Whether “Argo” succeeds in snagging the best picture Oscar away from “Lincoln” at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday or Emmanuelle Riva becomes the oldest best actress honoree by beating presumed front-runner Jennifer Lawrence, one thing will be clear: When it comes to movies, audiences were the big winners in 2012.
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But 2012 also included the terrific action thriller “The Grey,” starring Liam Neeson; Steven Soderbergh’s playful and tone-perfect male-stripper comedy “Magic Mike”; Rian Johnson’s wildly inventive science-fiction thriller “Looper”; and the franchise installments “The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Skyfall” — all of them exceptionally smart, good-looking and well-crafted.
By the time awards season got underway last fall, critics and industry insiders had formed a consensus: It was a great year for movies across a spectrum defined by genre exercises, sequels, mainstream comedies, micro-budgeted indies and the kind of modest-budgeted, adult-oriented dramas that many observers thought Hollywood had long since written off.
The reasons any movie year is better than another are myriad and mercurial. Last year’s bumper crop of quality is no different, although some clues can be found in new financing strategies, emerging technology and an increasingly cinema-literate audience that no longer accepts lame plots and lazy production values (two words: “John” and “Carter”).
Five years ago, Hollywood was in the midst of the same economic downturn as the rest of the country, shying away from sinking its own money into movies and instead banking on sure-fire comic book adaptations and proven series. The result was that filmmakers looked outside Hollywood for money — cobbling together international financiers or being bankrolled by a single investor, such as Megan Ellison — then brought their projects to studios to distribute and market. Last year’s “Looper,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Cloud Atlas” were made this way, an approach that preserved the strong artistic vision of their directors while providing the wide reach of a mainstream studio.
“I do think this year, the movies across the board were better,” says Jason Blum, founder and chief executive of Blumhouse Productions. The reason, he says, was that “every movie last year was put together at a time when money got very, very tight. And when you force a director to work within certain confines, he’s got to focus on performance, character, actors and story. And none of those things needs to be expensive.”
“I think there’s a new paradigm,” says producer Mike Medavoy, whose past films include “Rocky,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Platoon” and, more recently, “Shutter Island” and “Black Swan.” “And the paradigm is to spend less and make fewer films.” (Last year Sony Pictures announced that it would make two fewer films a year starting in 2014.) What’s more, he added, with such conspicuous budget-bloated flops as the aforementioned “John Carter,” as well as “Total Recall” and “Battleship,” burned into movie-business memories, studio executives are now painfully aware that dumbed-down spectacle is no longer enough.