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A Show Meant for Adults Only?

Once again, the Oscars snub the youth market. Perhaps the Grammys offer a lesson.


OK, say you're an 18-year-old who's hard-wired into pop culture. Now, say you can watch only one awards show this year--do you go with the Grammys, where the volatile Eminem will perform and Radiohead is up for best album, or do you tune in to the Oscars, where the tastes run toward "Chocolat," a fable about a confectionery in France?

A hint: This is not a tough choice.

Two of the top trophy shows in the entertainment world have now announced their nominees for 2000, and it's clear that these two academies are headed in different directions. The Grammys, which are awarded next Wednesday, may deserve an R rating for handing a microphone to the foulmouthed Eminem, but it's the Oscars that seem determined to keep out anyone under 17.

The most passionate consumers of entertainment are young people, but this generation gap in how they are acknowledged at the two award galas is driven in large part by the fundamental differences between film and music--how each is created, marketed and consumed--as well as the quirks and personalities of the two academies.

The Oscars, stately and stuffy, rarely have time for youth-skewing works in their top categories, even the high-quality ones, which is why films such as "The Matrix" aren't considered for best picture. Indeed, action films and comedies, the fat core of films made for youths, are generally dissed by the Oscars as a whole.

If the Oscars were in touch with youth, Jim Carrey and Bruce Willis would have trophies by now, and best picture nominees in recent years would have included the likes of "The Matrix," "Three Kings," "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" or "Clueless."

Sure, this year's best picture candidates include "Gladiator" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," films seen by a good number of young folks. But one is a classic Hollywood epic and the other is really an art-house romance with special effects (creating the intriguing subgenre of "martial art-house"), and their If the Oscars were in touch with youth, Jim Carrey and Bruce Willis would have trophies by now, and best picture nominees in recent years would have included the likes of "The Matrix," "Three Kings," "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" or "Clueless."

nominations are more a nod to their appeal to wide and older audiences.

Oscar may have disdain for young people, but, in the big picture, Hollywood loves them. Among the 10 top-grossing films of 2000 were "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "M:I-2," "Meet the Parents," "X-Men" and "Scary Movie." No surprise, these five films combined for zero nominations Tuesday in the marquee categories--picture, directing and acting awards.

The Grammys, meanwhile, have no fear of embracing best-selling youth music, even when it's fizzy or slick. Hence, major nominations this year for 'N Sync, Britney Spears and other fizzy pop.

It wasn't always like this. In past decades, the Grammys were out of touch with youth, but after "The Three Tenors in Concert 1994" got an embarrassing best album nomination--the disc was dismissed as a novelty in the classical community--the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences set up a blue-ribbon committee to screen the 20 nominees in top categories and winnow them down to the most fitting five. This year, that committee boldly nominated Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" for best album despite its images of gleeful violence. The content is so strong, the equivalent would be the Oscars putting "Blue Velvet" or (heaven help us) "Scary Movie" on the best picture ballot. Not gonna happen.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is smaller than its music counterpart (about 5,500 versus 12,000 voting members), has more lofty membership requirements, and its membership is widely viewed as older, although specific membership information is guarded. Another difference that helps the Grammys acknowledge a wider range of work is its dizzying number of categories: 100 in all, compared with 23 for the Oscars. That sets aside a Grammy for rap, heavy metal, etc.; the Oscars pretty much stick to the mainstream.

Thomas O'Neil, an author of histories of both awards shows, says there is pressure on the Grammys to "be hip and edgy, to be cutting-edge," while the Oscars are more a celebration of high-minded movie-making. Cynics can find many examples in which neither academy lived up to that assessment, but, certainly, any Oscar tendency toward solidly mainstream films is logical given the way movies get made.

Hollywood films are the ultimate collaborative effort in art, often requiring a small army and budgets that routinely soar into the tens of millions. Music, on the other hand, can still be a fairly intimate endeavor, and the advent of the software studio allows artists with computers in their bedrooms to create high-quality recordings.

That landscape makes it far easier for "beautiful mistakes" to happen in music. Artists who defy the day's commercial conventions--think Nirvana, Alanis Morissette or even Eminem--can break through to wide audiences. Consider "The Blair Witch Project"--its meteoric rise from nowhere made it a memorable anomaly in Hollywood, but in the music world it would have been just the latest in a long line of left-field, youth-driven successes. And, scary or not, it would probably have been nominated for a big award.


Geoff Boucher covers pop music for The Times.

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