What We Talk About When We Talk About the Spider-Man: No Way Home Oscar Campaign

I have not seen Spider-Man: No Way Home. I do not know what happens in the movie outside of anything they show in a trailer. My guess is that I will not see No Way Home until it comes to my streaming or to my local library. All I know is that this movie has a purposefully noisy Oscar campaign, sparked by a Christmas Eve article from Scott Feinberg at the Hollywood Reporter. If you are an Oscars person (I know, what a terrible identity) it’s probably been reported on more in your circle than local film society winners. I haven’t seen Spider-Man: No Way Home, and for a discussion about the Oscars I honestly don’t think that having seen the movie matters all that much. The Oscars are like marshmallows and film quality is like chocolate; it’s nice to have them together, but you’d make it if you never experienced them at the same time. What interests me more than the deeply boring question of “Should No Way Home be nominated for Best Picture?” are the assumptions and beliefs girding the responses to said deeply boring question, which these propositions are designed to unwrap.

Proposition #1 / The Spider-Man: No Way Home Oscar campaign is annoying.

…I don’t really need to get into this much, right? The idea of an Oscar campaign is annoying no matter what you think of the movie that’s putting it on. It’s annoying that actors do the circuit of schmoozing at parties and yukking it up on late night talk shows, and it’s annoying that studios do FYC ads on billboards and in magazines and on podcasts. It’s annoying that Scott Feinberg has written this article with multiple interviews which basically boils down to “No Way Home deserves Oscar consideration, and you know who else thinks so, the executives who would get Oscars for it.” He knows what he’s doing. The first quote in there is Tom Holland bashing Martin Scorsese, which is the kind of thing that gets screenshotted and aggregated and quote tweeted for days. That’s the kind of annoying, cynical attention grab that Feinberg knows will work. Holland, and whoever his publicist is, should be smart enough not to fall into this particular trap, and yet here we are.

Here’s the thing about trying, or wanting something so badly that other people can see it. It’s a great way to get what you want. It’s also not cool. I don’t mean to invoke the Hemingway model like it’s gospel, but there’s a reason that Joe DiMaggio was worshiped in the 1940s and Ted Williams, who was a superior hitter by almost any measure, was ridiculed. Ted Williams would not shut up about how good a hitter he was, which is fine, but he also didn’t shut up about how he got that good. He was plainspoken about how hard he worked to build up his strength, how meticulously he studied opposing pitchers, how he swung the bat differently from other players. It worked, obviously. Williams has to be considered in any debate for the greatest hitter of all time, but he was never as respected as DiMaggio, who was famously silent even in his personal life, and went out on the field and produced with potent grace.

The Oscars are less cool than they used to be because the distance between us and the process has drastically shrunk. We know more about how to prognosticate. It’s not just “Oh, that movie got a Picture nomination and a Directing nomination, it seems like a favorite,” but something we can calculate mathematically based on SAG Awards and audience awards at TIFF. We know more about what goes on behind the scenes. We are less naive about what it means for stars to do the talk show circuit. We’ve reached a point with the celebrities who are up for the awards where scandal rags and press releases can’t even do as much work to reveal the famous people as the famous people do on Twitter or Instagram. The mystique of this award show has faded away with the perceived glamour of Old Hollywood, and I think the only wonder of it is that the Oscars have managed to hold on to as much mystique as they have as the other shows of the EGOT have faded. There might still be some DiMaggio Personally, the reason that I find this Oscars campaign so annoying is because it is such a calculated and uncool thing to do. For whatever faults he may have had, Ted Williams at least managed to reclaim some coolness by never ingratiating himself with the press that he hated, even if it cost him hardware.

Proposition #2 / The Spider-Man: No Way Home Oscar campaign is an example of, depending on your milieu, working the refs or complaining to the manager.

Working the refs is a good strategy if you want to win. This is true in sports, whether you’re thinking about scientific studies or you’re working from the premise that the Bad Boy Pistons did, where they can’t call everything. This is true in politics, as the Gamergate people found out when they complained to companies and got their way out of it. And this is true in the Oscars. On one hand, we know that’s true because the Academy Awards changed how many movies were nominated for Best Picture almost solely because The Dark Knight didn’t get that Best Picture nomination; it has been brought up ad nauseum and, regrettably, we’ll have to come back to it. It’s also a fact we know because Harvey Weinstein bullrushed the show during the 1990s and walked away with many nominations and victories because of the plainest campaigning that the Oscars had ever seen. Enter No Way Home, which is taking this strategy a step further. The Shakespeare in Love campaign and the No Way Home campaign understand the basics of Oscar campaigning, which is to flood the media the voters will take in with messages about the importance of x movie winning awards. The difference is that in 1998-1999, flooding the media that Oscar voters took in meant a bunch of ads in the Los Angeles Times and a bunch of personal phone calls that probably shouldn’t have been made. In 2021-22, that means taking the issue to social media. Making it the center of discourse for a while, or at least putting it out there in a way that makes it a conversation piece that older Academy voters can get into over lunch, is the way to get people amped up for the movie. (Whether or not Kevin Feige, Amy Pascal, etc. are trying to work the right refs is an entirely different question, because if you read any of those anonymous Oscar voter interviews, you know those people are definitely not as online as the press corps.)

Here is a strategy which is the opposite of the negative press that has swamped award frontrunners like Selma or Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, the presumed “backlash cycle.” I think the backlash cycle is actually something of a canard at this point, because there’s no evidence that it’s worked all that well. La La Land picked up fourteen nominations, which is as many as any film that wasn’t All About Eve or Titanic got, and won six of them. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was probably about as serious a contender as Get Out, all things being equal; it just seems like The Shape of Water was going to take that one regardless. Green Book appears to have won despite a backlash cycle. Nomadland had the strongest backlash cycle of the 2020 season and won. It remains to be seen if this move towards positivity pays off, or if it’s a little more concerned with winning popular votes (fanboys, normies, etc.) than electoral votes. What I think is incontrovertible is that the No Way Home campaign, which has muscled into the popular view more abruptly and loudly than any campaign in recent memory, is basically doing what any Karen does when s/he asks to see the manager.

Proposition #3 / The Spider-Man: No Way Home Oscar campaign is designed to be publicized by people who are upset that another boy has a balloon.

What still takes my breath away a little bit is how much I have heard, seen, etc. about the No Way Home Oscar campaign. Whether that’s a discussion about whether the film is deserving, about what kind of historical precedent there is for a movie like that to be nominated, or about the potential sociological value of a No Way Home nod, I’ve seen most of the lines of reasoning without even trying that hard to find them. All you have to do is have a few websites in your bookmarks or belong to a few Facebook groups. This is a blow upon an old bruise for the fanboys, for as it currently stands the Academy Awards are basically the last place in popular culture which is not paying homage to the superhero film. They are the most seen movies and the most talked about, the most recognizable and the most liked. But The Dark Knight could not get a Best Picture nomination in the old five-movie field, nor could any of the major Avengers movies (The Avengers, Infinity War, and Endgame) snare one. Spider-Man 2 did not, nor did Logan. Joker did, as did Black Panther, but the former feels only vaguely connected to the DC stuff, and Black Panther could not get much traction beyond below-the-line wins. If you are the kind of person who really believes that the successful branding of the MCU is the same as great filmmaking, or that superheroes are part of the fuzzy genre of “modern myth,” then it must feel like this is the last outpost of popular culture not paying appropriate homage to these pictures. I don’t know how many people who are militantly pro-superhero movies are also people who care all that much about the Academy Awards, prestige filmmaking, or all that jazz. What stands out in so much of this discourse, though, is this sense that the Oscars owe the superhero movies something, that they should like the superhero movies because they are self-evidently great. As too many critics have pointed out to actually credit any one of them alone, superhero movies have won. Why they need this thing too seems like overkill, and yet clearly it’s something that the braintrust of superhero pictures seems to want, and there’s no question the dog’s tail will wag.

If there is something brilliant about the No Way Home Oscar campaign, a word which might be a smidge effusive, it’s the way that it’s trying to make a crest of all the resentment that fans feel about the Oscars basically ignoring the superhero edifice. It’s tough to find any discussion of the Oscar prospects of No Way Home which doesn’t invoke The Dark Knight. Obviously I’m not innocent. Scott Feinberg isn’t either, because he brings up The Dark Knight in his intro. The only people who appear to be actively ignoring that are, wisely, No Way Home backers like Tom Rothman and Kevin Feige. (The comparison they are shooting for is Return of the King, though I suppose if you’re going to get real grandiose like this, it’s a mistake not to connect No Way Home to Three Colors: Red instead.) When normal people get to this subject, they are immediately thinking of how The Dark Knight was so unfairly snubbed, and how No Way Home has saved movie theaters or something, and they are primed for the debate to begin anew. This is, again, a pretty cynical tactic, but it has been candy-coated. I do mean that thing I said above about how the No Way Home campaign is essentially a positive one, meant to pump up the film rather than disparage others. What’s smart about this campaign is that it feeds off the online resentment of others, who will then go forth to praise the merits of this movie in, if the LOTR comparison is any roadmap, hyperbolic fashion. It requires no Weinsteinesque grossness or rudeness or coarseness. The nastiness can all flow from the fans and the people in Hollywood can stay above that fray.

Proposition #4 / The Spider-Man: No Way Home Oscar campaign will be most effective if No Way Home gets fewer Oscars and Oscar nominations than Black Panther.

Black Panther won the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast, which is generally understood to be the big prize at the SAGs. It then went on to win three Oscars on seven nominations, which doesn’t sound like a huge performance, but by sheer quantity it did pretty well for itself. Only Bohemian Rhapsody, heaven help my heart, won more; Green Book and Roma also took three. This would be a pretty nice run through wards season for basically any movie, and it was essentially unprecedented for a superhero movie. Joker is a weird fit, but despite leading the Oscars in nominations that year, it served as a redux winner for the title role, and also picked up an Oscar for Score. Both were nominated for Best Picture. My guess is that the sweet spot for No Way Home is to be nominated as part of the ten-movie field for Best Picture and then rack up three or four more nominations in below-the-line categories; in other words, this is the outcome which I think is both likely and irksome for the fanboys. No acting nominations would get them riled up. The same would be the case if the film didn’t win Best Picture, which I don’t think is all that likely even in a year without a clear frontrunner. The best-case scenario seems like it would be a Supporting Actor nod for Alfred Molina, who has never been nominated for an Oscar in his long career, to go along with the Best Picture nod. The problem is that I don’t think that the No Way Home campaign is actually focused on Molina, who at publication is not even in Gold Derby’s top 100 candidates to get a nomination.

The “Best Picture” card is such a big one to play, and the intention to get that nomination has encroached upon the possibility of all others, it seems, because the biggest movie of the year wants the biggest prize of the year. But it may also be that the people planning this Oscar campaign know that it doesn’t actually have a real chance to succeed, and thus simply putting the idea in people’s minds and then watching it fail to come to fruition—creating an expectation and then letting others fail to deliver—is a way to entrench the feelings of fans who will continue to bang the drum for more and more of this content. Let’s say Belfast, which has made less than $10 million at the box office, wins Best Picture. The call will arise that no one really wants this stuff, that this kind of award on reflects what elites and one-percenters want, and that the real legitimate prize should belong to the good-enough movie that most people really showed appreciation for. The goal here in making such a huge stink about the Oscars for the No Way Home team is not actually to whip votes, because there are much classier ways to do it that probably would have served the film better. The point is to whip up an online frenzy about it among people who do not get to vote for Oscars anyway. The middlebrow film is the enemy of the blockbuster, stealing just enough resources and praise from the biggest budget pictures to be annoying at the studio level. The point, from the perspective of Kevin Feige or Amy Pascal, is not to win Oscars. It’s to make the hoi polloi upset that No Way Home isn’t winning Oscars.

Proposition #5 / The Spider-Man: No Way Home Oscar campaign is being positioned as an Oscar savior, which at the very least is a belief unmoored from reality.

The Oscars telecast has been diminishing spectacularly in recent years. There are two ways I’ve seen this interpreted. The first is that the Oscars themselves are in danger because they are posting historically low ratings. The second is that it is basically impossible to get a giant market share unless you’re football. A quick look at last year’s top-rated TV programs allows you to argue in both directions. Depending on your metric, the Oscars were 2020’s eighth-most watched or eleventh-highest rated program. In 2021, it’s easier to make the argument that the Oscars are in freefall; they did not make the top 100. One might argue that it was tough for people to care about the movies when they hadn’t seen any, given what 2020 did to people gathering in confined spaces. One could also see this as something of a bellwether, a response to the no-host deal that the Academy Awards has been indulging in since they nixed Kevin Hart/Kevin Hart nixed himself. I don’t want to do the full Tevye here, because this can absolutely go on in perpetuity, but there are two sources I want to pull specifically. The first is The Big Picture, which is co-hosted by Sean Fennessey and Amanda Dobbins of The Ringer, and which tends to include some fearful Fennessey expression of woe regarding the Oscars’ future. (Dobbins, for her part, tends to fall on the side of “all TV ratings are in the toilet.”) The second is Owen Gleiberman, who, as the article leads, hated No Way Home but wants the Oscars to nominate the film for its own sake. There are individual things that I generally agree with, such as Fennessey’s railing against the potent performances of Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody at the Oscars, or Gleiberman’s belief that the people at the Oscars have lost their mystique. In general, though, I am mystified by these arguments, so much so that I could just as easily see my response to those arguments as their own post. I’ll try my best to behave here.

5.1 / This is a condescending point of view, to say the least, the kind of thing that one does when one is searching for a Platonic idea of the moviegoer. The first characteristic? “Well, they know less than I do…” These discussions always start with something like “I didn’t like this movie, but they should nominate it,” or “This movie wouldn’t be close to my top ten, but they should nominate it,” or “This movie is at least better than some of the crap they’ve nominated.” There’s just a little too much Twitter in this point of view, by which I mean the sentiment expressed here:

The difference, clearly, is that instead of getting mad about it, this point of view is about proving your basic generosity of spirit about it. After all, one nomination in ten, who cares? This point of view never actually gets into the possibility that No Way Home would win. One can be generous up to a point, but any further and we’d need to restrain that fullness of spirit a sliver.

5.2 / Without getting all the way into it, I don’t think that there’s any particular reason why the Oscars need to be some kind of tastemaker. There’s an assumption that the Oscars need to persist as giants of the industry, but I think what we’ve learned from the Golden Globes is that absent some enormous scandal, these award shows will continue to live on because they are the kind of things that the networks can program around and they require you to watch live in order to be up to date. Even if the Oscars are only as important as the Golden Globes were, so what? It’s not as if this is a body which has done a particularly good job of awarding their membership on any reasonable standard over the past…ninety-some years. I enjoy the Oscars, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning who won what, but I can’t say that I feel any kind of devotion to the ceremony or the awards body. I sort of don’t know why you would? I think stanning for the Oscars means you have to believe, in some way, that these people get it right pretty often. I don’t think that’s something easy to believe, which we’ll get to later on.

5.3 / The lamentations about the Oscars and their bad telecast numbers, especially compared to what the ratings were like during the ’90s, strike me as so strange that they’re almost in bad faith. Fennessey absolutely knows that ratings for everything but football are tanking, because he’s said so multiple times on The Big Picture. But if you have that context, I don’t understand how you can think that the Oscars (or the Grammys) are going to rebound to get the kind of ratings to match, say, the AFC title game or the National Championship in FBS. All the numbers are down across the board, and I think you just have to accept that in a world with cord-cutting, torrents, niche subcultures, Netflix, etc., that you’re not going to get a giant audience. I think there is a lot of room to improve the Oscars as a television program. I think they could stand to cut a number of awards (anything with “short” in the name should be in trouble), that the original song performances are a plague. Some of the more memorable Oscars moments that have nothing to do with awards from recent years—Eminem popping up to do “Lose Yourself,” Glenn Close doing the Butt—simply didn’t add anything to what viewers wanted to see. There’s no reason that they couldn’t change venues or styles from year to year; there was a freshness to seeing the nominees at tables in a new setting. There’s plenty of room to change the Oscars themselves and see if the programming can be more interesting or more unusual from year to year. But if you think people just want to find out who wins the awards, all they have to do is check Twitter or IMDb once every twenty minutes while they watch Seinfeld on Netflix. No Way Home can’t change the fact that Twitter exists.

5.4 / This is really what my counterargument boils down to: what do they think is going to happen next year? If No Way Home wins next year, will the fanboys and normies all come flocking back to the Oscars to see if Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness can follow up the feat? Will they get mad if Black Panther 2 or Thor 4 isn’t nominated alongside it and then decry the Oscars for not seeing the obvious artistic value of Thor: Love and Thunder? No one ever seems to answer this question, because the point is not really about No Way Home. This is an argument which is basically about the Oscars being out of touch, which, again, has basically always been true.

Interestingly, no one ever seems to complain about the Moonlight Best Picture win as an example of the Oscars being out of touch. Its biggest box office weekend came after it won Best Picture; it made $2.3 million. The only movies that won Best Picture that made less money are The Hurt Locker and Nomadland, which of course came out in a covid year. Yet people universally praise the Moonlight victory as a case of the Academy “getting it right.” Or go back to the Hurt Locker win, where I think most critics were pulling for the low-grossing film over the highest-grossing film; how times change! In any event, one nomination in one year is not going to right the ship, and all you have to do to know that’s true is see how the Black Panther Oscars didn’t save the telecast numbers.

You see this one on both sides of the argument for sure. The Academy Awards are given out by a relatively homogenous group of film industry members and insiders. It isn’t worth it to try to make their tastes, for that’s what the Oscars are, try to fit the tastes of some imagined moviegoing public. Yet over and over again you’ll see stuff like “People loved No Way Home, it should be nominated!” or “No Way Home saved theaters, it should be nominated!” or “People will care more about the Oscars if No Way Home is nominated, it should be nominated!” This is the deal we make. The people in the Academy vote the way they want to vote, and in return we get to yell at them for getting it “wrong.” This proposition is perhaps the most wrongheaded of any of the ones I’ve seen, so naturally I’m going to say less about it.

Proposition #7 / The Spider-Man: No Way Home Oscar campaign is strangely concerned with what other films have ever been awarded Oscars, as well as concerned with stuff like “themes.”

I could have chosen any of a million and one articles to make this point, so I feel a little bad specifically quoting Don Kaye of Den of Geek here, but:

“A young man’s heroic actions and resultant celebrity status bring unwanted consequences for the lives of the people he loves the most. But his efforts to change that only result in a dangerous, unstable situation that may threaten them all. With the help of two strangers with whom he shares more than he cares to admit, he realizes that only a supreme personal sacrifice may alter the course of events.”

Sounds like a hell of a story, huh? Perhaps a psychological thriller, a wartime melodrama, or even a tragic medical drama. Something with urgency, strong themes of friendship, loyalty, and responsibility, and perhaps an emotional climax that will send audiences out of the theater both inspired and saddened. In other words, the kind of movie that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has often showered with Oscars in the past.

I mean, come on, are we supposed to say things are Oscar-worthy based on their summaries now?

The history of the Oscars is also the history of movies which seem like they should have come up during the show and which never actually got nominated. This is the premise of This Had Oscar Buzz, a podcast which is devoted to getting into movies which, based on their “summaries” or “themes,” let alone their position in the studio or box office hierarchy, seemed like they might be headed for Oscar glory. Just in their last twenty episodes, there are films which are enormous artistic successes, like The House of Mirth, or surprisingly effective as feelgood stories (October Sky) or romances (Secretary). You can also find movies which are just total crap, like Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria or Elizabethtown. But just because a movie has the right pedigree doesn’t mean it’s owed a spot, obviously. Why this logic has been popping its ugly Oscarbait head for No Way Home comes down, simply, to a preference to what’s popular over what’s beige.

What really grinds my gears in this type of argument is not the people like Kaye, who genuinely think that No Way Home should get Oscar recognition on multiple fronts (but doesn’t deserve recognition for director Jon Watts), but people who make the argument that because worse movies than No Way Home have gotten Oscar nominations and wins, then the horse is already out of the barn. This is the same kind of logic one hears about why we shouldn’t forgive student loans (“Why should someone else have their loans forgiven when mine weren’t?”), and it’s equally fallacious. If that’s the case, then we had permission to start giving outright bad movies Best Picture back in 1928 when The Broadway Melody won, and it’s basically never mattered if the Oscars do a good job at choosing good accomplishments to reward. Green Book is not a good movie, but while I’d put it in the bottom half of all Best Picture winners, there are at least twenty-five winners I’d say are just worse movies: not just the aforementioned Broadway Melody, but Crash, The Artist, Argo, Cimarron, Driving Miss Daisy, Going My Way…and that’s just Best Picture winners! We should aspire to better winners rather than saying that we’ve broken that lowest common denominator seal and now it no longer matters what happens.

Proposition #8 / The Spider-Man: No Way Home Oscar campaign can only exist because the Oscars are facing a legitimacy crisis based on the decisions its membership has made since the turn of the century.

The fairest thing you can say is that the Academy is not entirely at fault for its legitimacy crisis, because one of the most important developments in America in the last quarter-century is the growing legitimacy crisis of most of its political and cultural institutions. You can name your favorite examples, but I think all of us can think of at least one institution that seems to have less cachet than it used to. AMPAS is no different. The Dark Knight snub stands out, but what might actually make it stand out even more is the fact that the Academy immediately changed the number of nominees for Best Picture and then membership continued to fill those nominees with the same kind of middlebrow dramas that typically were nominated for the award. At the last five ceremonies, here’s what happened at or around the Best Picture presentation.

  • 89th Academy Awards: “There’s a mistake. Moonlight – you guys won Best Picture.”
  • 90th Academy Awards: No controversy to speak of, really, although I think The Shape of Water is closer to Darkest Hour than Call Me by Your Name in terms of movies likely to be remembered.
  • 91st Academy Awards: No controversy to speak of, although Green Book winning…what a choice. The optics of Spike Lee losing to Driving Miss Daisy again were so bad.
  • 92nd Academy Awards: The lights and curtains go down on the Parasite crew, leading to the audience shouting UP! UP! to make the ceremony go on for them.
  • 93rd Academy Awards: Best Picture is presented early in an attempt to end the show on an emotional moment for presumed Best Actor winner Chadwick Boseman, but when Best Actor went to Anthony Hopkins (who was asleep on a different continent), the ceremony just…ended.

People are always going to argue about who should win or should be nominated, who was snubbed and who was justly rewarded. The Oscars thrive on this drama, and so too does an ecosystem of commensalistic (guilty) to outright parasitic (what’s up, Sasha Stone) content farmers who talk about them. But what we’re looking at here is an organization which just doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. The people who make the show keep screwing up. The people who vote on the awards just had the worst decade of choices for Best Picture since the 1930s. Generally speaking, you can either choose the best movies regardless of how well they do at the box office, or you can choose movies that earn a bunch of money and get good reviews and call that a happy medium. The former example is something like picking All the King’s Men in 1949 or No Country for Old Men in 2007; the latter is choosing Rain Man for 1988 or My Fair Lady for 1964. But the Oscars of the past ten years, reticent to award the sequels which dominate the box office and leery as ever of real arthouse releases, have chosen a middle ground which no one ever seems to enjoy.

I made a comparison. In the first column, the film that I think would have functioned as an appropriately arty movie to win Best Picture so that people don’t say “They gave the Oscar to that?” I’m not even putting what would have been my preference, necessarily, so much as I’m choosing something I think history would at least not grimace at. On the other side I’ve put the actual Best Picture winner.

I don’t think the Oscars need to be right all the time. People forget what won Best Picture or who won Best Actress or who was nominated for Best Editing. It’s not that big a deal. Where you run into trouble are those scenarios where a generationally great movie loses Best Picture, or if you have a beloved figure who never wins a competitive Oscar. It’s hard to control whether Alfred Hitchcock or Cary Grant go winless in their careers, and it’s hard to control whether How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane. But it’s what people remember, just as they remember that 2001 lost to Oliver!. People will even get forgetful about the quality of one movie in order to disparage a seemingly unjust victory. Dances with Wolves and Shakespeare in Love aren’t half bad, but people will get actively mean about them because they beat out favorites like Goodfellas and Saving Private Ryan. All this is to say that if the Oscars were picking better winners at the end of the night, ones that were more defensibly artistic or ones that were bigger box office smashes, I don’t think this situation could have come about.

I’ll grant that this is a fairly close perspective to the one that so cheesed me off in Proposition 5. Like Fennessey and Gleiberman, I think the Oscars are pretty far from thriving, and like them I think some change is in order to keep the ceremony feeling relevant in what remains of our once-proud monoculture. Where I differ is that I think the Oscars are more threatened than endangered, let alone critically so. I’d love it if the Oscars would stop picking mediocre movies for their top prizes. I wish they’d pick an interesting acting performance more than once a year. I wish they could pick a screenplay writer that does more than pop quips, or an editor who does more than cut like Godard on a methamphetamine IV. I think these people owe it to themselves to choose better than they do, but I don’t believe they’re beholden to an audience to make those choices, let alone start scheming as some 1,000-person strong coterie about what will get them the highest Nielsen rating.

Proposition #9 / The Spider-Man: No Way Home Oscar campaign is meaningful because it might have some impact on future moviegoers and movie historians, which is to say the Oscars are similarly meaningful.

There are a lot of people who say, and rightly, that the Oscars don’t really mean anything. Crowning winners for production design or cinematography or whatever doesn’t actually make those movies the best ones of the year in those categories, which is something I think all of us know even if it makes us irrationally mad to think about unjust victories. What I think is wrongheaded about this point of view—one which I find most often from people who keep up with Film Comment and not with r/movies—is that the Oscars make up an accessible starting point for people who are trying to learn about movie history on their own. This is basically where it started for me. The Oscars weren’t the only thing I used, but I was looking up Oscars trivia before I took that one film class I got to take in college, before I heard of the Sight and Sound decennial poll, before I even learned enough history to find out that The Seventh Seal and Metropolis existed. They are the most immediate indicator of quality that your average autodidact is going to have in this country, and that’s why they matter.

I’ve written this about the Oscars before, but their power is that they get to decide what is easiest for the future to remember. It Happened One Night is the example I always come back to. Why is that so often held up as one of the best examples of the screwball comedy? Why is it the film that people just learning about Claudette Colbert so often go to? If I wanted someone to know about screwball comedy and Claudette Colbert, I’d point them to Ernst Lubitsch’s meringue, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, or Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, which is ten times the movie It Happened One Night is. But we go back to It Happened One Night because it won the Big Five, and those two other Colbert films got zero Oscar nominations. If you’re the person who comes to one of those before It Happened One Night by chance, or someone whose professor screened one of those and not It Happened One Night, that’s luck. The Oscars shape our understanding of the movie year, especially once those movie years fall out of memory. When Al Pacino dies, future moviegoers looking to find out more about his career are going to actively seek out Scent of a Woman before they seek him out in Heat or The Insider or Carlito’s Way. He won his Oscar for Scent of a Woman and wasn’t nominated for those others. If Jimmy Stewart had been nominated for his collaborations with Anthony Mann instead of winning for The Philadelphia Story, then I would have probably tried to see The Naked Spur first. If Jodie Foster had won Best Actress for her work in Maverick and not for The Accused, I probably would have gone out of my way to see Maverick. You can do this on and on, and it’s why the No Way Home campaign really struck a chord in me when I first heard about it. The No Way Home team may be looking for validation now more than anything else, but what they are trying to buy is the narrative people will understand in the future about what movies were important, great, or both in 2021.

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