Wanna know a secret? I’ve never cared much about the Oscars.
When I began writing about movies for a living, covering the Academy Awards and its attendant hoopla was always the least interesting part of my job — as I once joked to an editor, I wrote all year for free, but got paid to watch the Oscars. Like so many cine-snooty movie snobs, I dismissed them as celebrations of the hopelessly middlebrow (“Forrest Gump” over “Pulp Fiction”? Really?), a hypocritical exercise in self-congratulation and Hollywood’s longest, slickest advertisement for itself.
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?
All of these factors have contributed to making quality, sophisticated grown-up movies a risky proposition in Hollywood, where it can cost almost $100 million these days to create, advertise and promote a piece of product. And this is where the Oscars — with all their hype, sequins and bad production numbers — swoop in to improbably save the day.
“Awards season has become an incredibly critical, essential element in marketing these films,” Variety Executive Editor Steven Gaydos told me last week, adding that, with films no longer afforded the luxury of staying in theaters for weeks on end to build word-of-mouth, the Oscars have become “the world’s most cost-effective way of marketing drama.”
That strategy begins in the fall, when many studios launch their films at festivals in Telluride, Venice and Toronto. There, critics and bloggers begin the buzz about which directors, actors and films might be awards contenders, with word-of-mouth building once they begin to bestow their own honors and 10-best lists. As the movies begin to appear in theaters, filmmaking guilds begin to hand out their own kudos, lending yet more inevitability to movies deemed Oscar sure-things. Between the Golden Globes and the announcement of Oscar nominees in January, what began as a little-movies-that-could suddenly seem to be everywhere, as people make a mental note to see what all the fuss is about.
Studios pay dearly to help the buzz along, of course, and the escalating arms race of Oscar campaigning has led some industry insiders to call for a freeze. Citing Sony’s Oscar push for “The Social Network” — which cost a reported $7 million to $10 million — former agent and manager Gavin Polone recently complained that “the cost of two Oscar campaigns could comfortably fund the total production budget for a movie like ‘Drive’ or ‘Midnight in Paris.’ ” Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles agreed, adding that the awards-season strategy is largely based on myth. “There are, of course, instances where winning the Academy Award unlocks a film’s economic potential,” he said. “But the reality is that the vast majority never recoup or come close to recouping the amounts spent on trying to win the award.”
Still, some films have recouped with a vengeance: Last year, “The King’s Speech,” which cost a paltry $15 million to make, went on to earn just south of $400 million at the box office; “Slumdog Millionaire” enjoyed a similar Oscar “bump,” going on to earn more than $300 million worldwide.
With visions of such Oscar-season Cinderellas dancing in their heads, studio executives might be more willing to greenlight projects that otherwise wouldn’t fit neatly into their spreadsheets. And even if they don’t reap the regal financial rewards on a par with “The King’s Speech,” they acquire something more priceless: prestige. When “The Descendants” and its star George Clooney won at the Golden Globes in January, “the first person to shake Clooney’s hand was Rupert Murdoch,” says Hollywood Reporter Oscar columnist Scott Feinberg, referring to the chairman of the media conglomerate that owns the small studio that released the movie.
Awards, Feinberg says, “appeal to the egos of the studio chiefs and the studio executives. . . . In some ways it wipes the stain off what they do the rest of the year.”
No one has proved savvier at husbanding the Oscar’s marketing and reputation-burnishing resources than Harvey Weinstein, who perfected his strategy by steering “Shakespeare in Love” to best picture victory in 1999 (beating out “Saving Private Ryan,” no less.) It was Weinstein who figured out how to make a movie about a stuttering king with no big stars a must-see cultural event, and who cannily picked up “The Artist” at Cannes last year, predicting that a pastiche of Hollywood tropes about an actor feeling pinched between changing technology and a tough economy would be catnip to the academy’s voting members — most of whom are actors feeling pinched between changing technology and a tough economy.
It looks like Weinstein’s calculation will pay off again this year. But where “The Artist” qualifies as something of a high-end novelty film, at least three other nominees — “The Descendants,” “Moneyball” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” — exemplify precisely the kind of intelligent, mid-range movies that stand to benefit from Oscar-season awareness. That synergy worked particularly well last year, when “The King’s Speech” was nominated alongside “The Social Network,” “Black Swan,” “The Fighter” and “True Grit.”
All of those movies were made for modest budgets and all were modestly to stunningly profitable, thanks in large part to the added visibility provided by their Oscar campaigns. Surely the movies would have been made even if the Oscars didn’t exist. But they would not have been as successful, making it less likely that studios would greenlight similar projects down the road. “They’re critic-driven and execution-dependent,” Gaydos says of the adult drama niche. “And they’re the most risky films to finance today. Anything that makes them less risky or more viable — such as [an awards season] when they can be celebrated and marketed for a very reasonable amount of money — is good.”
As if to prove that point, Weinstein announced last week that he’s planted yet another seedling: Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts will begin filming “August: Osage County” — an adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play — this fall. Which positions it perfectly for an Oscar run in 2014.