First Oscar Ceremony, 1929
Maybe this is just my initial reaction, but watching the Oscars last night, I felt like Hollywood had Captain Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia at the helm as it sailed a little too close to Isola del Giglio. Feel a shudder and hear the crunching of steel as the lights flicker off. Your response? Have another glass of wine, go into denial, and don’t worry about the gaping hole in the bottom of the hull.
How many times did we have to hear how fun it is the watch movies on the big screen, in a theater with others? The unspoken alternative – watching at home or through digital downloads on portable devices – was practically seeping through the walls like the Tyrrhenian Sea pouring in that ill-fated ship off the coast of Tuscany.
The pull of nostalgia. This was a celebration of the old, of movie-going in the classic sense. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with this and it remains fun to go out for the night (especially in a city like New York) and see a film with a large audience. And the Oscars have always been a celebration of movie-making, even more fitting in a year that saw the production of a near silent film and another that honored creativity at the birth of the art form. But there was a remarkable undercurrent here – the scenes all taken from classic films, and there were “extras” walking down the aisles in classic garb and handing out popcorn. You almost expected the men to light up cigars and put on top hats.
But change was in the air, even on the facade of the building itself. Even the theater’s name has changed: no longer the Kodak Theater in light of the photography company’s financial troubles, it’s now called the Hollywood and highland Center (Kodak was paying 4 million a year for naming rights). Billy Crystal got some of his biggest laughs of the evening when he said, “We’re here at the beautiful Chapter 11 Theater,” and later referred to it as the “Your Name Here Theater.” And since the Academy did not renew its agreement for next year, it’s unclear where the Oscars will be held. Somewhere, no doubt, but it won’t be associated with the film-maker.
As Variety noted, Kodak’s press release noting that 7 of the 9 nominated films were shot on Kodak film almost sounded “a little wistful and sad, particularly when it’s titled “‘Kodak Media Notes — 84th Annual Academy Awards.’” Yes, Kodak’ connection has been reduced to nothing more than a “media note” and one that may soon be only a historical note as movie-making shifts to digital format. As David Hancock noted:
At their peak, motion pictures accounted for more than 12 billion feet of film processing each year, enough to reach the moon and back five times, according to IHS. This year, IHS predicts film processing will shrink to about 4 billion feet as an increasing number of theaters receive their “films” by satellite or via hard drives delivered by courier.
But more serious problems loom outside the projection booth: movie attendance in 2011 was the lowest it’s been in 16 years and the decline shows no sign of abating. Indeed, “Hugo”, “The Artist”, “The Help”, are all good films; it’s not the quality so much as a shift in our culture. At one time, the film industry had a near monopoly on the moving image. We went to see movies and even the news (visually), as the only other sources were the printed (newspapers) and spoken (radio) word. Now, visual media is everywhere and if a film is not entirely compelling, it’s easy for an audience to wait for a version in another format a few months down the road. I hear the water rushing in.
None of this means Hollywood is dead any more than the music industry died from the rise of the digital revolution. But it does mean that the ground is shifting and another industry – this one deeply tied to our culture – is undergoing disruptive change. They’ll still make their money, but it’s not going to come from railroading anti-piracy legislation (SOPA) through Congress and getting people to buy tickets and popcorn. No the forces are more fundamental than digital downloads legal or otherwise.
But at the moment, all seems well on the bridge of the S.S. Hollywood despite the gaping hole in the bottom. Party on while you can, but you sailed a little too close to the Isola del Change (isolo di cambiamento, if you like) and if you continue with business as usual, soon the ship will be listing on its side.
A small historical note: Did you know where the practice of the sealed envelopes for the awards comes from? During the first awards ceremony in 1929, the winners had been announced three months in advance. For the next ten years, winners names were kept secret but released to newspapers in advance:
This policy continued until 1940 when, much to the Academy’s consternation, the Los Angeles Times broke the embargo and published the names of the winners in its evening edition – which was readily available to guests arriving for the ceremony. That prompted the Academy in 1941 to adopt the sealed-envelope system still in use today. (The Academy website)
Even traditional media could be disruptive in its day. Such a hacker mentality, that LA Times.