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.
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.
“It still comes down to characters,” Medavoy says. “Do you really believe the characters and the actors portraying those characters? If I say to you, What do you remember about ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ outside its craftsmanship? It’s those characters and those performances.”
High-profile flops notwithstanding, Hollywood seems more chary of out-and-out dreck than in previous years. Black List founder Franklin Leonard, whose company is bringing a data-intensive approach to uniting scripts and filmmakers, notes that far fewer critical bombs were released in 2012, as telling a statistic as the number of home runs. Based on an analysis of scores found on the Web site Metacritic, Leonard noted in an e-mail that “fifteen films released in more than 1,000 theaters in 2011 had Metacritic scores of 30 or below. There were only six in 2012.”
His e-mail continued: “I suspect that to the extent that’s a trend, it’s a result of studios being acutely aware of the fact that bad films, particularly those targeted at adults, have a harder time withstanding the rapid spread of word of mouth via Twitter, Facebook and other social media” and of studios “focusing on films that can benefit from that effect.”
Leonard added that, looking at Metacritic scores alone, 2011 was actually a stronger year for overall quality — although he noted that “2012’s best films were almost universally adult dramas or films targeted primarily, if not exclusively, at adults.” In a year that saw such movies for grown-ups as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Lincoln,” ”Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Silver Linings Playbook” crossing the magic $100 million mark — and when grown-ups helped nudge “Arbitrage,” “Ted” and “The Avengers” into modest or mega-size hits — adults are proving that they can be as reliably lucrative an audience as the teenage boys Hollywood has spent decades catering to.
Blum predicts that, at least while baby boomers go out to see movies, high-quality theatrical releases will continue. But as the on-demand generation matures, more mainstream dramas will migrate to television, as series and VOD offerings. “For younger generations who have grown up getting everything they want at home, we’re not going to be able to force them to go out to see movies in a theater,” Blum says. “A few yes. But movies in the not too distant future will be seen by a lot more people and in a lot more places at once.”