In the promotional commercial for the Golden Globes, the ultimate punchline delivered was: “if we play our cards right, this will be the last awards show.” Their point was facetious of course, they, Poehler and Fey, are among the finest in the hosting game. Very slightly edgy, but never misunderstood — the ultimate combination for a moderately reflexive moment. Awards allow for a group of writers, actors, or some other interested audience, to offer some kind feedback about what is good, and what is not as good. But what do awards shows really do, and why would we keep having them?
Among the stranger ideas that students encounter in New Media 101 (or whatever it is called at your local state institution) is derived from Richard Caves classic Creative Industries: nobody knows what will actually sell. Of course there are some media products that, by virtue of their absolute simplicity will always sell. These for the most part are uninteresting, there will be a market for pictures of attractive people that are intended to stimulate, the news, sports, and weather will also have some cache. What is harder to model are dramatic and comedic products. You should check out his literature review for the extreme details, but basically no one has done a particularly good job of knowing which programs will actually hit.
When combined with the gross psychology of debt (almost all media production is done without the cash in hand) the question of most media production becomes: how do we manage the terror of making a product where we have no idea if it will sell? In their introductory textbook in the area, Havens and Lotz point out that this is where awards shows and the a-list come in. In those spaces not entirely governed by direct returns, we can say that A is better than B. More broadly, this is a powerful example of Howard Becker’s Art Worlds. In this context the community of people involved in the awards show genre function as a public with a critical politics of visibility. Among high end financiers then, the best picture award provides an accolade that greatly exceeds the instrumental value of making the film (you could just invest in $GME on the right day). Prestige pictures are also not particularly big money makers, after all they don’t feature Chris Evans or and of the other Avengers set. Awards become a way to get people to make movies.
On the other side, awards shape discourses around the industry, which can help direct financing and talent. Awards can increase access to viable pay checks and create more opportunities. This is why efforts to democratize awards processes are so critical — they are among the closest things we have to a steering wheel for the creative industries. Given the psychological dynamics of debt and the ways that awards shows function, abandoning them is not a viable idea.
The Future of Creative Publics
Awards shows may become more important as time goes on. In the time period when mid-budget films were a thing and the Paramount Degrees saw to it that there was a functioning film industry where audiences might effectively vote with their feet by seeing films. Adventurous theater operators could then offer some independent fare on their many screens and if things went really well, could create a price signal in the market that would signal that something new and interesting was afoot. Cinematic publics could communicate about the films that had an impact and recruit others to see them. Television in the ratings era had similar dynamics.
With the end of the decrees and the pandemic, the old world of movies is rapidly ending. By the time something like the before times resume it is likely that your town will have a few theaters, one specific for each conglomerate. Why would Disney ever show non-Disney films at their theater? Of course, these are the exciting “new” but really old business models that the Justice department thought were so important to bring to you in 2020.
Streaming services have opaque ratings and even more bizarre organizational imperatives. Cost-cutting is essential and the only programs that remain are not necessarily those that draw eyeballs, but those that drive subscription decisions. In a world where the dynamics of vertical integration are baked in from the beginning, we can notice that there really is no hope that a signal for independent fare would be received. After all, there is no open market for programming on the streaming platforms. You can’t take Netflix product to Paramount+.
In a world where money and observation yield less useful information than ever the publics that form around media and awards have powerful market shaping effects. What we need is more criticism, more awards, more democratization (increasing diversity is literally everything), and most of all more attention for all the content that may be in circulation. The forces that are concentrating our media industries are terrified, they are afraid of losing money and power. I hope we see Fey and Poehler hosting interesting awards shows, that put new texts into circulation for years to come. Also, they are funny.