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A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Oscars… but the major studios aren’t laughing

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Oscars… but the major studios aren’t laughing

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was not, originally, in the award-awarding business.  In fact, the Academy (founded by some of the early Hollywood moguls i.e. Louis Mayer, Douglas Fairbanks, and Jack Warner, among others) didn’t get around to handing out the little gold men until 1929 — two years after AMPAS’ creation.

The idea of the awards was a bit of Hollywood self-promotion.  Movies were fun, they were entertaining, but generally viewed as a more-or-less plebian diversion.  Movies didn’t have the kind of cultural cachet which, say, theater had.  They didn’t have – for lack of a better word – class.

The awards were a way of publicly pronouncing movies as not only entertaining, but also capable of being good. After all, what said class better than commemorating excellence by giving out gold statues of a bald naked man hiding his privates with a broadsword?

That the Academy had been set up by the movie business and was populated by people from in the movie business and that Academy voters often voted for who their studio bosses told them to vote for put the Academy’s opinion on what good might be on somewhat shaky ground integrity-wise.  In effect, the first Oscars were a form of grandiose self-back-patting – “See how good we are?  We’re so good, we gave ourselves an award!”  Still, it wasn’t long before the Academy Awards became the most prominent and popular of entertainment award ceremonies.

Flash forward four score years and a funny thing happens on the way to Oscar night.  What had been originally conceived by Hollywood as a platform to show the public how good Hollywood movies were, turns into a platform showing the public how good Hollywood movies aren’t.

In the eighty-odd years since the first awards, the Academy has grown up.  Its taste and judgment may have often been questionable (sometimes unbelievably so; a Best Picture nomination for The Towering Inferno?  THE TOWERING INFERNO?), but not its independence.  Over time, it has become – more or less — what it had initially been grandly (if not particularly truthfully) declared to be:  an organization for the promotion and recognition of advances and excellence in moviemaking.

The irony therein is that more and more often in recent years, the Academy has been finding that excellence outside the circle of the major studios which had founded the Academy in the first place.  The bitterest and most ironic part of this bitterly ironic irony is that, as always, the nearly 6,000 members of AMPAS are people from the movie industry.  In the technical categories, the awards are sort of a peer review thing:  editors vote on editing, production designers vote on production design, and so forth.  But all members vote for Best Picture meaning this is still Hollywood’s own rendering judgment upon their own, and their judgment of late has regularly been that people outside of Hollywood’s big power circle are making the best (well, ok, better) movies.  Consider the scorecard:  since Titanic brought home the Best Picture trophy in 1998, seven of the 12 films which have subsequently taken the category have been indies including the last three winners:  No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker (if you count mini-major New Line as an oversized independent, the total rises to eight thanks to The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King).

The major studios beefed, they whined, they complained.  There was just something unfair (though God knows no one could exactly say what) about how these little snooty-snoot-snoot made-on-a-(comparative) shoestring art house movies kept getting the lion’s share of nominations and, more often than not, walking home at the end of the night arm-in-sword-wielding arm with Oscar.  The majors felt particularly aggrieved when they did turn out an exceptional picture – like, say, The Dark Knight – and all they got for their creative daring and accomplishment was an AMPAS snub.

The Academy was concerned that the majors were concerned.  No one expected any of the majors to take their marbles and go home, but still… The majors spent millions on Oscar campaigns every year, and big studio glamour was very much what made the Oscars The Oscars!!! If, at some point, the Big Guys began to figure all they were doing was putting out a lot of effort – and money – to support what had become, in effect, a publicity platform for a bunch of beret-wearing, pony-tailed, artsy-fartsy competitors… Well, really; what would be the point?

The Academy had its own concerns.  The Oscar telecast had hit an all-time high audience of 57.25 million viewers the year Titanic took the big prize.  The ratings have been more-or-less sliding ever since.  Last year, 41.62 million watched indie The Hurt Locker walk away with the Best Picture title, and that was up from the 36.94 million who saw Slumdog Millionaire cop the prize the year before.

Since 1998, there’s been a certain mathematical predictability to the ratings.  They spiked for The Return of the King, they dropped for Crash, they spiked for The Departed, they nosedived for No Country for Old Men.

The fairly obvious conclusion was this:  understandably, people didn’t want to watch an award ceremony in which most of the contenders for The Big Enchilada – and particularly the frontrunners — were movies they hadn’t seen, had no interest in seeing, and quite possibly might not even have heard of.  Everybody and his brother/sister had seen Titanic = Oscar’s highest-rated telecast.  No Country for Old Men had grossed about 1/8 what Titanic had raked in = Oscar’s lowest-rated telecast.

AMPAS’  response to the concern was typically Hollywoodian in that it was an overly simplistic tactic based on an overly simplistic read of the situation.  The Academy broadened the nominating field for Best Picture to ten slots from five.  The thinking here was, apparently, indies were crowding out the Big Guys in a small field, but with more slots there’d be more room for movies like The Dark Knight and the Star Trek reboot and the other better major studio releases.

The 2009 Oscars were the first ceremonies with the expanded Best Picture field.  And then another funny thing happens on the way to the awards.

It doesn’t help.

Six of the ten nominees were indies:  District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, and winner The Hurt Locker (if you want to stretch a point and consider Pixar an extremely muscular indie under the Disney umbrella, it becomes seven of ten with Pixar’s Up). On a percentage basis, that’s not much of an improvement for the majors over what they were doing in a field of five.

Fluke?  Or maybe Academy members were still feeling their way through a newly-expanded field for the first time?

Let’s look at the just-announced nominees for this year’s Best Picture field:

Black Swan (indie)

The Fighter (indie)

Inception (major)

The Kids Are All Right (indie)

The King’s Speech (indie)

127 Hours (indie)

The Social Network (major)

Toy Story 3 (Pixar – you call it)

True Grit (major)

Winter’s Bone (indie)

Two flukes make a trend, and it doesn’t end with the night’s big prize.

Beyond the Best Picture category, 16 of the 20 acting nominations are for performances in indie films, including all five Best Actress and four of five Best Supporting Actress nods.  Six of the ten screenwriting slots –  including four of five for Original Screenplay – are for indies.

Not to be cynical but one does start to think even if they widened the field to 15 or 20 titles, the majors would still come up short…maybe even shorter.  After all, once you’re past Inception and The Social Network and snubs The Town and Shutter Island, what could the majors put up?  Iron Man 2? Clash of the Titans?  Little Fockers?

However, it would be just as overly simplistic to say, “What the bigs need to do is make more better pictures.”  To that, keep in mind what Monty Pythonite John Cleese once said in an interview some years ago to the effect that when you knew how the movie business worked, the surprise wasn’t that so few good movies got made; the surprise was that anything got made at all!

The majors are built to make big movies.  That’s what they do.  That’s what they exist to do.  Trying to get them to go small is like trying to use a Formula One race car as a golf cart.  They survive from one year to the next by making movies that make scads of money, and the kinds of movies with that kind of earning power don’t inherently lend themselves to being Best Picture kinds of flicks.  This is why there are more big studio movies of the Iron Man 2/Little Fockers ilk then of the The Social Network/Inception breed.  Academy Awards don’t protect your big studio job or keep that huge organization running, but The Hangover II and Iron Man 3 and re-booting the Spider-Man franchise can.  The reason most Best Actress/Supporting Actress nods come from indies?  Because the most lucrative audience for big studio movies is young males who would rather see other males blow things up or drink themselves into a comical coma than see women do…well, pretty much rather than see women do anything (except maybe blow things up or drink themselves into a comical coma).

With a leaner, less cost-intensive architecture, indies are more maneuverable.  They don’t have to please huge masses of people to stay alive.  Just enough.  And in 2010, because the Big Guys did what they’re supposed to do so badly toward the end of the year (stiffs like Gulliver’s Travels, Yogi Bear, Skyline, Love and Other Drugs, Morning Glory, How Do You Know, and profitable but unbearable muck like Little Fockers), they left plenty of room for indies to do what they do best, providing a steady stream of sharp-edged, intelligent, adult indie fare.

There still may be something to this strategy of widening the Best Picture field as far as the annual telecast is concerned.  Last year’s viewership uptick may have been due to there being room among the noms for biggest-earning-film-of-all-time Avatar, and another box office heavy-hitter, The Blind Side (eighth highest earner of the year).  This year’s inclusion of Inception (#5 for 2010) and Toy Story 3 (#1 and the first animated film to do $1 billion worldwide) might buoy the viewing numbers as well.

But as far as bettering the odds of going home with the gold?  The Big Guys may still have to settle for empty hands…assuaged by full pockets.

Continue to the followup article

(published after the Oscar ceremony)