What the MTV Movie Awards Tell Us About the State of Cinema

They’re supposed to be the hip alternative to the Oscars and the Golden Globes, a better cultural gauge than the People’s Choice and a last man standing survivor amongst the many Spike/Blockbuster wannabes. It’s had categories like Most Desirable Male/Female, Best Dance Sequence, and Best Sandwich in a Movie. Currently, among all the mainstays, it addresses choices like Best Gut-Wrenching Performance, Best Scared as Shit Performance, and Best Kiss. Indeed, over its 21 years in existence, the MTV Movie Awards have argued that, more than any other mainstream celebration of cinema, they have their finger on the pulse of the under 30 populace.

Forget the fact that the network has long given up on being an adolescent barometer of what’s hot and what’s not. With shows like the recently cancelled Buckwild and its non-redneck precursor, Jersey Shore, the former video 24 video music channel has been in the human Jackass business for so long that many have never known it for anything else. Digital download and other in home services have rendered the artist’s promotion a thing of the past, Youtube providing more of an outlet for Psy-like superstardom than any heavy rotation on any visual radio “station.” In order the maintain their position as pundits for the post-pubescent, the various MT-incarnations have had to specialize, and diversify, in order to resemble anything other than irrelevant.

So, along with its equally dated accolades for videos, the Movie Awards remain a piece of the network’s past, a still intriguing intrusion into the otherwise learned (?) conversation of about year’s films. It’s rare when there is an overlap between the Academy and the general public (who make up the voting membership). After all, in past years, junk like The Twilight Saga (Parts 1 – 4, but not 5, oddly), and Transformers have taken home the Golden Popcorn Bucket. Not to be totally negative, however, they’ve also seen fit to give kudos to such masterworks as Pulp Fiction and Se7en and have matched the AMPAS three times (Gladiator, Titanic, and The Return of the King). This year, Joss Whedon’s billion dollar box office smash The Avengers took home the top prize, arguing once again for commerciality over aesthetics, sort of.

With wins for Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), show host Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect) and Tom Hiddleston (as Best Villain Loki), there is clearly a bit of overlap between the cool and the considered. But with Taylor Lautner snagging Best Shirtless Performance, Mark Wahlberg and an animatronic teddy bear winning Best Duo, and Django Unchained taking the ‘WTF’ Moment, there’s clearly a dichotomy between the fan base and the film critic…or is there? Since it positions itself as a popularity contest, there is no real deciding if the MTV voters are more insightful than those special sects deciding the Oscars or the SAGs. They like what’s now, what’s current, what’s…cool?

Clearly, they will shy away from entries that have the smell of awards season sponsorship. You won’t see a Merchant Ivory entry among the nominees, let along the winners, and the actors acknowledged tend to stay within the boundaries of the typical Tinseltown vibe. But that doesn’t mean that the MTV Movie Awards are dismissible. They clearly believe they have the current zeitgeist on their side, and with many a studio shilling their upcoming product as part of the packaging (we got the teaser trailer for the latest Hunger Games installment, Catching Fire, this time around, as well as peeks at World War Z and Fast and Furious 6), there’s an overriding belief that the Summer season starts with an appearance here.

More importantly, there are those who use the Awards as a bellwether for what audiences want to see, discounting the indie and more somber cinematic selections for as much branding and name value as possible. And don’t forget, MTV is still interested in ratings. They won’t pander so much as pick the possibilities for same. No one would argue that the Twilight films are anything other than part of a pathetic phenomenon. They offer mediocre acting, specious storytelling, and direction that can run from good (Breaking Dawn) to god-awful (the original offering). By highlighting these films in their nominations, MTV doesn’t hope to inspire a discussion about their value – they’re like a website, looking for hits. They known Stephenie Meyer’s vampire romances are insanely popular, supported by stringent devotees, and in the end, a guaranteed ratings grabber – and they are/were right. While the Razzies celebrate how rotten these films are, MTV has made them their best.

This doesn’t explain wins for efforts like Pitch Perfect, however. Let’s face it: a film which made $112 million at the box office and shimmers with a slick, Glee like attitude may seem like the perfect MTV fodder, but for many Rebel Wilson and her cast mates were a nice musical diversion, not the best moments of 2013. Similarly, the Academy may have lavished praise on Quentin Tarantino and his N-word filled free-for-all, but Django Unchained‘s win probably has less to do with a question of quality and more with a chance to see Samuel L. Jackson and Jamie Foxx onstage. In fact, the MTV Movie Awards have always worn their uber hip credentials on their sleeve, getting people like comedian Will Ferrell (recipient of the Comic Genius trophy) to show up and do what he does best.

With its collection of current I Heart Radio hitmakers in tow, and a ton of publicity both pre and post ceremonies, The MTV Movie Awards still commands more attention than it probably deserves. It shows up, makes its splash, and then settles down for another year of relative irrelevancy. Picking The Avengers smacks of the cinematic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, but there is a clear commercial conceit at work here. No, the former trendsetter doesn’t hope to show the Oscars and the others that they are right, just that they are right now. Are they an insight into what the mainstream public think is good? Hardly. Are they a measured response to Hollywood’s frequent self-importance? Possibly. Are they merely pandering for profit? What do you think.