Sunday, January 14, 2007

We're gonna need a bigger mantelpiece - Sunday Times

A new year, a new round of gongs. But if it's raining prizes, who are the real winners, asks PETER WHITTLE

‘Everybody has won’, said the Dodo at the end of the race in Alice in Wonderland, ‘and all must have prizes.’ So what’s yours? If you’re reading this, probably not McDonald’s Employee of the Year, but you might well be the winner of an advertising industry gong, or be hairdresser or marketing man of the year. You might even be the recipient of one of the world’s hundreds of literary awards which now bubble away anonymously under the Goncourt and Booker; as Gore Vidal pointed out, there are now more American book awards than writers. And if you’re an independent film director, you should count yourself a slouch if, having done the rounds of the ever-increasing festival circuit, you find you still cannot start the new year with the words ‘award-winning’ preceding either your name or your latest labour of love; there are now more American film awards than there are movies to go round.

We are about to enter what used to be called the awards season. This week sees the announcement of the nominations for the BAFTAs, with the ceremony following next month, and, as it is their sixtieth anniversary this year, we’re promised a brand new host and venue. In a couple of weeks there are the South Bank Show Awards, mere babies by comparison, and at the end of February, the grand-daddy of them all, the Christmas of the awards kingdom, the Oscars. But such has been the proliferation of awards ceremonies in the past couple of decades that the very concept of a season – just like the morning rush-hour - is obsolete: the traffic keeps coming all year round.

The giving of prizes dates back to the Greek drama and arts competitions of the 6th century BC, but it was during the last century that ‘creative’ awards moved onto sports territory and became such a dominant feature of mainstream culture, with the first Nobel Prize for Literature appearing in 1901, the Goncourt a couple of years later, and the Pulitzers, the Oscars and Emmys all well in place by mid-century. But it’s since the 1970s that awards – always aping the fake grandeur, suspense and trappings of the Oscars ceremony - have sprung up to reward ‘the best’ in virtually every branch of human creativity and industry. The phenomenon has even been the subject of academic inquiry: in his study The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value, the American academic James English wrote that we are witnessing ‘a kind of cultural frenzy, with scarcely a day passing without the announcement of yet another newly founded prize.’

We feign a world-weary cynicism about awards. Half the time we think they’re fixed. The actual achievement being celebrated might not match the razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics of a televised ceremony – such as with the recent, absurdly grandiose BBC Sports Personality of the Year show. Yet we watch in our millions. Why are we so obsessed with giving, receiving and speculating about who wins what?

Much of it comes down to money. Certainly founding an award can offer an instant PR solution in an increasingly crowded commercial landscape, whether you are Costa Coffee, which now sponsors what was formerly the Whitbread prize, or Orange, which started the woman’s challenge to the supposed domination by men of the Booker prize. And it can supply a gravitas which maybe wasn’t there before, such as with the Empire magazine film awards. ‘With information overload, and with the increasing fragmentation of commercialism, awards are all about standing out,’ says Amir Amirani, who made a BBC documentary about the awards phenomena. ‘It’s all about visibility. Prizes are increasingly about the giver rather than the receiver – the giver can draw cultural capital from the receiver. Very rarely is it altruistic.’

There can be little doubt too that in the case of the winner, there can be huge financial benefits, although this depends on where your award falls in the hierarchy of prizes. BAFTAs might be good for prestige and can certainly be useful in your movie’s PR campaign, but their effect on box office is minimal. The Oscars are a different matter. A win can massively increase your box office, so much so that film distributors increasingly market their best products around the time when nominations are announced. Winning Best film makes little difference to a blockbuster like Titanic, but can dramatically improve the take for more esoteric fare; American Beauty for example saw its $80 million total increase by a further $50 million after it won its Oscars.

John Fletcher, Managing Director of film distributors Pathe, offers another example of how smaller films benefit. ‘One of our films, The Pianist, made £1.5 million in the UK when it was released two months before the Oscars in 2003. After Adrian Brody’s win, it doubled its box office.’ Fletcher’s big hope this year, Stephen Frears’s much praised The Queen, has already made nearly £8 million in the UK, but will certainly be reappearing in cinemas should the expected gongs materialise.

The less grubby arts have taken Hollywood’s ethos on board. In the era of the critically acclaimed but unread novel, a big literary prize means far greater sales – Alan Hollinghurst saw his increase tenfold (along with a highly publicised TV adaptation) after he won the Booker two years ago for The Line of Beauty. And even when money is less of an issue, winning can mean elevation to the ranks of a certain sort of celebrity for individuals once only familiar to the cognoscenti. Grayson Perry was unknown before the Turner Prize; now he has a column in the Times, his opinion is sought on Newsnight review and he is snapped in his frock by paparazzi at, yes, award ceremonies, for the benefit of readers who’ve never clapped eyes on his vases.

The importance of the commercial imperative in prize-giving is underlined by the gradual disappearance of theatre award ceremonies from mainstream broadcasting. After years of TV coverage, the Oliviers are now nowhere to be seen on the terrestrial channels – plays cannot, after all, be bought on DVD, and the guests and nominees likely to attend are probably deemed not to be sufficiently of the ratings-pulling Hello variety, unlike those at the British Comedy Awards or the spurious-sounding National TV Awards.

But the proliferation of awards is not all about the bottom-line. It can’t just be a coincidence that they have become so dominant during an era which has seen an odd alliance between the populism of the marketplace on the one hand and the effects of cultural relativism on the other. The claim that creativity cannot and should not be judged like the 100 metres is arguably harder to sustain when the received wisdom of the past thirty years has been so resolutely ‘anti-elitist’. If you demolish one set of yardsticks, new ones - however superficial - have to emerge if the whole thing isn’t to collapse. This need for some kind of order in the information age, together with the marginalisation of traditional criticism, might explain the attraction of awards for those of us who watch and wait for the opening of the envelope, just as it might account for TV’s love affair with endless list programmes, which in their own way amount to kind of prize-giving.

Not that the trophies themselves are the last word. In the US, an outfit called The Award Recognition Association gives out gongs at its yearly convention for Best Award. Best Audience is surely only a vote away.

From The Sunday Times

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