Okay, I still think those things are true. And, along with other complainers this year, I agree that the 2012 race is pretty ho-hum. The jaunty silent, black-and-white movie “The Artist” is all but guaranteed to soft-shoe its way to snagging the big awards. Most of its fellow nominees are movies mired in safe, snuggly nostalgia for times gone by, both cinematic and real-world.
But seen through another lens, this year’s race offers a degree of hope, not just for the Academy Awards but for the movie industry in general. And the best of the nominated films exemplify why, in recent years, I’ve come to value the Oscars — not for rewarding artistic merit (they do so only occasionally) or an index of the zeitgeist (“Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain”? Really?), but for their role in preserving a kind of movie that might otherwise cease to exist.
Of all the endangered species in Hollywood, perhaps the most overlooked might be the adult drama — the kind of mid-budget, modestly scaled, smartly written movie that seemed to be so common in the 1970s. Back then, the genre was typified by taut, no-nonsense films like “Chinatown” and “All the President’s Men.” Their present-day analogs are “Michael Clayton” or “The Social Network” — smart, stylish movies geared toward grown-ups that, were it not for the Oscars, would be less likely to find purchase in Hollywood’s current business model.
That model, more than ever, is defined by two kinds of movies. At one end are the “tent-pole movies,” blockbusters geared toward teens that cost a fortune to make and market, but are guaranteed to make their money back because they’re known quantities among the young audiences Hollywood caters to like the world’s most indulgent helicopter parent.
At the other end of the economic matrix live the micro-budgeted guerilla indies, which cost a nickel to make, get scooped up at a festival and go on to make a healthy if not spectacular profit, if only because they cost so little to produce and market.
In the middle of these two extremes are movies that cost much more than a nickel to make, but have no pre-sold niche markets to exploit. What’s more, nowadays they’re increasingly competing for audiences with, of all things, television: Not only does the adult drama’s core audience prefer to wait for the DVD or video-on-demand download, but they have better choices on TV itself. Why put up with parking-garage chicken fights, bad expensive popcorn and texting teenagers at the mall when you can watch your TiVo’ed episode of “The Good Wife” from the quiet safety of your couch?