Oscars: Hollywood’s Crisis of Faith

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The Academy Awards was always a bigger event for my family than the Super Bowl. I loved the stars, the movies, the outfits — even the campy dance numbers set to cheeseball medleys. But this year there was a certain sense of desperation in the show’s attempts to remind me why I should care about the Oscars specifically and Hollywood in general. This cry for relevance was overtly expressed as name drops of MySpace and YouTube.

While I don’t agree with Tom Foremski’s suggestion that Silicon Valley is becoming a media capital capable of competing with New York or Los Angeles, another article I found in IP Democracy’s thought provoking piece was from the LA Times’ Neal Gabler, titled “The Movie Magic is Gone.”

In it, he addresses movies as a central player in America’s cultural life, more than just the technology and business models it’s built on. While he feels that the segmentation of the American media market into niche groups is feeding narcissism, I’d take a less pessimistic view of the fundamental shift. But I agree — Hollywood studios are dying a ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts.’

The analogy I would suggest is that the the entertainment industry something more akin to a religion than a business. Movie palaces were hallowed ground, ‘movie magic’ a spiritual form of emotional connection, censors enforced a clear moral subtext and it was all run by a priest-caste of executives, directors and talent who, once risen to the top, enforced strict yet ultimately arbitrary rules about who could, and who couldn’t, join the inner circle.

The Oscars themselves have taken pageantry to the level of sacred ritual — and it’s all thanks to television, which was supposed to kill Hollywood. But television, like film, is a centrally sourced distribution technology. It’s easy for a relatively small number of people to pull the strings and set the standards. The Internet, however, is doing for motion pictures what television couldn’t — more akin to the printing press’ effect on literature.

It may still be a long time coming before a Martin Luther type figure tapes a manifesto to the gates at Universal Studios, but Hollywood is certainly due for a reformation. In the meantime, there are more than a few signs of ‘protestant’ sentiment challenging the established order. Just look at how broad the definition of celebrity is becoming. And don’t think media moguls haven’t noticed — the arguments over net neutrality and copyright boil down to the current hegemonies trying to preserve the status quo of their power centers.

Ironically, in the efforts of blockbuster film production to avoid unions and high wages in California, they’ve done more to spread the tools and knowledge of their art around the world than vloggers ever could. It’s no coincidence that Jessica Lee Rose hails from New Zealand, which produced a film industry almost overnight thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. And services like Jaman will help bridge the gap between existing foreign film capitals like Hong Kong and Delhi.

Hollywood, like Mecca or the Vatican, will probably never die. But it may have to negotiate a peace with any number of new media “sects” if it wants to preserve its place at the center.

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