Monday, March 24, 2008

On "Indies": A Case For the Oscars

Even though I’m about a month late, I thought it’d be interesting to make two entries back-to-back that I’ve desired to make for a while: one in favor of the Academy Awards, and one against.

I still find the Oscar ceremony incredibly unnecessary; in fact, it’s an overblown, self-righteous, even hypocritically superficial display of the rich, famous, and beautiful patting themselves on the back (case in point: Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio’s announcement at last year’s ceremony that the “Oscars are going green”—but aren’t these award shows some of the most unnecessary and wasteful uses of energy sources?) Furthermore, as most film fans know (and as I will argue in the following entry), the Oscars have a terrible track record. Time shows that they lavish awards on the forgettable and ignore the iconic. That being said, I still get into it, and I haven’t missed a show in ten years.

But perhaps you’ve heard that the 80th Annual Academy Awards was one of the lowest rated ceremonies in recent history. Journalists from Newsweek and Time noted beforehand the increasing trend of the Oscars recognizing independent films more often than high-grossing studio fare—one writer even said the nominees look almost exactly the same as the Independent Spirit Awards. Perhaps you’ve seen this trend in your own home when you’ve watched the broadcast with a friend or family member who exclaimed, “I’ve never heard of any of these movies!” (as if their level of familiarity were some sort of litmus test of legitimization). But the lack of broad awareness of these films outside of middle America has been credited as a large part of the declining popularity of the broadcasts for the past several years—the glitz and glamour can only bring in so many million people.

One journalist argued in an editorial that I read in an airport (and unfortunately couldn’t find online—sorry, guys…it was either in Newsweek or Time) that the Oscars should start a policy of only honoring Hollywood movies (therefore, only the movies most Americans are familiar with) and leave the indies for the other award shows. He harks back to the Oscars of the 80s and 90s, when popular “Hollywood” fare like Chariots of Fire (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983), Out of Africa (1985), Rain Man (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Forrest Gump (1994), and Titanic (1997) took home the gold (I notice he chooses to omit the comparatively “artsy” and “obscure” The Last Emperor (1987)). He viewed this recent history as a time of consensus between audience and the Academy; the “crowd pleasers” were also the “Award winners”.

Yet this model hasn’t changed radically within the last few years, as many recent Best Picture-winners have also been some of the highest-grossing movies of their respective years. With the recent exceptions of No Country for Old Men and Crash, no Best Picture-winner of the 21st century has made less than $100 million. However, this author most likely speaks not exclusively of the winners, but the heightening presence of “indies” among the overall nominees.

This journalist naively writes as if the independent and studio movies were mutually exclusive (and mistakenly lumps foreign-language films into the “indie” category as well). But most highly recognized “independents” are not truly independent, and this journalist fundamentally ignores the new business model of 21st century studio filmmaking that has had this affect the Academy Awards, in which the dividing line between studios and indies are being increasingly blurred.

1) Most of these “indies” are made by the studios themselves. It is well known that the studios use subsidiary companies under their name to finance and purchase works that appeal to a highbrow or niche market. Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight, and Focus Features all had Best Picture nominees this year—none of which were financed independently. Thus, “independent” is more a label than an actual business practice. Take two Best Picture nominees from the past two years from Fox Searchlight—Juno and Little Miss Sunshine. Both opened in limited release and generated buzz to become (supposedly) unexpected sleeper hits; both have ensemble casts of recognizable character actors and even bankable stars (Jennifer Garner, Steve Carrell); and both were marketed as “quirky” indie comedies. Yet Little Miss Sunshine was independently financed and purchased at Sundance—Juno, by contrast, was studio-financed from the purchase of the script throughout casting, production, and marketing. Juno is simply an “indie” by the label tacked on it by the advertising and the logo of the subsidiary company.

2) “Indie” movies aren’t, by their nature, mutually exclusive from audience-pleasing box office success stories. The highest-grossing Best Picture nominee this year was Juno, which even outgrossed many of the studios’ promising franchises (Rush Hour 3, Live Free or Die Hard, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Ocean’s Thirteen). The only studio movie to be nominated in the Best Picture category this year was Michael Clayton, which was outgrossed by fellow nominees Atonement, No Country, and Juno. Thus, excluding the Oscar nominees to only movies released by a major studio label does not necessarily mean a greater audience familiarity with the films involved.

3) Indie movies that get recognized by the Oscars are usually “legitimized” by something involved that is familiar or bankable to a potentially large audience. As illustrated with Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, many of these movies have familiar stars. Several recent “indie” nominees, like Babel, Brokeback Mountain, and Good Night, and Good Luck have also benefited from significant star power. Others, like There Will Be Blood or No Country, have been made by filmmakers who have had a consistent presence at the Academy Awards in years past. The Academy hardly ever recognizes the truly independent movies made with no stars, first-time filmmakers, and shoestring budgets (can you imagine a mumblecore film ever getting an Oscar nomination?). Oscar-friendly “indies” are remarkably similar to mainstream fare not only in production process, but in style, content, and bigwigs involved.

4) The studios purposefully release their “prestige” movies through these subsidiaries so the major studio arms can focus on franchises and films with huge audience appeal. If you’re looking for “Oscar-worthy” material solely through films released by major studios in the last 25 years, you’ll see a significant decline in “quality” filmmaking (ie. potential Oscar material). If you look at the top 20 highest-grossing movies this year, nine of them are part of franchises, and five are adapted from a famous book/comic book/TV show with a built-in audience. Unless anybody feels that Transformers or Alvin and the Chipmunks didn’t receive enough Oscar recognition, it’s evident that the division between popular taste and “prestige” taste is the result of the studios segregating their movies with award potential to the subsidiary arm, and the movies with a potential mass audience to the major label. In other words, if Out of Africa or Terms of Endearment were released today, they would have been released through a subsidiary studio and put in limited release to gain award buzz rather than set alongside wide releases of popular films.

The studios seem not to trust their prestige movies to mass audiences anymore, and possibly for good reason: as previously stated, the one film released by a studio to gain significant Oscar attention was Michael Clayton (which many credited as a nostalgic hark back to the days when “smart” films for “adult” audiences were made regularly by studios), a movie that hardly made a peep amongst its opening weekend box office competition. The studios have dictated popular taste and have all but completely excluded it to films with sequel/franchise potential.

So how is this a “defense” of the Oscars? Well, the Academy Awards ceremony is (usually) the second most-watched network television event of the year (behind the Super Bowl), so this ceremony provides a major chance for these “indies” (which often play only in large cities, at least initially) to gain a larger audience—and they often do, as receipts usually go up the week following the broadcast. Though these movies aren’t truly “indies,” this annual pat-on-the-back the movie industry gives itself each year is perhaps the last bastion of hope for prestige entertainment to compete with the studios’ usual output. Sometimes this gives several films that have huge obstacles in reaching a significant American audience to do so—like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Persepolis.

So if the networks are complaining that the Oscars aren’t gaining enough viewership because of the increasing marginality of the movies nominated, I have a rational solution: the networks should tell their neighboring studio friends (after all, they are all owned by the same people and operate through the same money flowing between them) to release their prestige fare wide and market them to compete against the typical franchises. Therefore, a) more people will be more familiar with the yearly output movies with award potential, thereby raising the ratings of the next Oscar broadcast, b) studios may see a financial incentive to make “good” films in competition with franchises, and therefore may compete with quality films not just to garner the most awards, but to gain box office receipts as well, and c) if all works out, we all benefit by gaining a better variety of movies indended for a diverse array audiences (niche and mass) at our local multiplex.

Because the idea of the alternative—an Oscar ceremony that only honors major studio work because the “indies” somehow aren’t “worthy” to stand alongside popular entertainment—is simply too much to bear.

And this year’s Best Supporting Actor is…Optimus Prime!

No comments: