Last week I had to decide who I thought would win every category of the 2013 Academy Awards as part of an in-house competition held annually within SBS. It's just a bit of fun: the film equivalent of a Melbourne Cup sweep. It was my first time and, given my new role as presenter of the Saturday night movie, I was rather haunted by the question: If I get the least number of correct answers, could I be sacked for being not suitably qualified? But I did participate because it would have been impolite to decline.
I approached the task with as much gusto as time would allow, doing some cursory research about the Academy rules and regulations and how other punters were thinking.
The seven best feature nominees – Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Argo, Django Unchained and Life of Pi – are much repeated through the categories and I went to the cinema to see those I hadn't seen. But there are 15 additional features nominated – not counting those in the foreign language and animated categories – and some of those remain unseen.
To take the Oscars race more seriously than I've ever done before reinforced the irritation I often feel about the domination of the Hollywood film industry and, ultimately, gave me a quite profound feeling of sadness, but more about that later.
Even if I'd had the intention to see all the films, the tedium of Lincoln and Les Misérables would have killed that ambition. There's also a limit to how much I'm prepared to pay the Hollywood studios for the sake of a dodgy movie competition. And it is a dodgy competition.
For a start, it is absurd how few films are nominated across all the categories given that about 600 films are released in US cinemas each year. Also, so many factors have to be considered that have nothing to do with the quality or otherwise of the films when second-guessing what the 6000 or so members of the Academy would vote for.
Someone's personal and professional standing within Hollywood has a big influence, for example, as does his or her Oscar record. A member of Hollywood royalty who might have unfairly missed out once or twice previously is in a much better position than a brash newcomer or someone who has given a disrespectful speech in the past.
Being a box office darling attracts more votes, being a contender that's sparked unpleasant controversy doesn't. Attracting a lot of nominations gives films a gloss that improves their chances across all categories. A clever marketing campaign can work wonders, as can a distributor spending up big on advertising. And so on and so on. It is no wonder that newspapers around the world don't just predict who will win, but also who could and should win.
Part of me feels a grudging admiration for the extraordinary level of attention that the Academy Awards attract each year, culminating in millions of people watching the presentation on television and online. The awards might profess to be about rewarding excellence but they are a money-making machine: millions and millions of extra cinema tickets were sold in the lead-up and the extra profile given to individual films drives their consumption once they become available on smaller screens.
The Academy Awards are a microcosm of how films made in Hollywood dominate cinemas worldwide and a much bigger part of me is permanently irritated by the amount of US history, culture and values the world agrees to swallow as a result of this domination.
How extraordinary that millions of people are willing to see a film about the political process in 1860s America, for example, and constantly pay out millions of dollars to hear the message in a 101 ways that America is good and great. There are a few early lines of dialogue that question some of the country's foreign policy decisions, but underpinning Argo is the assumption that of course the Americans will be rescued from Iran because America is infallible. Of course America will get their man, Osama Bin Laden, in Zero Dark Thirty. And of course Pat will be okay in the end in Silver Linings Playbook because he's an American.
It's annoying. And if there were bulldozers I could lie in front of, I would. But it's also terribly sad because taking up so much room on the world stage elbows out films from other nations and extinguishes others' stories and points of view. It sounds so corny but the world would be a much more beautiful and tolerant place if cinemagoers had been brought up to enjoy watching films from all over the world – and not be the least bit bothered by having to read subtitles.
I dream of a world where enormous attention is paid to the European Film Awards or to the Asia Pacific Film Awards, which actually have culture as a criteria, precisely because the films that are in contention in those other awards are as widely seen. In my ideal world, the populace would know that Amour, a moving and intimate film exploring one of the most unspoken about and universal issues in the world, was not typical of 'foreign' films because there are countries in all corners of the world that make ripping yarns and comedies, explore important events from their past and make films that celebrate that nation's goodness. (And of course it has no hope of winning best film.)
It's about now, having worked myself into a lather, that I want to scream: “I couldn't care less about the Academy Awards”. But if I do come last in the tipping competition, at least I will be able to argue that I'm passionate about films from all over the world, which fits nicely with SBS's reason for being.
Oh, and for the record, I'd give the best film Oscar to the splatter film Django Unchained but only on the condition that the presenter says something about the naivety of using violence as entertainment without accepting that violence will become embedded in society as a result.