sights on whatever Michael Bay made last.

We Need Computers to Do This For Us

I’d argue that the growth of the number of awards-givers and entropy of their choices is partially the result of how much there is to see out there. Some awards are so competitive that you literally have to put your movie into the nominators hands in order to be considered, but we have a large enough number of the high-enough profile movies covered between (or spread between) a sufficient-enough number of awards programs.

Yes, this isn’t exactly a new situation. There have been too many movies for a while, but it’s been compounded by the internet in the recent years, as well as compounded by a shift in how movies are released. From Vimeo to the Megaplex, there are now a lot of nooks and crannies in which to find great movies. That’s a magical, wondrous thing that’s maddening. Our modern terror is that we’re going to miss out on something because there’s an avalanche of media to sift through every year.

Ultimately, that also means that award shows which were already frivolous have been reduced beyond meaning. They’re like championship games where a large amount of teams in the league didn’t get to play during the season. It’s always been true that award voters didn’t consider see every single movie released in a year, but we can now no longer pretend that they even come close.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.