I wrote the below article in 1997 for Horror magazine, which folded before printing it. The article was eventually printed in 2001, in my horror collection, Halloween Candy.
Back then I thought that the Saturn Award was the definitive horror film award. But times change. This past decade has seen a mushrooming of horror film festivals and awards, including the one I founded: the Tabloid Witch Awards.
With so many horror film awards around these days (a phenomenon that I discuss in my upcoming book), the Saturn is no longer so special.
Although dated, I now offer this article for free, as a retrospective of the state of horror film awards in 1997.
To what extent are my observations it still true? To what extent have times changed? You decide!
Horror Goes Hollywood: A Call for Saturn Reform
by Thomas M. Sipos
The 23rd Annual Saturn Awards show was held July 22, 1997, at the Century Park Hyatt Hotel in Century City. But this report is not about the awards show itself, although it concludes with a list of nominees and winners. But rather, this article explains what the Saturn is, why it’s worthwhile, the extent to which it’s failed on its promise, and how this failure has hurt horror.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences never extends Oscar consideration to every outstanding film in a given year, although it may claim otherwise, but primarily to films deemed serious and respectable. Despite a rare win (typically in “lesser” categories), odds disfavor comedy, action, science fiction, and horror. Were it otherwise, 1985’s Oscar nominees would have been dominated by The Company of Wolves, The Doctor and the Devils, and Re-Animator. The Brood would have swept 1979. But if they won’t let you join their club, you can either cry into your milk or start your own.
Horror’s club is the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, established in 1972 by its longtime President, Dr. Donald A. Reed. This Academy presents the Saturn Awards. A Saturn is like an Oscar, only nicer. A golden statuette of Saturn, rings and all. An Oscar is a nude eunuch. Which would you rather see on your mantle?
It’s difficult to judge films of disparate genres against one another, because different genres pursue different aesthetic goals. The Oscar solution is exclusion. Horror’s embarrassment of riches in 1985 were never seriously considered against Out of Africa. The Saturn folk are more inclusive, with first two, then three, and now four Best Film Saturns. One each for Best Science Fiction, Best Fantasy, Best Horror (which in 1985 went to Fright Night), and Best Action/Adventure/Thriller Film.
I have a problem with that. That’s one Saturn too inclusive. By what rationale does an Academy devoted to Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror honor Action/etc.? The first three are all genres of the fantastique, not a patchwork hodgepodge. They share a centuries long history, their overlapping icons busying academics intent upon demarcating genre seams. Action/etc. is an interloper, its Saturn created in 1994 and first awarded to Pulp Fiction. Now, I agree that personality goes a long way, but if an Academy identifies itself as one devoted to SF/F/H, its awards should reflect it. What next, a Best Nighttime Soap Saturn?
Another problem is the Academy’s wanton standards by which a film may qualify as SF/F or H. Consider the epidemic of action-comedies masquerading as science fiction: Independence Day, Mars Attacks, Men in Black. However worthy these films are in their own right (as something other than science fiction), genre purity should be one of the standards the Academy applies when adjudicating genre excellence. Best Science Fiction should mean Best Science Fiction.
Some background on the Academy: Anyone can join. Current membership fees are $120 per year, less for students. Members are admitted to (often prerelease) screenings of current films, sometimes a dozen a month, sometimes half as many. All screenings are held in Los Angeles, so if you’re commuting from New York or Seattle, you may wish to reconsider joining. However, membership fees are deemed charitable donations (hence, tax deductible), so technically you shouldn’t mind missing out on the screenings. It’s all for a good cause. Members also get to participate in the Saturn Awards.
Sadly, the screenings reflect two negative trends within the Academy: (1) a shift toward the mainstream, and (2) a concurrent shift toward big studio product, at the expense of low-budget horror.
Even toward the late 1980s, one still saw much grassroots horror at Academy screenings. Low-budget horror such as Dead Pit (1989), Brain Dead (1990), and Pumpkinhead (1988, and whose late co-author, Mark Patrick Carducci, is eulogized in the current Saturn Awards program book). Non-genre films were screened, but SF/F/H dominated.
Today that is no longer true. Almost all screenings feature big studio fare, and over half are non-genre. Grassroots horror, always the genre’s most vital lifeblood, is in anemic supply. Only one screening in over six months qualifies: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, a darkly humorous and spirited gem, lively and rich with quirky surprises, starring Renée Zellweger (Jerry McGuire) and Matthew McConaughey (Contact).
A few bigger budgeted horror films were also screened during those six months (such as the gut-wrenchingly satisfying Mimic), and some big studio nonsense (The Lost World, Men in Black, Batman and Robin, Contact).
At least Contact is true science fiction. But over half the screenings were of mainstream studio fare. No consistency, no genre or thematic unity, just whatever came down from corporate marketing that week. During that six month period, screenings by the Academy included Leave It to Beaver, Speed 2: Cruise Control, G.I. Jane, Seven Years in Tibet, U Turn, Face/Off, Operation: Condor, Copland, Air Force One, Hoodlum, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Con Air, Out to Sea, For Roseanna, Addicted to Love, Buddy, Dream with the Fishes, and Bean.
Now, I like Britcoms. But I worry if Bean doesn’t dilute the Academy’s raison d’être. There’s a season for Bean, and a season for Royale with cheese, and a season for chainsaws. And the Academy is not the proper time or place for the former two.
One may postulate that Academy screenings only reflect the state of the genre. Certainly, while indie genre filmmaking thrived in the early 1980s with the rise of VCRs, it suffered with the bankruptcies of Cannon, Empire, Film Ventures, and De Laurentiis. Yet grassroots horror is out there, even if much of it goes direct to video. Full Moon, Concorde, and PM Entertainment continue to produce low-budget genre product (even if often cookie-cutter, lifeless, and lacking in vision). So too guerrilla filmmakers shooting 16mm and digital video, many lacking distribution. The Academy should seek them out, or at least welcome poverty row filmmakers who approach them with rough cuts. Does the Academy do so?
In the 23rd Saturn Awards program book, Dr. Reed writes that the Academy “honors filmmakers and encourages them to make quality genre films which are not only popular, but contribute to the arts and sciences.” But what is a quality genre film? Is it something expensive, slick, loud, and rife with big stars and big explosions? Perhaps another clue emerges when Reed adds:
"As the Academy is geared to honor, recognize, and promote the genre film, I usually work closely with each studio in promoting their new genre releases. Whether it’s providing an enthusiastic audience for an advance screening, or viewing a film to provide a nifty quote for publication, I’ve found myself working with a staff of studio representatives which are probably the most under-rated group working at the studios, namely the publicists.
"This tireless group of dedicated individuals have the job of building public awareness for their upcoming new films. Very often these people brainstorm into the night working on the latest strategy to help sell their newest film. It’s not an easy task and it is one filled with plenty of stress.
"They know that their ad campaign could ultimately make or break a film and, with so much money riding on the films these days it’s a daunting challenge. My hat is off to these great individuals.
"This year, we are honoring one of the best in publicity, promotion, and marketing: Edward Russell. Ed has done a successful job at Sony Pictures for many years. He is the recipient of the Service Award this year. Let this award be a symbol for all the work these people do at the studio. This Academy is cognizant of their efforts and we are happy to acknowledge them, especially Ed, for all their hard work."
It almost sounds as if the Academy is an arm of studio marketing. I’m sure it’s all very exciting. However, with all due respect for the Academy’s positive work, I humbly suggest that an Academy that hopes to honor and encourage genre excellence should perhaps be less concerned with “providing an enthusiastic audience” for studios than with providing discerning genre cinéastes with worthy films. Likewise, an Academy committed to excellence should be less concerned with providing “a nifty quote for publication” than with providing impartial critiques. An Academy devoted to quality should be less concerned with working “closely with each studio in promoting their new genre releases” than with seeking quality films from whatever source.
What if a studio’s latest film is garbage? Is it the Academy’s job to supply an audience, a nifty quote, or help with promotion, regardless of merit?
Studios (and indie filmmakers) should be welcome to participate and support, but not dominate or dictate. Publicists are useful sources of information, but they are not unbiased. Conflicts of interest arise between corporate publicists and an organization with an independent aesthetic objective. What if a publicist has four films to promote that month: one genre, one borderline, two mainstream. A conscientious and discerning genre academy may request just one, perhaps two, films for screening. The publicist may insist on a package deal. Screen all four or nothing.
Academy screenings are rife with non-genre fare. What about the Saturns? Are rigorous standards enforced?
The Saturns usually go to genre fare, but even that’s beginning to crack in the mania to celebrate studio product over genre excellence. The 1994 Best Fantasy Saturn went to Forrest Gump. Whatever one thinks of Gump on its own merits, one must greatly torture the definition of fantasy for it to encompass Gump.
Incidentally, Gump also won the Oscar for Best Picture, so the two Academies are beginning to think alike. Nor is this a first. The Silence of the Lambs won a Best Picture Oscar and a Best Horror Film Saturn (despite being more of a suspense thriller than a horror film).
All this begs the questions: Why have the Saturns? Why were they established? To seek out and celebrate genre films disparaged by the establishment, or to rubber-stamp studio product? Have the Oscars come around to honoring genre films, or is it the Saturns that have sold out to the mainstream?
It weren’t always so. The first Best Horror Film Saturn went to Blacula in 1972. But today, the two Academies appear to be separate divisions of the same studio, like Disney and Miramax.
The Saturn’s genre categorizations seem haphazard. Why was The Island of Dr. Moreau nominated for Best Science Fiction Film instead of Horror? Why was Phenomenon nominated for Best Fantasy instead of Science Fiction? (Really, it’s more of a mainstream romantic drama.) Why was Curdled nominated for Horror, but Bound for Action/Adventure/Thriller? If The Frighteners qualifies for Horror this year, why did Ghostbusters win for Fantasy in 1984? Because there were few fantasy films that year and they wanted to award somebody? What if no worthy fantasy films emerged in 1994? Must the Academy award a Saturn anyway? Even to a Gump?
When one year the NAACP determined there weren’t enough worthy candidates for its Image Award in a specific category, it nominated no one for that category. Studios preferred the NAACP nominate someone, anyone, but the NAACP’s decision (1) signaled Hollywood about the paucity of black roles, and (2) maintained the value of the Image Award by only honoring quality black talent. Likewise, SFWA members have the option of voting “No Award” if they deem that no book or story merits a Nebula in a given category. Publishers may not like it, but it expresses the SFWA membership’s displeasure over the paucity of quality science fiction being published, and it enhances the value of the Nebula.
Saturn reform should adopt that practice. If no Best Horror Film Saturn is awarded in a given year, it will inform the studios (and the independents) that their output is wanting. Even if the studios ignore the message, it strengthens the integrity of the Saturn.
How are Saturns awarded? I vaguely recall participating in both nominations and voting while an Academy member in the 1980s. I allowed my membership to lapse in response to what I perceived as a shift away from grassroots horror. When I rejoined in the mid-1990s, I found that members now have no say in nominations, and may only vote in the four Best Film categories; not for any of the people (directors, actors, etc.), and not in any of the television categories.
This year the Best Horror Film Saturn went to Wes Craven’s Scream, a smart-alecky (rather than smart) standard slasher effort. Although inferior to Craven’s best work, Deadly Blessing, is Scream’s victory a sign that the Academy is at least reaching out to low-budget horror? Well, no. Craven is now well-established. The studios respect him. I wonder, what if today’s equivalent of Last House on the Left knocked on the Academy’s door?
The Academy seems to prefer schmoozing with studio publicists over digging for grindhouse treasures. Which is not to say that studio product is always inferior to that of low-budget indies. The X-Files merits every award it gets. I only wish the Academy did more to level the field so we could better see all the players.
I wrote Dr. Reed in June 1997, inquiring about the screenings’ selection process, and the history and rules for the Saturns. I also expressed my concerns over the aesthetic direction of the Academy, and my desire to discuss these issues with him. In a brief discussion after a screening, Dr. Reed explained he was too busy to give interviews until after the Saturn Awards ceremony. His assistant, Robert L. Holguin (a Saturn producer), arranged press passes for me and a photographer, for which I am thankful. But a week after the awards, Dr. Reed said he was unable to see anyone in the near future. I queried Mr. Holguin, but he did not respond to my request for an interview.
The Saturns need reforming. They should honor quality genre films, irrespective of distributor or budget. Instead, they seem to concentrate on promoting studio films. I’m not sure if greater participation by the membership would help, not while free screenings are dominated by mainstream studio product. I suspect such screenings attract members who perceive Academy membership as a season ticket to summer popcorn movies. What the Academy needs are members passionate and knowledgeable about SF/F/H. I wonder if that’s true of even a majority of its current membership?
Here are my guiding principles for Saturn reform:
(1) Only films clearly qualifying as science fiction, fantasy, or horror shall be considered for nominations within those genres. Practically, this means that genres shall be defined in writing, and nominations must justify, in writing, why a specific nominee qualifies.
(2) Effort shall be expended to seek out worthy films with small budgets, or films lacking distribution, so that every genre film receives fair consideration.
(3) Any genre film shall receive priority over any non-genre film for screening slots, irrespective of production value.
(4) If it be adjudged, either through the nomination process or by final vote, that no worthy candidate exists in a particular category, then no Saturn shall be awarded in that category for that year.
(5) No Saturn shall be awarded for any work unrelated to science fiction, fantasy, or horror. The Action/Adventure/Thriller Saturn shall be abolished.
If some of these rules are already in place, it is not evident from the nominees. My requests to see the Saturn rules were ignored, so I don’t know what they are. I suspect the nominating committees (if there be such), and voting members (in categories other than for Best Films), are dominated by studio employees and those currying their favor.
If so, the Academy is a front for corporate horror. Its decline in aesthetic integrity mirrors that of MTV, which has fallen from discovering and nurturing innovative music videos, to promoting politically correct corporate rock. Grassroots low-budget horror films are as scarce at Academy screenings as music videos on MTV.
Perhaps we need yet another Academy, one committed solely to horror. One that works with horror filmmakers, while maintaining a healthy independence from the marketers. We once had that, or close to it. In 1983 four Utah fans founded the National Horror Motion Picture Association. For two years they awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Awards. The Poes for short, perhaps to avoid confusion with the MWA’s Edgars. For two years the NHMPA published a quarterly journal, featuring supportive letters from Stephen King and Debra Hill. But it folded, having never grown beyond fanzine status.
Horror needs an Academy to serve as its Sundance Festival. An Academy to discover and screen and publicize the next Blair Witch Project, rather than wait for Artisan to do the spadework. Can the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films become the Sundance of SF/F/H? Or is it too far off-track? Or maybe the Saturns do accurately reflect the state of the genre, in which case, horror’s grassroots need watering. Certainly, there are deserving contenders among this year’s nominees, along with much sludge. Much as I liked Curdled, someone should have stepped in and said: Curdled is not horror.
If you didn’t see the 23rd Annual Saturn Awards, it’s because you weren’t there. At one time the Saturns were syndicated [on television], now no more. During our brief conversation, Dr. Reed said that no network wanted to buy the broadcast rights this year, not even the Sci-Fi Channel. Without license fees to fund the Awards, the Academy instead charged $500 tickets and only those paying could attend. Otherwise, it might have been open to all members, gratis.
Do the Saturns represent the best of SF/F/H? Consider this list of nominees and winners. Categories and nominees listed in no particular order. Winners boldfaced. Yes, two Life Career Awards. Are these the best of 1996? Decide for yourself.
[Addendum: In March 2001, for the first time, I received a form from the Academy entitled: “Academy Processing Form for Serving on Voting Committees for the Saturn Awards.” The form stated: We are currently revising the committees which vote for the Saturn Awards. We request that you fill this form out and return it to us so you may vote on the committee of your choice. Members may serve on one or two committees depending on whether there is space available. If you serve on a committee, you will be sent a ballot allowing you to vote in the specific category of your choice. Eight committees were listed: Direction, Writing, Music, Costume, Make-Up, Special Effects, Television, Video. The form also requested my age group (under 30, 30-50, over 50), and my genre preferences: Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, or Other. This new committee form is a positive sign; although why should the Academy care if some members like “Other” genres?]
BEST SCIENCE FICTION FILM:
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Star Trek: First Contact
The Island of Dr. Moreau
Escape from L.A.
BEST FANTASY FILM:
The Nutty Professor
The Adventures of Pinocchio
James and the Giant Peach
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
BEST HORROR FILM:
BEST ACTION/ADVENTURE/THRILLER FILM:
Roland Emmerich (Independence Day)
Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!)
Wes Craven (Scream)
Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek: First Contact)
Joel Coen (Fargo)
Peter Jackson (The Frighteners)
Kevin Williamson (Scream)
Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek: First Contact)
Jonathan Gems (Mars Attacks!)
Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich (Independence Day)
Fran Walsh & Peter Jackson (The Frighteners)
The Wachowski Brothers (Bound)
Eddie Murphy (The Nutty Professor)
Jeff Goldblum (Independence Day)
Bill Paxton (Twister)
Michael J. Fox (The Frighteners)
Will Smith (Independence Day)
Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: First Contact)
Neve Campbell (Scream)
Geena Davis (The Long Kiss Goodnight)
Helen Hunt (Twister)
Penelope Ann Miller (Relic)
Gina Gershon (Bound)
Frances McDormand (Fargo)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
Brent Spiner (Star Trek: First Contact)
Brent Spiner (Independence Day)
Jeffrey Combs (The Frighteners)
Edward Norton (Primal Fear)
Joe Pantoliano (Bound)
Skeet Ulrich (Scream)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact)
Drew Barrymore (Scream)
Fairuza Balk (The Craft)
Glenn Close (101 Dalmatians)
Vivica Fox (Independence Day)
Jennifer Tilly (Bound)
BEST YOUNG ACTOR:
Lucas Black (Sling Blade)
James Duval (Independence Day)
Kevin Bishop (Muppet Treasure Island)
Jonathan Taylor Thomas (The Adventures of Pinocchio)
Lukas Haas (Mars Attacks!)
Mara Wilson (Matilda)
Danny Elfman (Mars Attacks!)
Danny Elfman (The Frighteners)
David Arnold (Independence Day)
Randy Edelman (Dragonheart)
Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: First Contact)
Nick Glennie-Smith, Hans Zimmer & Harry Gregson-Williams (The Rock)
Deborah Everton (Star Trek: First Contact)
Colleen Atwood (Mars Attacks!)
Kym Barrett (Romeo & Juliet)
Robin Michel Bush (Escape from L.A.)
Thomas Casterline & Anna Sheppard (Dragonheart)
Joseph Porro (Independence Day)
Rick Baker & David Leroy Anderson (The Nutty Professor)
Rick Baker & Richard Taylor (The Frighteners)
Greg Cannom (Thinner)
Jenny Shircore & Peter Owen (Mary Reilly)
Michael Westmore, Scott Wheeler & Jake Garber (Star Trek: First Contact)
Stan Winston & Shane Patrick Mahan (The Island of Dr. Moreau)
BEST SPECIAL EFFECTS:
Volker Engel, Douglas Smith, Clay Pinney & Joe Viskocil (Independence Day)
Scott Squires, Phil Tippett, James Straus & Kit West (Dragonheart)
Wes Ford Takahashi, Charlie McClellan & Richard Taylor (The Frighteners)
James Mitchell, Michael Fink, David Andrews, Michael Lantieri,
ILM & Warner Digital Studios (Mars Attacks!)
ILM & John Knoll (Star Trek: First Contact)
Stefan Fangmeier, John Frazier, Habib Zargarpour & Henry LaBounta (Twister)
BEST GENRE NETWORK TV SERIES:
The X-Files (Fox)
Dark Skies (NBC)
Early Edition (CBS)
The Simpsons (Fox)
BEST GENRE SYNDICATED/CABLE TV SERIES:
The Outer Limits (Showtime)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (TNT)
Babylon 5 (Syndicated)
Highlander: The Series (Syndicated)
Poltergeist: The Legacy (Showtime)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Syndicated)
BEST GENRE TELEVISION PRESENTATION:
Doctor Who (Fox)
Alien Nation: The Enemy Within (Fox)
The Beast (NBC)
The Canterville Ghost (ABC)
Gulliver’s Travels (NBC)
The Lottery (NBC)
BEST GENRE TELEVISION ACTOR:
Kyle Chandler (Early Edition)
Avery Brooks (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
Eric Close (Dark Skies)
David Duchovny (The X-Files)
Lance Henriksen (Millennium)
Paul McGann (Doctor Who)
BEST GENRE TELEVISION ACTRESS:
Gillian Anderson (The X-Files)
Claudia Christian (Babylon 5)
Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina, The Teenage Witch)
Lucy Lawless (Xena, Warrior Princess)
Helen Shaver (Poltergeist: The Legacy)
Megan Ward (Dark Skies)
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: Sylvester Stallone
PRESIDENT’S AWARD: Billy Bob Thornton
LIFE CAREER AWARD: Dino De Laurentiis
LIFE CAREER AWARD: John Frankenheimer
GEORGE PAL MEMORIAL AWARD: Kathleen Kennedy
SERVICE AWARD: Edward Russell