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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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’12 Years a Slave’ Leads Spirit Award Nominations

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The gates are open, and the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations are here. With only a few short weeks to go until we’re in the thick of Oscar season, who reaps the real benefits of a nomination here?

It comes as no surprise that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave finds its official footings on the Best Picture race here. It leads the pack of Spirit nominations with seven nominations in major categories, including Best Feature, Best Actor, and both Supporting categories. While I find it troubling that films which exceed the Spirit Awards’ “limit” of the $20 million range can still be considered contenders in this race (Silver Linings Playbook did this last year), McQueen’s film is an artistic challenge to traditional historical dramas. The firmness of this film’s grasp over what could be a monumental year for the AMPAS (first female black president, potentially the first black filmmaker to win Best Director) is tightening by the day, and we’re on the brink of having a potentially unstoppable film sweep the rest of the season.

The Coen brothers also find themselves sitting pretty with a multitude of nominations for Inside Llewyn Davis. They are visionaries in the field of independent filmmaking, and can continue to be such thanks to their tried and true ability to turn a profit on their films. There seems to be a slight lack of confidence backing Inside Llewyn Davis on the part of the Oscar pundits, however, though when I feel myself doubting the film’s ability to score with the Academy, I remind myself that both True Grit and A Serious Man (a film that had considerably less buzz behind it going into the Oscar race than Inside Llewyn Davis does) were able to rack up major nominations, and my confidence is restored.

A justifiable, respectable campaign can now be mounted by the team behind Short Term 12, a film that was on the tip of awards season’s tongue but wasn’t a part of a fully-formed sentence until now. The film’s most promising potential for Oscar glory lies within its star, Brie Larson, as her name appears on Oscar pundit shortlists as far back as August and September.

With SAG ballots in the mail and the Spirit Award nominations being the only major precursor to have announced nods so far, Larson’s crawl to the Best Actress category is pacing nicely. Michael B. Jordan’s forgotten path to the Oscars seems somewhat rekindled here, though the recognition for Fruitvale Station was altogether expected at the Spirits. It’s never a bad idea to have your name appear in every trade paper during an awards campaign.

There’s a part of me that believes the Spirit push for Frances Ha will help find a home for the film on Academy ballots, though I’m completely baffled by the lack of love for the film outside of the Best Feature category. Greta Gerwig—the film’s driving force—performs fantastically in front of the camera as well as on the page (she co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach). Her drive and charisma coursing through the film’s veins embodies the passionate workmanship we’ve come to associate with Independent cinema, and it’s a shame that her efforts weren’t recognized by an organization priding itself on the “spirit” of DIY moviemaking.

Both All Is Lost and Nebraska gain steam thanks to multiple Spirit nominations, though I believe both already have homes within several key Oscar categories. If anything, the push for Bruce Dern’s nomination in the Best Actor category remains on-track versus getting any significant push, and the same can be said for Redford. The only major Best Actor player yet to be seen by American audiences is Leonardo DiCaprio and his work in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The full list of nominees:

Best Feature:

Frances Ha
Nebraska
All Is Lost
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director:

Shane Carruth – Upstream Color
J.C. Chandor – All Is Lost
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Jeff Nichols – Mud
Alexander Payne – Nebraska

Best First Feature:

Concussion
Blue Caprice
Fruitvale Station
Una Noche
Wadja

Best Lead Male:

Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford – All Is Lost

Best Lead Female:

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Gaby Hoffman – Crystal Fairy
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Shailene Woodley – The Spectacular Now

Best Supporting Female:

Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Melonie Diaz – Fruitvale Station
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Yolanda Ross – Go For Sisters
June Squibb – Nebraska

Best Supporting Male:

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Keith Stanfield – Short Term 12
Will Forte – Nebraska
James Gandolfini – Enough Said

Best Screenplay:

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater – Before Midnight
Nicole Holofcener – Enough Said
Scott Neustadter Michael H. Weber  – The Spectacular Now
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave

Best International Film:

Blue is the Warmest Color
A Touch of Sin
Gloria
The Great Beauty
The Hunt

Best First Screenplay:

Lake Bell – In a World
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Don Jon
Bob Nelson – Nebraska
Jill Soloway – Afternoon Delight
Michael Starrbury – The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete