Media Literacy: Learning from the Oscars

Media literacy educator Frank Baker shares ideas about how to leverage student interest in movies and filmmaking into useful learning experiences. (Updated February 2016)

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130by Frank W. Baker

The Super Bowl is one of the few “appointment” TV events that’s survived 21st century American digital culture. By which I mean: a television show so iconic that people across the nation plan parties around the media event or watch it together with friends and family just to see what will happen.

The bowl game is history and the annual buzz about the commercials is finally dying down. What’s the next mass-audience television event? The Academy Awards.

After the Super Bowl, the Oscars ceremony is the most “appointment-viewed” television program watched by a huge audience in the United States (and around the world). Many of us stop what we’re doing to watch it “live,” often with other movie and celebrity buffs. Last year’s telecast was seen by more than 37 million viewers.

New and novel advertising isn’t the big audience draw at the Oscars. Hollywood is. While ads at Super Bowl L when for $5 million apiece, advertisers will pay a little less than half that for the same 30 seconds on the Oscar telecast (Sunday, February 28, 7 Eastern, 4 Pacific). Of course ABC-TV and its affiliated stations still stand to benefit from the premium prices of commercials. (The Academy also benefits from the domestic and international rights to the “live” broadcast.)

Diversity and the Academy Awards

Film watchers and critics have been quick to jump on the Academy (again) because of the lack of diversity in this year’s nominees. For example, all of the best actor nominees are white, despite several quality performances by people of color in 2015. (Are your students aware of this controversy?)

A different kind of buzz

fb c rockThe buzz about the 2016 awards ceremony (comedian Chris Rock  will host) started well before the nominations were announced in January; but the heavy push starts now. If you follow the trades (VarietyHollywood ReporterThe Wrap, et al.) then you will have seen the “For Your Consideration” full-page advertisements promoting the nominated films, directors, actors and other categories.

The FYC ads, which also appear in both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, aim to influence the 6,000+ voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and are created by the studios to promote their movies. (See my webpage for ideas on teaching with these ads.)

Hollywood agents are working overtime now—making sure that any nominated client’s name gets out there. That person might be scheduled to appear on a syndicated talk show (e.g., Ellen, the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel LIVE) or profiled in a magazine (such as Entertainment WeeklyFilm Comment or EMPIRE) or on nationally broadcast programs such as The Today Show or CBS Sunday Morning. Already, news articles featuring many of the nominees have appeared in the mainstream press and on popular culture blogs and websites.

fb oscar branches

(graphic courtesy, The Hollywood Reporter)

And it’s not just the well-known actors who get publicity; directors, art directors, costume designers and even foley artists will be featured because every Academy category (and nomination) is important.


Frank Baker suggests teaching resources related to CCSS/ELA Standard RL.8.7 “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas” (8th grade) in this download – Hollywood Vs. the Truth: Comparing Books, Films & Reality.


Teaching the Academy Awards

For years, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has advocated for the teaching of “non-print texts,” and motion pictures fall into this category. Although many teachers teach with film, not many have been trained to teach about film.

In addition, most of our students view movies passively: they have not been trained how to view such carefully constructed, motion-oriented media critically. Film and media literacy education demonstrate exactly how to help students “read” the screen and understand the various tools and techniques used by filmmakers. In its online store, NCTE offers several excellent texts which include lists of recommended films and how to teach them, as well as movie-oriented lesson plans at ReadWriteThink. Also see my MiddleWeb articles on visual literacy and film and teaching film literacy without the film.

Going deeper into filmmaking

fb revenantArt and film. Many of those in Hollywood who make movies consider themselves artists. Many arts educators can also engage students by having them study film critically: examining animation, lighting, sound & music, art direction, costumes & makeup and more,  using guides found here.

Art would also come into play when studying the design of the movie poster. Teachers might ask students to brainstorm answers to the question: what are the quintessential elements that must be in every motion picture poster? Students could also use Glogster or similar software to create their own marketing posters.

Teacher guides. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) has produced an excellent series of teacher guides designed to help introduce the Oscar categories (including documentaries) as well as the language of film. Its Teacher Guide Series can be downloaded individually at the Education/Outreach section of its website.

fb spotlightScreenplays Online. Another promotional push by the film studios is to give voting members, and now the public, access to the nominated-films’ scripts. This page lists several of those screenplays, which could be downloaded and studied in English language arts, history, and film studies.

Movie trailers. Even though many students may not have seen all of the Oscar-nominated films, they can still view the trailers for the films and read about them online. (The nominees page at the Oscars website includes links to trailers.)

Trailers are considered persuasive texts because they are designed to pique the interest of the audience, sometimes months ahead of a film’s release date. Teachers may wish to consider having students create their own trailers (using free software such as iMovie, PhotoStory 3, or Windows Movie Maker). For more on trailers as persuasive texts, see my web page.

Writing about films

If your students have seen any of the nominated titles, they can be tasked with writing reviews which could be posted online. If students have never written a film review, then this is a perfect opportunity to expose them to sample reviews written by film critics. They can also consider whether or not a particular review helps or hurts a film’s attendance. Students could also look for excerpts from published reviews which have now been incorporated into the marketing poster or commercial for a nominated film.

Before starting a unit on film, teachers might wish to use these research questions with their students:

1. What are the Academy Awards?
2. What organization disseminates them?
3. Who selects which movies get nominated?
4. What are the specific categories of nominated films?
5. Which genres are represented the most? The least?
box-office-port6. Who gets to vote for the nominated films?
7. How do film studios promote their film(s) to the voting members of the Academy?
8. Does box office revenue have any role in nominated films—in other words: do movies with large audiences have any better chances of getting recognized than films with smaller audiences?
9. Does box office increase after a film wins an Academy Award?
10. Who gets to attend the annual Academy Awards ceremony?
11. Why does this annual film rite get so much attention?

I’ve recently created two web sites which might be useful here. The Teacher’s Guide to the Academy Awards and the Language of Film web page both offer educators lesson plans, readings and recommended texts and videos.

Frank W. Baker is a media literacy education consultant and the author of three books, including Media Literacy In the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012). He contributed two chapters to Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, December 2013). In November 2013, Frank was a recipient of the National Telemedia Council‘s annual Jessie McCanse Award given for individual contributions to the field of media literacy over at least 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @fbaker.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

2 Responses

  1. Bill Meyers says:

    Nicely accomplished as usual, Frank. Great information for teachers in schools, churches and after school clubs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *