Dramas, Blockbusters, and the Academy Awards

Almost every year detractors complain of the Academy’s disregard for popular entertainment. In Oscar’s eyes, the “movie” is somehow inferior to the worthy “film”. As a filmmaker, you either dumb down your craft to make nine figures, or you take your work seriously, because Academy voters like nothing better than art that knows it is serious. When both coalesce it is the exception, not the rule.

Last year the dichotomy between pop and art were obvious: Cameron’s crowd-seducing Avatar vs. Bigelow’s indie thriller The Hurt Locker. I use the labels “movie” and “film” with caution. They are more economic distinctions than aesthetic ones. Avatar glowed with as much breathless artistry as The Hurt Locker simmered with tried-and-true exercises in Hitchcockian suspense. Bigelow’s effort made back its $11-million, but only squeaked in and out of theatres. Meanwhile Avatar charged, dominating the box office for seven straight weeks.

By giving Best Picture to The Hurt Locker, the Academy lived up its reputation for high-brow snobbery. Of course, they would not give the award to the biggest cinematic event of the year (which Avatar was, tepid plot aside). Of course, they would not give The Dark Knight a nomination in 2008. Even doubling the amount of nominees did not give the popular films a fighting chance at the award.

This year, unique visions and commercial appeal have paired together in a surprising number of films that won critics and audiences. In an industry increasingly dominated by massive budgets and groundbreaking special effects, Americans (and, let’s not forget, Canadians) have turned overwhelmingly to niche auteurs and dramas.

A group of strong contenders are poised to carve the Academy between themselves, maybe evenly. There is no binary Cameron-Bigelow showdown. Undoubtedly, The Social Network is the zeitgeist biopic routing the accolades and winning the critic’s affections. Fincher’s cynical drama raked in $192 million, despite having little star power (only Justin Timberlake in a supporting role) and an unsympathetic host of characters.

Even more extraordinary was True Grit, which grossed $138 million domestically. Considering the Coen brothers are hardly mainstream material and the Western is a genre long thought dead, this was the year’s runaway hit. The psychosexual Black Swan also exceeded expectations with an impressive $83 million, despite director Daren Aronofsky’s poor history with the box office. Other indies excelled: The Fighter won $75 million; The King’s Speech crossed the Atlantic and the $100 million mark.

From hollywoodnews.com

This was an amazing year for dramas, original concepts, and a dead monarch’s stutter. Even among the blockbusters novelty prevailed. Who would have thought a two-and-a-half hour mindbender like Inception would gross $800 million? Granted, the ads were prefaced with “From the Director of the Dark Knight”, but Christopher Nolan does not have the same draw as Spielberg or Bay. Neither does Tim Burton, who gambled on an unpromising March release date to sell the monumental Alice in Wonderland.

But what about the usual cash machines, the sequels, remakes, and star vehicles that fill the most seats year by year? As Brooks Barnes noted in The New York Times, a large number of expected steamrollers tanked. The Killers and The Tourist needed foreign rentals to make back their budgets, despite having the full weight of studio marketing. Sex and the City 2 and The Revenge of Kitty Galore also underperformed domestically.

I have hope, as Barnes does, that audiences are becoming more demanding. They want an Inception or a Despicable Me rather than another Prince of Persia. Strong numbers for the Oscar front runners could be a signal of audiences maturing out of the governing 18-25 male demographic.

To understand the shift to quality it is useful to go back to last winter, when Avatar was well on its way to breaking the billion-dollar benchmark. Cameron’s visuals, scope, and 3D mastery have not yet been equalled, even challenged. Has the standard been set too high for subsequent blockbusters to compete? Were Avatar’s stunning looks and banal story so mismatched as to train us to spot rehashed material in subsequent spectacles?

There are too many outliers to answer in the affirmative. 3D did wonders for Resident Evil: Afterlife and Clash of the Titans, and the requisite summer sequel Iron Man 2 exploded globally. But the same magic is gone, or at least waning. Tron Legacy, in all its attempts to be 2010’s Avatar, was only a moderate success. When True Grit is approaching the same numbers as Tron’s domestic haul, one can be optimistic enough to say we might just be sick of the same shit.

Studios recognize this but, typically, are taking shortcuts. When Sony hired Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) to direct its Spider-Man reboot, industry watchers like Variety called it a watershed moment of abandoning studio journeymen in favour of untested young talent. I think the more pressing issue is that Sony fully expects us to watch Peter Parker learn to climb again. No later than 2013. I thought the success of this year’s contenders would inspire Sony to find Webb a project to suit his subjective and postmodern takes on romantic comedy.

Keep 'em down, boys, don't let him make another movie.

 

Increasingly, it does not matter what Canadians and Americans think. Foreigners are gorging themselves on Hollywood crap. Gulliver’s Travels has little right to make obscene amounts on money, but Jack Black did just that outside the U.S. Flashy, simple, and loud, action movies easily transcend cultural barriers. Producers can jump on the 3D bandwagon (regardless of how gratuitous and poor most 3D is), and exhibitors can charge higher ticket prices.

While I am glad that so many award-winning dramas plundered the  home box office, this might be a minor blip in the Hollywood model and not the start of a trend. Clearly, studios are still hedging their bets on animation, sequels, and comic book adaptations.

Now the challenge is putting new wine into old bottles. Nolan’s reinvention of the derailed Batman franchise showed the MPAA how to inject high-brow gravity, no matter how superficial, into the familiar origin story. 20th Century Fox has already picked up Aronofsky to direct Wolverine 2. The result should be interesting, but I hope auteurs will be given support for their own projects, even if they have to “make one for the system”. However, if attendance continues to drop almost ten percent a year, than the system might have to green light stories as original as their directors.

This article can also be found in next week’s issue of The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper. If you liked this, subscribe to Post Projection on the right.

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2 Comments

Filed under Filmmakers, The Coen Brothers

2 responses to “Dramas, Blockbusters, and the Academy Awards

  1. Earl

    Thanks for your thoughtful article. I enjoyed reading it. Baby boomers (yes I am one) have determined most things in my life time and sad to say I am aging. I feel my tastes changing. I have seen over 100 movies a year at theaters since I was a little kid and now I am 58. It is not that I have stopped going to action films but in a lot of cases I am thankful for that yogurt they are serving.
    My tolerance for the simple minded is less and less. When inception ended, I wanted them to play it again. I want smart and witty and thought provoking.
    I find now that I am even wondering why I liked Star Wars so much and that now I really understand why they gave Annie Hall the Oscar. Maybe the older voters then knew something I was too young to understand.

    • Hi Earl,
      I’m glad you liked it. The Star Wars-Annie Hall debate is one of the many “movie vs. film” conflicts, like Avatar vs. Hurt Locker. I don’t want to suggest the “movies” are bad, but that they have dominated the market so much that hardly anyone makes dramas anymore – this year being an odd exception.
      -Alex

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