Increasing the number of films in the best picture category could be the shot in the arm Oscar needs as audiences turn their back on the cynical ‘awards movie’.
I appear to be one of the few people unreservedly excited about the Academy’s decision to expand the best picture Oscar category to 10 nominations. I’m not alone, however, in feeling the so-called awards season has become staid and wearily predictable in the last few years. So much so that some nominated films are failing to benefit from their Academy approval in box-office terms.
Perhaps the current awards inertia is rooted in the early Oscar success enjoyed by Harvey and Bob Weinstein.
Weinstein-era Miramax Films altered the complexion of the awards season 20 years ago, stepping into what was traditionally a studio domain and scoring unheard-of coups by aggressively and persistently lobbying the 6,000-strong Academy as well as other voting groups such as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) and Bafta.
From Cinema Paradiso and My Left Foot to The Crying Game, The Piano and Pulp Fiction, the Weinsteins took independent cinema - either acquisitions and in later years their own productions - into the Oscar mainstream. The films’ grosses grew exponentially as a result.
It was an exciting time. In 1994, the company secured a directing nomination for Three Colours: Red’s Krzysztof Kieslowski; in 1995, it miraculously won picture, director and actor nominations for Italian-language Il Postino and finally in 1996 the brothers won the best picture award for The English Patient.
After that, their films were awards-season fixtures. Shakespeare In Love, Life Is Beautiful, Good Will Hunting and Chicago all evolved into huge box-office hits thanks to the company’s knack of converting awards success into wide audience acceptance.
By the sheer zeal of their campaigning bankrolled by deep Disney pockets, a tiny Sundance title such as In The Bedroom could end up with a best picture nod or Fernando Meirelles could snag a director nomination for City Of God a year after the film was overlooked by Brazil’s Oscar submission committee.
But in the final years before the Weinsteins parted from Disney, the formula had gone a little sour. Instead of making a fortune from cheap pick-ups or cost-effective productions, Miramax was throwing its energies into bloated studio-style epics such as Gangs Of New York and Cold Mountain.
Meanwhile other studios wanted a piece of the Miramax action and the emergence of Focus, Searchlight, WIP, Picturehouse et al drove up costs surrounding the production or acquisition and distribution of these prestige pictures, while saturating the audience with increasingly calculating product.
By the time Paramount Vantage thundered into the awards arena in 2007 with No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the numbers didn’t make sense any more. These films were wildly expensive to produce and market and both were violent auteur visions of the US which wide audiences shirked.
Last year, Frost/Nixon, The Reader and Milk collectively grossed less than $100m in North America - a shocking low for a trio of best picture nominees.
No wonder ABC is worried about drops in ratings for the awards telecast.
Studios and independents alike have come to work the Oscars like a mathematical formula and audiences can feel the cynicism in these ‘prestige’ productions, often from classy plays and novels such as Doubt and Revolutionary Road. Thank goodness for Slumdog Millionaire which felt like the only authentic offering in a year of awards torpor.
So maybe, just maybe, the Academy decision to open the Oscar field will persuade producers and studios they don’t need to design films for Academy voters any more, that they can focus on projects of integrity and originality which general audiences can discover like those Miramax films of old.
Awards attention would then be an afterthought to the real reason for making movies - connecting stories to audiences. And once that happens, maybe then the viewers will return to the Oscars telecast.