How the film award season is akin to political campaigning

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By Tom Hall

On the Monday night following the long Thanksgiving weekend, New York City's independent film community gathered in Lower Manhattan for the Gotham Awards, an annual fundraising event for the ever-vital Independent Feature Project [Full disclosure, I serve on the nominating committee for the Gotham Awards' Documentary Film category]. The ceremony put the Gothams first on the awards calendar, a somewhat controversial move that saw them slide ahead of The New York Film Critics Circle (who announced their award winners the next day) and The National Board of Review, an organization whose awards have traditionally kicked off the season.

If there were hostile whispers about the move, it didn't seem to matter on the night; the celebrities were luminous and out in force, with Charlize Theron, Alec Baldwin, Gary Oldman, Tilda Swinton, Stanley Tucci and Christopher Plummer providing the paparazzi the famous faces upon which to train their lenses. The ceremony itself was brisk and full of surprises, with winners in categories like Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You (Scenes of a Crime), Breakthrough Actor (Felicity Jones) and Best Ensemble Performance (Beginners) signaling just how unique the event really is.

The Gothams did a lovely job of balancing glitz and mission, celebrating established names with the same sincerity with which they announced the arrival of new voices. Film award season has a lot in common with political campaigning; teams of handlers and publicists racing to get their contenders out in front of the masses, industry power players serving as a sort of electoral college, their votes courted in private screening rooms, lavish luncheons and exclusive cocktail parties.

Awarding organizations can also function in a familiar way, moving their events up and down the calendar like states jockeying for primacy in a mad scramble to be first, to set the agenda for the season and expand influence among the big names in the business. And of course, the goal is to win, because winning means money, prestige and power.

To the casual observer, awards for films may seem not only superficial but a wholly subjective waste of time, free of reasonable criteria (what defines the best actor in a given year?) and generally bucking popular taste in favor of critical acclaim (the disparity between box office popularity and award accumulation is usually vast).

As cultural access grows more and more democratic, anyone with an opinion and a computer is able to broadcast their thoughts and enter the conversation, yet most organizations awarding films have built an exclusive firewall around the process, maintaining a secret ballot for select groups of voters, maintaining the power to fascinate and frustrate the masses. It seems odd that perhaps the most democratic and populist of art forms still celebrates itself with the glamour and gusto of a segregated aristocracy.

But how else to maintain the illusory power of the cinema? Celebrity gossip dominates the narrative as movie stars and their teams struggle to maintain control of their images, and with the rise of social media, audiences are given access to the lives of celebrities who broadcast their daily experiences in real time. It's growing harder and harder to suspend disbelief, to remove the business of film and publicity from the pleasure of the work itself.

In this context, award season feels almost decadent, a chance to bask in the old-school autobiography that the movie business continues to write. If anything, this is the season for re-establishing Hollywood's self-image, one that continues to move further and further from the emerging power we have as movie lovers, harkening back to a simpler time when movies dominated our dreams and everything was under control.

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