Emmys Special: Why Hollywood Can't Put on an Awards Show

Why is it so goddamn hard for the entertainment industry to produce a couple of entertaining hours of television saluting themselves? It’s not like we’re asking them to invent nuclear cold fusion or negotiate a Mideast peace treaty or figure out why it’s so hard to get ketchup out of a glass bottle.

It’s asking entertainers to entertain, they thing they are supposedly trained to do. If possible, to entertain an audience which includes at least several people who don’t work in the entertainment industry.

I’ve known many an awards show writer, and the ones of my acquaintance have been terrifically funny people. But something happens when you’re working under the reigns of an ACADEMY, whereby the pomposity is so great, no laugh can survive. Combine that with the general sense of fear and mortal dread that permeate the industry now, and you’ve got the recipe for a night of fun.

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time trashing the Emmy show, because that ship sailed a hundred years ago if it was ever at the dock. Or to pretend that the winners’ choices say something important about anything to anyone. The Emmy’s voters choices are about as relevant to anything as whether the manager of my local gas station mini-mart chooses to give Twinkies or Ho Ho’s the prime counter space by the register (Team Ho Ho’s).

But the Emmys (and the drift of the whole awards train) are the canary in the coal mine of a bigger problem; not the disease itself but a symptom of the thing that could put us all on the streets if it can’t turn itself around.

Beating up on awards shows is such a staple of journalism that it’s hard to believe critics haven’t templated it yet. It goes something like this: Despite one of the most misguided productions in years, punctuated by awkward presenter bits and painful set pieces, the night was still glorious thanks to the upset victories of shows/films few viewers have ever heard of, and the inspirational speeches with some powerful rallying cries to fix the industry.

You can get a sense of the state of our critical establishment this morning browsing through some homepages and taking in the juxtaposition of the ratings news, reporting the show dipped yet again, below its previously unthinkable low; side by side with declarations by critics of A Night of Surprises!  Inspiring Speeches!  The Emmys are Saved!  (If an Emmy speech inspires in the TV wilderness and no one other than media professionals are there to be inspired by it, is it still inspiring?)

What is the general takeaway from these nights? The industry is a nightmare for most of its employees, but we’re trying to make it better.

Hooray for Hollywood! Can’t wait to see what’s on next.

So the general problem here, which is pretty much a parable for the state of the industry, is that the Oscars are trying as hard as they can to become the Emmys, and the Emmys are trying as hard as they can to become the MTV Movie Awards, and the MTV Movie Awards are dead.

They are chasing younger audiences with all the grace of the fabled elephant in a tutu, while not surrendering any of their pomposity; and in fact, becoming more pompous as they become more irrelevant.

At bottom here, the problem is that this is an industry that no longer has any case to make for itself, that no longer believes its own story. We’re no longer able to salute the biggest things we do, and we’re embarrassed even to mention them, by and large. In fact, we run in the opposite direction to celebrate the smallest things we do. (Small in terms of production, not artistic ambition, that is.)

We can’t celebrate Hollywood as an industry, much less a creative community, so we celebrate the people who pledge to knock it down and change it. Stay tuned: We’ll be different soon!

We know that none of this is working, none of it is connecting outside of increasingly niche audiences. In the case of the Emmys, the audience niche probably consists of immediate family members of the nominees at this point. The surprising winners and the uplifting speeches might have bowled over some TV critics, but we all know how this is going to play out when the overnights come in.

The problem with talking about change in the industry is you’re talking about the industry. As inspiring as some of the rallying cries are, there’s only so much people want to hear a bunch of Hollywood people complain about the problems in their own business. Especially when they’ve got 7,000 other choices a click away consisting of entertainers actually being entertaining, not talking about the problems of the entertainment industry.

The “bold” stands, á la Craig Mazin’s brave statement against lying, are part of this industry since time immemorial. James Agee wrote a thousand years ago about one of Hollywood’s causes: “Few things pay off better in prestige and hard cash than safe fearlessness.”

But an industry that doesn’t believe in itself or its products can keep going for a while, especially when it’s being flooded by tech industry cash. But at some point, you’re going to push enough viewers and moviegoers away that it starts to add up to real money.

The panacea for this problem in the case of the Academies has been money, money in the form of the streaming invasion who flooded the race with cash this year and turned the city into a FYC theme park—not to mention the extra categories and nominees thrown in the game to make sure everybody goes home with a trophy. The industry of pundits and party planners and Emmy watchers and consultants that has grown around these campaigns have managed to make the whole thing weightier, clunkier, more full of itself, and more of a circus without actually being fun, as the audience drifts away.

Which is just about the exact same place where our entire industry sits today.

What did you think of last night’s festivities? An inspirational celebration of the new new Hollywood, or a harbinger of doom? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Bringing the Game of Thrones cast out to thank their viewers, without a joke in sight, was the perfect paradigm for industrial Hollywood. Not knowing what to say for itself, being embarrassed, scared you’re becoming irrelevant, terrified you’ve so lost the conversation that any word will just make people get mad at you, all you can do is just parade what big names you’ve got left in front of the cameras and say, please don’t forget us.

Why at a moment when there is more entertainment being produced in bulk than ever in the history of the world, by and for so many different people in ways that we never could have dreamed off five years ago is it so hard for Hollywood to dive into what’s it’s happening?

The irony that with the great streaming tsunami, we’ve never been producing more or more different kinds of things than today.  But when we look at what that all adds up to, where is this taking us…the fact that this entire proposition is writ on water and could be wiped away in one wave or news cycle or Tweetstorm, the fear sets in. 

Despite having opened the floodgates, or watched them being wrenched open, the Official Industry still has no clue of what this adds up to; all it is able to do is stand back and watch the flood. Hoping the creative destruction will be more creative, less destruction when it washes over our corner of the farm.

If there were any real takeaway from this night, putting it into the context of what’s happening in Hollywood right now, it would be “NETFLIX BURNS BILLIONS FOR EMMY SCORN.”

Or, as THR’s ever generous awards pundit puts it, “Competing streamer Netflix, meanwhile, had a night of surprises, too.” 

I won’t speculate how many tens of millions Netflix spent on its Emmys budget this year. Let’s call it three. But is this finally the point where investors say, given your eleven-figure debt bomb, maybe spending 30 million bucks to get Jason Bateman a directing prize isn’t the best use of your money? While we’re at it, is this supposed to fill us with confidence about your fiscal priorities?

For Amazon, whose investment in the awards race did pay off in awards, besides the bragging rights and ego massage, what, in the end, is winning an increasingly irrelevant award really worth. Is winning a prize on a show watched by an audience not far from a typical episode of The Masked Singer worth spending tens of millions for?  

But in the end, trying to make sense of any of this is like trying to sense of any of this is wading into quicksand. Sanity ends where awards season begins. Unfortunately, the season of madness reveals a little too much about who’s driving the train these days, or more to the point, who is not.