Every year, the Academy Awards dominate debates on cinema and film culture. The Oscars are widely recognized by most as the highest conceivable achievement that can be bestowed on any given cinematic product or film person. Some, however, debate this status and see the ceremony as nothing more than a glamorous event, a marketing scheme that hardly represents the real state of the cinematic landscape every year. However, these arguments often lack a little historical knowledge. Indeed, reasons to be sceptical of the credibility of the Oscars can be identified through a brief investigation on the foundation of the Academy, which dates back to 1926.
During this time, Hollywood dominated the global film industry. Hollywood has a system of studios, responsible for the production and distribution of works all over the world, that in many ways has remained unchanged over the years. MGM was the biggest of all film studios. Headed by Louis B. Mayer, MGM productions were lavish, glamorous, star-driven vehicles. With the advent of sound, for instance, it produced some of the greatest musicals of all time.
The late 20’s represent a time of technical evolution in film production, such as the popularization of motion pictures with synchronized sound. But it was also a time in which unions threatened to shake the cunning foundations upon which the American studio system had been based. In particular, unburdened by the inconveniences of audio technologies, film production had focused on the construction of gigantic sets to provide formidable spectacle. According to Mayer himself, an entire village could be built on a studio lot in a matter of weeks.
But in 1926, studio labourers of Hollywood were on the verge of signing a union agreement that would lead to an all-around improvement of working conditions. It is important to note that it was not unlikely for studio heads to use “studio workers” for their own private projects. The most relevant one for our discussion on the foundation of the Academy was Mayer’s desire to build a beach house in Santa Monica beach.
Mayer had become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood despite having experienced extreme poverty in his early life. As a Russian immigrant, he had earned his living with his own scrap metal business before investing in the most formidable invention of the turn of the century: the motion picture. He renovated his first movie theatre in Massachussets in 1907 before establishing his own film production business two years later: the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation. The big break, of course, came through the merger of his company with Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures – the establisment of Metro-Goldwyn-Mater (MGM).
The Santa Monica beach house would be a mark of Mayer’s status. Until the threat of the unions, Mayer could have avoided the time-consuming process of building a house (contractors, architects, permits etc.) simply by running it through his high-efficiency studio. Indeed, his design department drew up a plan that stated that his house could be built in six weeks through the use of three full-shifts of studio labourers working around the clock. The establishment of a union would simply not allow this.
So, Mayer and a few other studio heads got together and came up with the solution: the establishment of an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that would guarantee all its members optimal working conditions and, perhaps most importantly, that they would become part of an elite. Mayer even got the aid of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, who signed on: these included America’s sweethearts Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
The establishment of this Academy essentially played with the fear of anyone not signing on feeling left out of something and eventually becoming marginalized. But as a result, Mayer was able to build his own private homes and working conditions practically remained unchanged. As time went on, the Academy risked losing credibility and, most importantly, the support of some of its biggest stars. Furthermore, as a result of changing times, individual influential figures, filmmakers, actors etc.
Since then, the Academy has protected its status in many ways. Its archive, for instance, is a patrimony of culture, but it is also largely inaccessible. Furthermore, the broadcasting of its award ceremonies on television, which is a highlight event of fashion and gossip, has turned it into a globally known institution.
It would take more research to figure out just what led to the Academy Awards per se. All signs point towards two things in particular. The first, and perhaps most obvious one, was indeed the application of a new marketing tactic. Previous productions could now be re-released on the strength of a new marketing encouragement that stated any given work as “Academy Award winning” for one reason or another. The second was, essentially, to make Academy members happy…and keep the most troublesome individuals quiet.