(Reuters) - I've been watching the Academy Awards since I was 11. This required permission from my parents to stay up late on a school night, but they knew how much movies meant to me. It was the only night of the year when one could see the biggest stars in Hollywood on the small screen. Audrey Hepburn, Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Taylor didn't appear on talk shows in those days.
Memories like mine have been shared by a number of excited Oscar winners, who have said how unreal it seems to be standing at that podium, which they never dreamed of when watching the awards show as children.
I doubt the critics questioning the Oscars' relevance today could recall anyone making a similar speech at the Golden Globes or any of the newly minted award shows that have permeated the pop culture landscape. That's because these shows don't have the history, tradition or worldwide impact that sets the Academy Awards apart from the crowd. And while some of these ceremonies have better reputations than others, they all exist in the shadow of the Oscars the locomotive that drives a massive and increasingly complex Hollywood machine known as awards season.
Nothing else much matters once autumn arrives in Tinseltown. The rest of the world may have other things on its mind, but in Los Angeles the buildup begins on Labor Day weekend, when the first award-worthy pictures are unveiled at the Venice, Toronto and Telluride (Colorado) film festivals. That's where movies like "The Artist" and "Slumdog Millionaire" were launched. A few months later at the Oscars, filmmakers get to bask in the glow of success while those who finance and release the movies get to see a concrete return at the box office. All this hype inspires people to see those movies - in theaters, on video or online. How many Americans would have sought out a black-and-white silent movie from France or an Indian movie with subtitles (but no movie stars) without the ballyhoo that concluded on the Academy Awards stage?
The man or woman on the street may complain that the Oscars don't reflect popular taste, but that was never the purpose. The Academy Awards are meant to maintain a standard of excellence that is often at odds with box-office returns. If millions of people didn't rush to see "Winter's Bone" or "The Hurt Locker," it's their loss and not the Academy's fault.
This culture gap has taken a toll on the Oscars, however, as the ratings for its annual broadcast has dropped into the 30 million to 40 million range, according to Nielsen Co, after peaking with 55 million viewers in 1998, the year of "Titanic" — one of the rare box-office blockbusters to also dominate the Oscars. That's down from the 40 million to 50 million sets of eyes that used to tune in during the 1970s and early '80s. What's the solution? Hiring attractive young stars (Anne Hathaway and James Franco) as hosts for the ceremony didn't do the trick, and returning to the tried-and-true (Billy Crystal) apparently turned off the younger demo. You can't please everybody, and grousing about the Oscars has become a popular pastime.
The Academy is taking steps to counter its fusty image. It has stepped up its membership outreach over the past decade and invited contemporary filmmakers across all ethnic, racial and gender lines to join, although it still has a long way to go. Its 6,000 members are proposed by colleagues in various branches, from screenwriters to makeup artists, and voted in once a year. Journalists like me are not included. Core members still skew mostly older and white ‑ membership is almost never revoked ‑ yet these supposedly out-of-touch professionals are the first to embrace young and emerging talent such as Jennifer Lawrence, Jesse Eisenberg, Rooney Mara, Octavia Spencer and Jeremy Renner, to name just a few. The Academy also operates a world-class research library and film archive and supports student filmmakers and film festivals, all based on the license fee it receives for that one telecast.
Critics have urged the Academy to delete the "duller" awards from its agenda, as has been done at the Grammy Awards. But the Grammys have the advantage of being able to ask its musical nominees to sing and play onstage. The Oscars can't very well have actors come out and perform scenes from their latest hits.
Every producer who tries to make the show leaner and tighter learns a sobering truth: No matter how glitzy the opening may be, there are at least 24 awards to hand out. At some point, someone will have to read long lists of nominees in categories like Sound Editing and Visual Effects, followed by the speeches of winners that few in the audience know or care about.
Therein lies the Oscar conundrum: It isn't a show, it's an awards ceremony disguised as a show. If it were to change, it wouldn't be the Oscars. I say this as a purist living in a world of rapid change, where there is little sentiment or regard for tradition. That's why younger-skewing, hipper shows are able to steal some of Oscar's thunder. The kind of major-league stars who used to be seen only once a year on the Academy broadcast now turn up on TV year-round, promoting their movies.
One reason the Johnny-come-lately awards shows have been embraced by the movie industry is that it helps promote their movies at a time when the cost of advertising and promotion has gone sky-high. The kind of offbeat, upscale films that vie for yearend honors often don't have blockbuster promotional budgets, so free publicity is catnip to their studios and distributors.
HEARTS AND MINDS
Yet even the "free" publicity of awards season is starting to cost more. For at least a decade studios have shuttled A-list stars and directors from one Hollywood industry screening or Q-and-A session to another, often hitting two or three such events in one evening. The goal is to work their way into voters' hearts and minds, not unlike a presidential candidate on the campaign trail. One can only imagine the bills for private jets, limousines and stylists who tend to these stars as they make their rounds. And this doesn't even include the televised awards shows, which continue to multiply like rabbits.
Some of those pretenders to the throne earn considerable attention, and the Golden Globes presentation features more stars than even the Academy can muster. (After all, it honors both movies and television shows, and has separate categories for comedy and drama.) No one with a card-carrying publicist can afford to ignore such an event, but the same philosophy is now applied to even more spurious gatherings, like the star-studded Hollywood Film Awards in October.
It's unlikely that anyone would spit in the eye of an organization offering him a prize, even if it's just for showing up, which often seems to be the case. And no one would disdain a citation from the estimable guilds that represent producers, directors, writers and actors … not to mention the organizations made up of cinematographers, costume designers, editors and composers. They all conduct awards ceremonies, or "kudofests," as the trade paper Variety dubs them. And while the number of working critics has shrunk in this era of downsizing for newspapers and magazines, the number of critics' groups proffering awards has risen sharply.
No one is more aware of the competition and what it signifies than the Academy. For the first time this year, the 85-year-old organization is allowing question-and-answer sessions with actors and filmmakers at Academy member screenings. Until now, studios that wanted to parade Steven Spielberg or Meryl Streep before an industry crowd had to settle for Screen Actors Guild gatherings and other non-Academy-sanctioned events.
One arena in which the Academy was ahead of the curve was in thinking globally. In the mid-1940s, Hollywood's elite recognized the artistic brilliance of European cinema by honoring such works as the Italian films "Shoeshine" and "The Bicycle Thief." It remained an honorary award voted by the Board of Governors (bestowed on such masterpieces from France and Japan as "Forbidden Games" and "Rashomon") before becoming a normal competitive category in 1956. This year, 71 countries, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, are submitting feature-length films.
The announcement of Seth MacFarlane, the creator and edgy voice of "Family Guy," as the next host also sends a message that the Oscars are not stuck in the past. The Academy website is more active than ever, posting coverage of its many live events, and the public-relations staff is embracing social media, apps and YouTube.
I still look forward to Oscar night every year. I don't expect or demand a great show, but every now and then the producers pull off something memorable … or a winner creates a bit of magic. When Jon Stewart brought a virtual unknown, Marketa Irglova, back onstage after a commercial break so she could express her deep feelings about winning an Oscar for the song "Falling Slowly," from "Once," she captivated the audience in the theater and at home. Why? Because she spoke from the heart (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx8yLvb0gZM). Moments like that create indelible memories and inspire young people around the world to pursue their dreams. Ultimately, after all the back-slapping and self-congratulation dies down, that's why the Academy Awards still matter.
Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin is perhaps best known for his annual paperback reference book, "Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide." He also hosts "Maltin on Movies" for Reelz, introduces films on Comcast and teaches at the University of Southern California's School for Cinematic Arts. He has written many books about film and holds court at www.leonardmaltin.com.
(Editing by Arlene Getz, Kathy Jones, Heather Struck and Douglas Royalty)