Who Defines Film Culture: The Oscars or the MTV Movie Awards?

Host Conan O'Brien closes the show after Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson accepted the award for Best Movie of the Year for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards in Los AngelesThe burden of guidance is so often placed upon the shoulders of the most youthful generation. After all, they are the future.

But, they’re also the first group we criticize when examining the state of things, and the last we feel safe putting our faith in. According to the old and wise, they’re either setting sail in the wrong direction or dragging the vessel down; the youth of the nation can’t catch a break.

And so enters MTV, which has served as perhaps the most reflective mirror of youth culture for over four decades. What began as an outlet for the naturally-countercultural voice of the young has become a mold that defines the youth mentality instead of complimenting and accenting its evolution. Creativity and music videos gave way to reality television and cheap trash, which only makes sense; the defining media source for the culture of youth must mimic the devolution of the younger generation from a pre-adult, naïve mass into a noisy, pots-and-pans banger of endlessly empty product and consumption. Regardless of the network’s level of quality, it’s timelessly synonymous with the demographic that anchors itself at the forefront of popular culture.

When MTV first began airing its now-annual Movie Awards in 1992, they offered an alternative to the adult-oriented culture of the Oscars. The 1990s saw a resurgence of the adult film, what with the likes of Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction and The Piano washing the bad taste of Chariots of Fire and Rocky out of the public’s mouth. Not since the 1970s had the film industry seen such a desire to release and market films to the older crowd. The public was hungry for maturity once again, so it only makes sense that MTV would step in with a youth-fueled alternative to the stuffy, graying status quo.

The MTV Movie Awards offered a timely chance for the general crowd-pleasers to find their stride and spotlight where the Oscars offered no shelter. The Oscars have always been more inclined to recognize adult-oriented fare,  and the MTV Movie Awards have always been there to crown things like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Wedding Crashers, or Napoleon Dynamite as the best film of the year.

The type of voter choosing the respective winners has always defined the gap between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards. The Academy is comprised predominantly of older white men who are professionals in the field, while the general public chooses the recipients of the MTV Movie Awards. Perhaps it’s here that lies the key to understanding the recent melding of the adult niche and popular appeal, only it’s not the MTV Movie Awards that are changing.

As a matter of fact, it’s the Academy that’s come to conform to the standards of the general public.

The MTV Movie Awards have very little changed their format over the years. There’s a Best Film category that shows little to no discrimination against any particular genre (films from The Matrix, Scream and The Ring to There’s Something About Mary, Bridesmaids, and JFK have each found nominations and/or wins here), whereas the Academy generally sticks to its dramatic guns when it comes to Best Picture. What does this tell us about the Oscars’ standing in American culture? That the Academy is often out of touch with popular mainstream culture—that is until you get to 2009, when the decision was made to expand the Best Picture category from five nominees to a maximum of ten. Five more slots meant five more chances for something like Avatar—2009’s James Cameron blockbuster—to partake in a race it normally would have only entered in the technical categories, as did MTV Best Pictures like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Matrix.

Generally, the MTV Movie Awards’ Best Picture category shares around 1-3 nominees with the Oscar Best Picture race, and often the MTV Movie Award winner isn’t even nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture (nor are the other nominees) and vice-versa. On three occasions a film has won top honors at both ceremonies in the same year. It began in 1997 with James Cameron’s Titanic, followed by Ridley Scott’s 2000 smash Gladiator, and then again with Peter Jackson’s 2003 epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Each of these films had an immense budget and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars internationally. They were perfect examples of when spectacle of screen and gross become far too big to ignore. The tide of Oscar voting was shifting to favor the crowd-pleaser over the artist.

mtv-movie-awardsThe rise of the blockbuster indicated a key turning point in the film industry; the disappearance of the adult-oriented film in favor of a big-budget spectacle. The blockbuster became par for the course instead of a singular event that came two or three times a year. The melding of the popular moneymakers with traditional Academy fare became ever more apparent when the Oscars—declining in viewership over the years—saw more and more big-budget films that would have normally only found traction with the MTV Movie Awards (District 9, The Blind Side, Avatar) began creeping into the Best Picture race.

The Oscars began their quest for all-inclusivity, which ultimately resulted in easy-to-swallow, non-polarizing, universal films like The Artist, Argo, and The King’s Speech to take Best Picture.

The streamlining of film culture into an amalgam of crowd-pleasers that resonate with adults and youth alike led to the increasing relevance of the MTV Movie Awards, which were once considered a useless appendage as a celebration of everything that was already gratuitous about Hollywood; cheap laughs, violence, spectacle, big stars, hot sex, and superficiality (what else can you expect from an awards show that contains a “Best Shirtless Performance” category?). With the rise of the $100-million grosser as the studio norm and the Oscars’ increasing pandering to a more generalized audience, the MTV Movie Awards complimented the industry’s shift toward flashiness over sophistication without evolving at all.

The MTV Movie Awards remain the one facet of the network that inserts its audience into mainstream culture instead of shaping their tastes for them; MTV executives seem to nominate films and performers that the target demographic has responded to in other ways (whether it be big box-office or social media interactions), and then lets the public vote to determine the winners. The MTV Movie Awards largely reflect the true general consensus of the average American moviegoer, where the Oscars now find themselves as the potential outcast caught between championing the adult film and appealing to the masses by recognizing popular films and performers.

It used to be that the rift between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards represented the split tastes of the American public. Today, the tentpoles that define summer and the crowd-pleasers that permeate the Oscar race often share recognition at both awards shows. There’s no need for the MTV Movie Awards to champion films that wouldn’t have a shot in the Oscar race; now there’s more room for everyone everywhere, and the culture at large is far more inclined to watch and tweet about three hours of bubblegum stars winning bubblegum awards at a bubblegum awards show that offers the same films up for grabs as the much-stuffier Oscar race.

Even recently, the Oscars are still a place where the adult film can flourish. Challenging pieces like Amour, The Tree of Life, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have proven that the Academy’s taste has not completely gone soft—and that this affinity can even propel little-seen, mature films to actually win Best Picture, like 2009’s The Hurt Locker. The problem is that the studio-shaped landscape is shifting so greatly that space for these films to grow and find an audience is shrinking by the day to the point where the Oscars are becoming the only place for films like this to succeed. For every Grand Budapest Hotel we get six of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though The Academy is likely to recognize both in categories with varying levels of esteem attached to them.

So, then, the MTV Movie Awards have separated themselves from the serious-minded awards groups without doing a single thing different over the course of their 22 years. They’ve become reflective of why our culture both works (the voice of the people, what with social media, has never been stronger) and what’s wrong with it (taste is far too often defined by the powers at large pushing dreck like superhero movies and big-budget blockbusters on a weekly basis so that they’re no longer event pictures but the standard). The MTV Movie Awards reflect the reality of our star-obsessed, instant-gratification culture far better than the Oscars do, and that’s evident by the way the Oscars have shifted their own categorical structuring since 2009 to include a wider range of films. The public demands more inclusivity as their wallets get bigger and their dollars more attracted to larger spectacles.

The people who watch the MTV Movie Awards are probably not the same ones who highly regard film awards in general. They’re the same people shelling out dollar after dollar to see blockbuster after blockbuster in quick succession; the audiences might be throwing their money at the same thing over and over, but it seems that MTV and their target demographic know which way to point the sails.

Their most recent Best Film winner (Catching Fire) also happens to be the top-grossing domestic film of the year, so it’s about time we start paying attention; they seem to know where the ships are docking.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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