I get into a frustrating argument every year around Oscar season, with a dear friend of mine who loves to irritate me by pointing out the hypocrisy of the cinephile set. How, he asks, can you claim that the Oscars don't matter one year, then turn around and say that a certain film winning is a huge deal the next? How do you reconcile the narrative that the Oscars are pointless exercises in industry self-congratulation with the narrative that they're the most important date on the film calendar? You see both takes every awards season - often coming from the same person at different points in the cycle. What hypocrites! But the truth is, you can have it both ways, because saying the Oscars "matter" can mean a lot of different things.
As a measure of the quality of art, the Oscars definitively do not matter. Art is subjective, and trying to label something as "the best" in a field is inherently doomed to failure. The Oscars have to be viewed as what they are, which is a poll of a few thousand Hollywood professionals as to what (or who) they liked in a particular year. Some of them know what they're talking about. Some of them don't. They're just people with opinions, and they're people with opinions that aren't yours. Only you can define what films are great to you; an Academy Award (or lack thereof) shouldn't affect your opinions one way or another. It's as meaningless as any other attempt to measure art. Like what you like; the Oscars will do their thing, and cultural opinion will eventually solidify around great films regardless of whether or not they won. Hell, the fact that we can run our annual Alternate Oscars feature and still miss out countless worthy titles points to a certain futility in the whole exercise.
As a horse race, the Oscars are downright tiresome. Gambling agencies get a lot of out of them, I'm sure, but the competitive element essentially becomes meaningless after a point. Quality films can win (and often do), but no film can win without a massive publicity push behind it, advertising directly and exhaustively at Academy voters to convince them to vote their way. After the guilds run their awards shows, winners often become foregone conclusions, making those of us aware of the awards cycle roll our eyes at every predictable win. There's a whole cottage industry devoted to following this stuff, and every year it's the same boring series of prognostications and debates.
But while the methodology of the Oscars tends toward a dull and nepotistic mess, and while art can't be measured in number of statues won, the Oscars do matter for a few key reasons - reasons that have little to do with how good a movie is, who your faves are, or what the betting markets look like.
Most bluntly, the Oscars matter for films' box office. An Academy Award nomination will often extend a film's life in theatres, and sometimes give a sizeable bump in its box office takings. That's a big part of why "awards films" are released at the end of the year; they can capitalise on being fresh in voters' minds, then capitalise on audience attention should they get nominated. If a winning film isn't in theatres anymore, its sales will shoot up after the ceremony, as Parasite's has today on multiple platforms. But this doesn't affect the world at large; it's an industry thing that affects studios and exhibitors only.
The Oscars matter enormously for the people who win. Taking home an Oscar doesn't guarantee a long and fruitful career, but it's a good step up towards one. If a studio can put "Academy Award winner" (or "nominee") before your name on a trailer or a poster, they're much more likely to be interested in hiring you. And this matters more depending on where you are in your career. Taika Waititi's win last night meant a great deal for several reasons, but arguably it was his Best Short Film nomination in 2004, for Two Cars, One Night, that propelled him to feature filmmaking and to where he is now. (Also nominated that year: Nacho Vigalondo, Ashvin Kumar, and winner Andrea Arnold, all of whom have had helmed multiple acclaimed features since then.) Filmmakers may say the Oscar doesn't mean anything as a mark of superlative quality - in acceptance speeches, they routinely do - but there are few filmmakers for whom an Oscar wouldn't make a big difference career-wise.
Similarly, the Oscars matter for people who see themselves in the people who win. This is why #OscarsSoWhite is a thing: representation can have profound impact, either prompting people to try things they might have thought impossible, or with a lack of representation, reinforcing that impossibility. Witness the explosions of pride when Spike Lee and Jordan Peele won their Oscars; when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director; when Mexican directors won four out of the five years prior to this one. This year saw several such moments, like the wins for Hair Love, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl), and Joker composer Hilda Guðnadóttir. The most important, of course, was Bong Joon-Ho and Parasite winning four Academy Awards, becoming the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture and the first Korean film to even be nominated for anything. The response from Korean and other international communities was downright rapturous.
That brings me to the final reason why the Oscars matter: they shape the public consciousness around what cinema can be. Though it doesn't mean much to declare one film a winner over another, Academy Award winner status still means a lot to the average non-cinephile. They form easy watchlists for completionists and people seeking good movies. And thanks to the aforementioned box-office boosts, they push audiences to see films they might not otherwise have seen. In Parasite's case, that's a huge fucking deal, as it breaks through the subtitle barrier that still exists for many English-speaking audiences, and exposes those audiences to an incendiary and confrontational film. It'll be many filmgoers' first Korean film, and probably the first international film for many. In awarding Parasite, the Academy opens the doors for people to discover whole new worlds of cinema - which is surely part of its mission.
Not every Oscar winner is like that, though, and here lies the hypocrisy my friend loves to highlight. Why do the Oscars matter when Parasite wins, but not when Green Book wins? The answer is political, but not in the obvious sense. In politics, it means less when a milquetoast incumbent is re-elected than when someone rises up to change things one way or another. Likewise, many Oscar choices are dull and obvious - the preferential ballot is essentially biased towards middle-of-the-road consensus, making Parasite's win all the more amazing - but those winners don't make much of an impact, almost by definition. They merely uphold the status quo. Green Book got the same box-office boost and place in the history books that Parasite did, but while the former's extra audience might have had a blandly entertaining night out, the latter's extra audience will be shown something many of them haven't seen before. It's inconsistent, sure - but so is art.
Only great films get truly remembered - whether or not they win an Oscar. If they do, that doesn't make them better by definition, but it does grant them an edge in reaching a broad audience. For films broad audiences wouldn't ordinarily go to see, that means a hell of a lot more than three extra words at the top of a filmmaker's obituary. That's why cinephiles hail the significance of some wins and shrug off others. Not every politician makes a big impact. Not every Oscar winner does either. That's why we relish the ones that do.