Child’s Play

Last year, my Oscar speech went:

“Wow, it’s so crazy to be up here. [The whole crowd cheers] I’ve been practicing this speech in my head since the age of nine. Now I’m overwhelmed to be saying these words out loud. My film Obvious Oscar-Winner has lived up to its name, and it’s all due to the hard work and ingenuity of my astounding cast and crew. Of course I must thank my beautiful wife Taylor Swift for supporting me through this crazy process, and finally — the Academy. I now have everything I could ever need. Thank you. I will be happy for the rest of my life, forever.”

My favorite awards speech was delivered by T.J. Miller, a B-list comedian mostly known for playing Erlich Bachman on HBO’s Silicon Valley. At the 2015 Critic’s Choice awards, he came on stage with a mouth full of food and said to nervous laughter:  “I would say that awards are for children, because children need a tangible representation of their achievement, whereas adults should settle for the respect and admiration of their peers.”

Maybe that’s why when I was nine, the Oscars was about as enrapturing as TV gets. My dad yelled at me when he found I’d snuck downstairs and turned the TV back on to see who won Best Picture. I muttered my own acceptance speech in the shower the next morning, grinning compulsively, the way you do when you’re suddenly reminded of a hilarious joke. When I was ten, my dad had a stern talk with me about what happened last year, and reminded me that I had a non-negotiable bedtime of 9:30. I got myself into trouble again, of course. I feigned ignorance, pretending I didn’t notice the time slipping by.

The Oscars are stupid. Award shows are stupid. Part of me wishes I could reach into history and smack some sense into myself. The rest of me says to let the kid have his fun. Sometimes I still imagine what it would be like to go to the Oscars — usually when I’m at the dentist, because I’ve found that fantasizing is a good way to ignore acute physical pain.[1]

Save one occasion, Woody Allen has never attended the Oscars despite having been nominated 28 times. Marlon Brando no-showed the the Oscars in 1973 and rejected his award for Best Actor in The Godfather to protest the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood. Katharine Hepburn also tried her best to never go, although she did present an award in 1974. As she walked onstage she said: “I’m very happy that I didn’t hear anyone call out ‘it’s about time.’ I am living proof that a person can wait forty-one years to be unselfish.”

The Oscars cost the Academy $21.8 million in 2012. The producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were paid over $100,000 each. Seth MacFarlane, the host that year, made somewhere between $15,000 and $25,000. The Oscar statuettes cost $45,000. Security for the evening cost $250,000. The winner’s envelopes, hand-folded and stamped with gold leaf, cost a total of $10,000.

I feel privileged to witness this terribly expensive presentation on TV for free every year. I have Walt Disney Corporation to thank, who will pay the Academy $375 million over the next five years to broadcast the awards on ABC. In turn, ABC charges advertisers $1.8 million for each 30-second timeslot during commercial breaks. That’s $60,000 dollars a second.

Back when I was an intern at Denver’s public access TV station, my boss, whose name is Tony, explained the economics of televised marketing to me in the break room while I was microwaving a slice of pizza. In the 60 seconds it took to heat that slice of pizza, my whole perspective on advertising changed forever. Tony said that by consuming a product for free, whether it’s television or Spotify or an ice cream sample at Costco, you’re not consuming a product. You are the product being sold.[2] Ever since, I’ve been wary about getting stuff for free.

By the age of fourteen, I no longer had a bedtime and my dad made us popcorn as we watched the Oscars. Alec Baldwin hosted with Steve Martin. Steve Martin is me and my dad’s all time favorite comedian. When me and my dad watched The Jerk together we rolled around laughing from start to finish. In 2010, Avatar was up for Best Picture, which also happened to be me and my dad’s favorite movie since Star Wars. Some dads teach their sons how to buy a drink for the hottest babe at the bar and fix the timing belt on a Harley. My dad taught me how to fit right in at Comic Con.

The Oscars are like prom for all the people in Hollywood who never realized high school ended decades ago. In 2014, Sandra Bullock’s red carpet dress cost $8.24 million. Charlize Theron’s was $15.89 million. Cate Blanchet’s dress, an ugly tan floor-length dress ornamented with absurdly large opals, cost $18 million.

The Oscars are generally broadcasted during sweeps week. Sweeps is the benchmark exam for TV networks proctored by Nielsen Holdings N.V. which ultimately determines how much networks can charge local advertisers for time slots throughout the year. Phoebe from Friends got married during sweeps week. Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian during sweeps week. The three-part Happy Days special in 1977 where the Fonz jumps over a shark with water-skis, creating the stalwart in American lingo “jumping the shark,” was during sweeps week.

In 2011 I got really into making my own films. I wrote, produced and starred in a ten-minute movie ironically about a kid with a deadbeat dad. My real-life dad did most of the filming. My sister also helped with a few shots. We submitted it to YouTube’s first and only ever film festival. The movie didn’t get selected, but we agreed that was mostly because technically anyone under 18 couldn’t submit.

Dad really liked drawing when he was a kid, but his parents quickly shepherded him towards architecture as a career path. Probably a wise idea, although there’s a lot of money in it for the few painters[3] who do make it big.

I’ve wondered if my dad harbors any regret about his career path, if maybe there’s a part of him that thinks he could have made it big as an artist. He’s pretty happy these days, I can say that. He’s the C.E.O. of Michael Koch Architect, whose headquarters is in the basement of our house. He designed a small apartment complex near my elementary school, and he points it out every time we drive past.

As we watched the Oscars in 2011, my dad asked: “Do you think you’ll ever end up on that stage?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I think you just might,” my dad remarked. What a very kind and destructive thing to say.

In 2014, the Academy started a new tradition where they find six college students every year and bring them to the Oscars to present awards. To submit to the contest, you have to make a short film that explains how you would contribute to the future of filmmaking.

In the press release about the contest, the Academy included that “Samsung Galaxy®, a proud sponsor of the Oscars, will be providing each winner with a Galaxy device to document their experience. The behind-the-scenes stories of ‘Team Oscar’ will be seen on Oscar.com and Samsung social sites.” Samsung’s marketing budget in 2013 was $14 billion, which is the most any company has ever spent as a percentage of its total revenue. This makes sense when you consider that Samsung’s main competitor is Apple, a company which makes almost $200 billion every year and has at least one product 51% of American households.

Winning the Samsung contest isn’t exactly a shoo-in to the filmmaking community but it’s a unique first step for an aspiring director. Lots of people go to film school instead. The top two film schools, as reported by the Hollywood Reporter, are USC and NYU. Their tuitions are both upwards of $60,000 before living expenses.[4]

In 2014, I was hard at work applying to USC and NYU’s film programs. Their acceptance rates are lower than Harvard’s because of all the people like me who grew up reciting Oscars speeches in the shower. I submitted five short films and a few scripts and both programs let me in with no financial aid, which means that if I ever did win an Oscar I’d probably have to pawn it to pay off my student loans. I watched the Oscars that year as Gravity and 12 Years a Slave won pretty much every award.

I don’t know what happened during the Oscars in 2015 because I didn’t watch and I no longer cared about seeing an $88.3 billion industry spend $20 million patting itself on the back. I’m glad Birdman did well though. That’s a great movie.

Obviously a few things have changed for me in the past year. For one, I pulled a Katharine Hepburn and snubbed USC and NYU’s offers. Instead I went to Tulane University on a full ride scholarship because I decided that in the long run it’s more important to be happy and uncommitted to loan collectors than trapped in Los Angeles by the choices I made when I was 18.

By Tony’s logic, a free college education is the same thing as watching the Oscars or getting a sample of ice cream at Costco. Tulane pulled a Samsung last year and gave incoming students over $6.8 million in merit scholarships. The idea here is that if the university can saturate campus with smart, industrious students, one day people might talk about the school’s academic prowess before their ranking as the nation’s #9 Party School. Last year alone, Tulane jumped up 13 points in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings.

Like Tony and his theory about Marxism, Tulane is probably onto something. But on a daily basis, I still think more about how great pizza is.

We spend around 33% of life unconscious, sleeping. We spent the bulk of the remaining 67% unconsciously doing things we promised other people we were going to do.[5] So you can imagine that I would feel at once excited and resentful that in my daily life, I feel a consistent obligation to someday win an Oscar.

I have to win an Oscar for my nine-year-old self, or else all that extra hot water in the shower will have gone completely to waste. I hate wasting water.

And then on top of that I have to win one for my dad. I still don’t know what his deal is, but he isn’t making me go into advertising or something. He’s letting me pursue a career with no money it, just because I love making movies. If anything, my dad fanned the flames of my passion right when I needed something in life to be passionate about. I owe my dad a lot for that.

I guess now I have to win an Oscar for my school too, or else the $200,000 scholarship they gave me won’t have generated a wealthy, well-known alumni for them to brag to applicants about.

When I look at all these things, sloppily connecting the dots in the attempt to make something out of the short life I’ve led so far, it seems like I’ve grown up in an ecology that has been very eager to make me and everyone around me into products of our own personal unattainable futures, where we’re winning Oscars and buying brand new Samsung devices, living up to expectations the TV taught us to have. I feel like I spend all of my energy serving mine or someone else’s future in some way. It’d be great if, for once, I could feel like I wasn’t living under that kind of pressure.

I dream of one-day sitting with my son at home in sweatpants, one arm around Taylor Swift, watching on TV as the Oscar gives me an award for Obvious Oscar Winner. We’ll cheer a little and scarf down the remaining popcorn as I tell that story about the time Jake Gyllenhaal broke down in tears because craft services brought him the wrong kind of goat cheese. Then there’ll be a commercial break, and I’ll tell my son to go to bed.

ellen-selfie-oscar.jpg

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[1] I see a new celebrity every time that horrible plaque-scraper pierces my gums. Woah! Oprah’s sitting right behind me! What’s up, Oprah? Wow! Jennifer Lawrence is to my left, chatting with Adam Sandler! How did you get in here, Adam?

[2] Tony proceeded to tell me exactly why America needs a Marxist economy, but by that point I was paying more attention to the fact that I love leftover pizza.

[3] Jasper Johns, who paints pretty regular-looking American flags, has a net worth of $300 million. One of his paintings of a flag, entitled Flag, was recently sold for $110 million.

[4] It’s interesting, albeit unrelated, that this is the same as the cost of one second of advertising during the Oscars

[5] E.g. brushing our teeth, going to school or work, feeding our children, fulfilling our marriage vows, buying AAA batteries for the TV remote, etc. etc.

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1 Comment

  1. Love you and how you write. I feel like I get to know you a little better each time I read anything you write or create.

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