The dream factory: Where the winners take all

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The Independent Culture
The Hollywood prize-giving season got off to the most fittingly absurd of starts last week with an event called "The People's Choice". A clutch of stars got togged up in their finest and traipsed off to an auditorium in Pasadena, where they were expected to sound genuinely enthused about being named the year's best in - of all things - a Gallup opinion poll.

Before taking their seats at the start of the ceremony, each of them was taken aside to address the television cameras and asked to say a few words.

With impeccable manners but scarcely concealed insincerity, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and a handful of others intoned how the People's Choice was particularly important to them because it was the opinion of the fans, the real people out there who make their jobs worth every second of the effort and the dedication that they put into it.

"Pay attention to who's here," the television announcer said, in a floundering effort to create some suspense, "because there's a good chance that if they are in the audience they already know they are winners!"

Sure enough, Tom Hanks was named favourite actor of 1998, and Sandra Bullock favourite actress. Titanic was named favourite movie - a bit of a cheat, since technically the film came out in 1997, but the Gallup respondents probably didn't know that and, anyway, quite a few would have seen it in the wake of its Oscar clean-sweep, the climax of last year's prize- giving season, last March.

The whole spectacle scarcely rose above the level of farce, and wouldn't have been noticeable at all were it not for the fact that it was broadcast on network television. For most of their 25-year history, the People's Choice awards have passed like an insignificant cloud in the clear winter skies of California, but thanks to CBS, E! television, Entertainment Weekly and the rest of the Hollywood publicity machine they are being turned, however ludicrously, into a media Event. (Variety even reported that the ratings were up a striking 8 per cent on last year).

There is, of course, much more to come. Later this month are Golden Globes, the annual orgy of self-congratulation organised by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a body notorious for its lack of bona fide journalists and excess of industry junkets. Not so long ago the Golden Globes were granted little more than a cursory glance by the mainstream media, but they have now climbed so high in the pantheon of prize-giving that the attention accorded them is second only to the Oscars.

And even the Oscars have surpassed themselves. The media hype is no longer content with the gala evening itself, but focuses on every step of the way to Academy Award nirvana, from the nominations shortlist to the nominations themselves to the publicity campaigns of the studios vying to race their particular horse past the finishing post.

As the movie business becomes ever more merchandised, the whole point of awards ceremonies - to commend exceptional feats of film-making - is being lost in a tide of media frenzy.

An event like the People's Choice merely celebrates celebrity itself, and as such is little more than a scheme to sell advertising space on television. The TV cameras clamour for the stars, and the stars are so beholden to the media publicity machine that they don't dare not turn up for fear of looking ungrateful.

There are more serious appraisals of the film industry going on. The New York critics and the Los Angeles critics recently announced their choices for the best work of 1998, and individual newspapers and magazines filled the Holiday Season lull with lengthy individual appraisals by their own critics.

But even these more thoughtful reflections are immediately transformed into marketing fodder. Is there any hope of reviving Babe: Pig in the City at the box-office? Stick the list of publications who put it in their Top Ten of 1998 in the newspaper adverts! Does Shakespeare in Love stand a chance against Saving Private Ryan at the Oscars? Promote its Top-Ten credentials like crazy in the trade papers, and maybe the Academy will notice!

Amid the frenzy, the key question never gets asked: whether the film output of 1998 was really worthy all this prize-giving attention.

Self-congratulation is all very well, but does it serve any purpose other than giving the entertainment media something to fill their space with?

Wipe away the artificial glamour and what you are left with is little more than a corporate annual report: whether this year was better or worse than last year, which assets performed most strongly and which show most promise for the future.

Corporate accounting is the heart and soul of the awards season, a truth that the media buzz only serves to obscure. It may seem to be about talent, folks, but in fact it's all about money.

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