How This Year's Best Picture Oscar Nominees Are Saving Hollywood By Becoming Big Hits

By Katey Rich 2013-02-20 13:11:10discussion comments
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The year before the Academy started allowing 10 Best Picture nominees was a particularly brutal one for the intersection of the Oscars and audiences. Only two of the nominees, Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, would manage to make more than $100 million in the United States, and neither of them had reached that bar when they were nominated. Frost/Nixon, which bested critical and commercial hits like Wall-E and The Dark Knight for a nomination, only made $27 million worldwide; its Metacritic score of 80 made it even less of a critical success than either of those blockbusters.

By changing the Best Picture category to 10 nominees (now a sliding scale between 5 and 10 picks) the Academy hoped to include more mainstream hits. What it has done this year more than any other, though, is create them. Since Silver Linings Playbook crossed the threshold yesterday, a whopping six of the nine Best Picture nominees have made more than $100 million domestically-- and with $88 million and counting, Zero Dark Thirty is likely to make it seven before too long. And unlike years when Avatar or Inception stacked the deck toward the old-fashioned blockbuster, not a one of this year's Best Picture nominees fit the traditional mold of a Hollywood hit. Movies made on small budgets, often working around the studio system or outside of it entirely, all of this year's Best Picture nominees are an antidote to what exhausts us about Hollywood-- and by making them hits, the Oscars are forging a path toward saving the industry they celebrate.

Two of the nominees-- also the lowest-grossing, for what it's worth-- were genuine bolts from the blue for the industry, the Austrian-produced Amour and the shoestring indie Beasts of the Southern Wild. The remaining seven were all, to one degree or another, studio efforts that the studio wasn't exactly dying to get made. Argo, the most studio-based of them all, was in development 4 years before Ben Affleck signed on. Lincoln required a co-financing deal with DreamWorks-- which Spielberg founded!-- and two other companies to secure its relatively meager $65 million budget. David O. Russell calls the period when he first tried to get Silver Linings Playbook made "the wilderness years." When Ang Lee first imagined a Life of Pi adaptation ten years ago, he assumed no one would finance it. The reason that studios forge ahead on movies like these-- or in the case of Beasts, goes to festivals to pay big bucks to pick them up-- is for the Oscar buzz at the finish line, and the financial reward that comes with it.

Because without the Oscar nominations, would these movies be so gigantic? The grinding, endless machinery of Oscar season lights a vital fuel under these kinds of adult-oriented films, allowing them to repackage and promote themselves with critical accolades and "Golden Globe Nominee" stickers on the DVDs, encouraging audiences who might not care to check them out after an awards show, giving the studios reason to keep pouring money behind movies that opened months earlier. Filmmakers complain constantly about the make-or-break pressure of opening weekend, where if your movie doesn't hit a certain number you're toast. Compare that to Silver Linings Playbook, which had an excruciatingly slow platform release throughout November and December, then doubled its box office take in its 10th week in theaters-- which just so happened to be right after its eight Oscar nominations were announced.

This obsession with Oscar and box office glory can lead studios in all kinds of awful directions, from all-around Oscar bait misfires like Nine to spectacular films like Submarine or Synecdoche, New York that get ignored by their own distributors for not having enough Oscar potential. But when you see tricky movies like Zero Dark Thirty and slow-moving movies like Lincoln and dark movies like Django Unchained catch on with a huge number of audiences, you recognize how the bumbling, unwieldy power of the Oscars leads studios to make movies they might not otherwise bother with, and leads moviegoers to wonderful movies they wouldn't have found otherwise. Every time a new TV ad for Argo assaults you with its tally of awards, know that somewhere someone is seeing it and thinking "OK, I guess I'll rent that instead of The Expendables 2." And every time Silver Linings Playbook or Lincoln wins another award, another studio is persuaded to put their faith behind a director with a bold idea. After all, look what happened for Darren Aronofsky after Black Swan.

Oscar history is littered with movies that became unlikely hits thanks to Oscar buzz, from There Will Be Blood to Juno to Shakespeare in Love. But this year's Best Picture crop boasts by far the most of them, a group of what look like heavyweight Hollywood products based on box office, but each of them deeply personal films that required a lot of risk to get made. We can be proud of a moviegoing climate in which Lincoln is the 14th highest grossing film of the year, or even tiny Beasts of the Southern Wild makes back its $2 million budget six times over. And we can be proud of an Academy that, despite their many, many terrible decisions over the years, provides a way for movies without robots or franchises-- and the filmmakers who want to make those movies-- to find the audiences they deserve.
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