The day after watching 12 Years a Slave win Best Picture at the 86th Academy Awards, I sat down to watch the season finale of True Detective. The show had unfortunately aired against the Oscars, and I made the choice to watch some solid movies be declared “the best” in one category or another. The irony of it all: The real “best” everything was airing on HBO that night.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve been talking about how television is better than film for years now. It’s something that started with The Sopranos and The Wire going on right up until Breaking Bad, Mad Men and True Detective. The storytelling is richer on TV these days and the productions more cinematic. Even the pop programs like Scandal, Arrow and Vampire Diaries are more entertaining than any comparable film. Yet the Oscars are still considered the biggest awards show of the year.
After what was one of the most boring, predictable and uneventful Oscar ceremonies in recent years, you have to wonder: How much longer can Oscar reign supreme when TV is more cinematic than the movies?
Emmy has long been considered the lesser award in Hollywood. Even Oscar host Ellen joked about it when she was slumming it as Emmy host, saying, “But seriously, I think overall in the scheme of things winning an Emmy is not important. Let’s get our priorities straight. I think we all know what’s really important in life – winning an Oscar.”
But these days, Oscar-winning directors and actors are flocking to television for unprecedented creative freedom, driven by the competitive landscape of pay, premium and internet television. What’s more important, though, is that like cinema in the 70s, television today is at a rare point where the art is also popular.
Oscar hasn’t seen a period like that since the indie era in the late 80s and early 90s. And even during that period, it seemed afraid to award even popular masterworks. Compare that to the late 60s and early 70s when Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection and The Godfather were the Best Picture winners.
Today, Mad Men, Homeland and Breaking Bad are actually able to win the top prize at the Emmys. And while I’m sure Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan would love to have an Oscar, their respective wins for Best Drama Series during TV most artistically interesting time are arguably more impressive than any win that Gravity or 12 Years a Slave had this year.
If long-form storytelling like the programming we have now continues to be the dominant medium for cinematic arts, you have to assume an Emmy will have more cache than an Oscar someday.
The Long and Short of It
Make no mistake: TV isn’t just part of the cinematic landscape; it’s invading cinemas. Most recently at SXSW 2014, the film section had a specific audience award dedicate to episodics. And the film title design competition, both juried and audience, was won by a television show (True Detective). Austin, home of SXSW, also has big screen TV nights at the Alamo Drafthouse and the ATX Television Festival, which screen programs in movie houses.
I’m sure we’ll start to see television elbow its way into film’s territory more and more in years to come if the establishment lets it. So rather than separating film and television, both visual storytelling media, maybe it’s time to start talking in terms like short-form, feature-length and long-form cinema.
The walls that used to separate film and television have certainly deteriorated. You can watch film epics like Return of the King on your phone and see Game of Thrones on the big screen depending on where you live.
But the biggest shift is where the quality cinema is being premiered. Director David Lynch most recently underscored this change when he said “It seems like the art-house has gone to cable.” If cable is where art-house has gone, an Emmy win surely has more credibility that the conservative, political Academy Awards.
Could Emmy and Oscar Merge?
If Emmy is celebrating cinema better than Oscar, then doesn’t it stand to reason that the two should just become one? It wouldn’t be the first time something drastic like this has happened. Emmy, once closed to cable television shows, pretty much absorbed the CableACE Awards. Yet, the lines we draw between television and film seem to keep Emmy and Oscar permanently separated. With the convergence of TV and film, is there really a reason for it?
The Golden Globes certainly don’t think so. And while TV and film aren’t in direct competition, they are in the same building. Like the awards for shorts and features, Oscar could simply absorb the long-form programming that we currently call television.
It’s true, giving awards to art makes little sense, but these industry awards make stars overnight. As Jamie Foxx described this year in the Oscar pre-show, an Academy Award win or nomination gives industry folks a chance to rub elbows with people he never would have otherwise. The awards have little to do with art, and everything to do with business.
That’s where the problem may lie. TV and film are still very different businesses right now. Could Emmy and Oscar merge someday? Yes, maybe even in my lifetime. Nothing is permanent. It’s the current distribution models, however, that really complicate matters.
All models aside, 12 Years a Slave isn’t anywhere as good as True Detective. Gravity doesn’t hold a candle to Breaking Bad. Both shows I’d much rather watch in a theater full of people than I would those movies. If the motion picture industry continues to see television exceed its artistry, then an Emmy win could be the biggest award in entertainment—regardless of what Oscar may try to do to save itself.