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The Rise and Fall of the Precursors

Ben Travers asks: "why can’t we banish the spoilers and get back to the anxiety-packed glory days of the Oscars?"

As an awards season prognosticator, it’s my job to follow every race from beginning to end. Whether it’s Actor, Actress, Director or Picture, I have to be there from when the National Board of Review releases its Top 10 list all the way through the announcement of who won Best Director at the DGA awards. It’s a fairly brief, rapid-fire season, and it’s only getting shorter. I’m starting to think, though, that we should shorten it even further.

Let’s shorten it to nothing.

Precursor ceremonies are the necessary evil of an awards season; except for the life of me I can’t figure out why they’re necessary. Perhaps it’s the democratic way to allow every random group of film fans to have their day in the sun, shining a light on whatever films and performers they so choose.

Yet we all know there’s only one voice that matters. The Oscars are what people remember. The rest are just fodder for journalists and the Academy itself who want to report on the Academy Awards three months before they actually air. Don’t get me wrong—you should still read all the great work put forth by we bold and brave entertainment writers. Until corrected, these events need to be covered for the good of the people. After all, the public has a right to know who’s going to win on Oscar night just as much as we do.

But why do any of us need to know? The simple truth is we don’t. The Academy goes to great lengths to make sure ballots remain secret, yet there hasn’t been a surprise Best Picture winner since 2005. Many of the other races have featured a twist or two, but most of those are settled early on as well.

Just as importantly as whether we deserve to know is whether or not we want to know. After all, this isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s a piece of entertainment. Actually, it’s a piece of entertainment about a similar form of entertainment. Want outweighs need in comparatively trivial manners like these. Wouldn’t it be splendid to be left in the dark this February 24th? Instead of waiting to see if Daniel Day-Lewis’ speech lives up to his performance (hint: it can’t), we could be on the edge of our seats wondering if Bradley Cooper or Joaquin Phoenix will pull the upset.

We want it so badly many of us try to concoct scenarios in which an upset could occur. “Well, with all this love for Argo, maybe David O. Russell has a shot for Best Director. After all, people were talking about Silver Linings Playbook stealing Best Picture before Argo swept all the precursors. Couldn’t the film’s director be expected to take his prize since Affleck is out of the running? Could it still win Best Picture since the love for Lincoln has lessoned considerably? I mean, the Weinsteins are behind it. That means anything could happen.”

Hooey. We all know Argo is a lock for Best Picture and Spielberg is the likely Best Director. We just don’t want to admit it because it ruins the fun. The whole concept of the Academy Awards was built around the dramatic unveiling of the winners. A celebrity steps out on stage, makes a few remarks to build tension, reads the nominees, and then slowly pops open a sealed envelope and reads the winner. The suspense would be palpable if we hadn’t watched the exact same thing unfold 12 times in the two months prior with the exact same name read every time.

So why can’t we banish the spoilers and get back to the anxiety-packed glory days of the Oscars?

The biggest obstacle is television ratings. While the Oscars have been on a bit of slide recently, ratings for the Golden Globes are picking up. The SAG awards have been playing well enough on cable to keep them there. The Critics Choice Awards were even broadcast this year. Soon, there will be even more awards shows airing on televisions nationwide.

Why not air them after the Oscars? Well, no one would care. None of them would do nearly as well if they named their winners post-Oscars because they wouldn’t mean as much. They need the buzz stemming from how accurate a predictor they are of the top prize to keep people interested.

Or do they? How many viewers care about who wins as opposed to seeing their favorite pretty people all dolled up in tuxes and gowns? I honestly don’t know. Living my life in the former category has clouded my judgment ever so slightly to the latter. Dresses are a fine distraction, but I want to see who wins.

I imagine the celebrity watchers number a good many of the Oscar telecast’s ever-dwindling ratings. After all, there are more columns covering what was worn on the day following the ceremony than who actually won the coveted trophies, headlines be damned.

So can we do away with these unnecessary previews of what’s to come? Can we go just one season without the people who vote for Best Director telling us who they’re going to vote for by choosing them for the DGA award? The actors with the SAGs? The Globes with their, well, everything? Give me one season free of spoilers, and I’ll show you what it’s like to really, truly, love the Oscars.

Three-plus hour telecast and all.

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