Box-of­fice tak­ings are the driv­ing force be­hind the Academy Awards, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

AF­TER a heart­felt award ac­cep­tance speech, it’s easy to for­get the Academy Awards and their ilk were es­tab­lished to sell more tick­ets, not recog­nise ex­cel­lence. The Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences’ de­ci­sion in 2009 to broaden the num­ber of films el­i­gi­ble for a best-pic­ture nom­i­na­tion from five to a max­i­mum of 10 (in the 1930s there were up to 12 nom­i­nees) again was a com­mer­cial de­ci­sion.

It wasn’t forced on the Academy by a press­ing need to recog­nise a bur­geon­ing list of bet­ter films.

Ini­tially, the ex­ten­sion was viewed as a way to in­crease au­di­ences for the Os­car cer­e­mony tele­cast. And an ex­tended list, the­o­ret­i­cally at least, would al­low the Academy Awards broad­cast to cel­e­brate the films movie­go­ers saw at the cin­ema, rather than the more es­o­teric, art-house films that were be­gin­ning to dom­i­nate the awards through the 1990s and 2000s.

And af­ter Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire’s win in 2008, when mul­ti­ple nom­i­nees The Dark Knight and Wall-E missed best pic­ture nominations be­hind the lumpen The Reader, Milk, The Cu­ri­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton and Frost/ Nixon, that the­ory was log­i­cal.

A cer­tain ho­mo­gene­ity was set­ting in among best-pic­ture nom­i­nees. The in­crease in nom­i­nees aimed to break the stran­gle­hold in­de­pen­dent films had in the cat­e­gory over big­ger­bud­geted stu­dio films.

Has it done so? Vic­to­ria Tre­ole, a Syd­ney mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant for a num­ber of US stu­dios, be­lieves so.

‘‘ Films like In­cep­tion or big-bud­get stu­dio movies, have they fea­tured more promi­nently than they have in the past?’’ she asks.

‘‘ They prob­a­bly have. But what would you call Lin­coln, a stu­dio movie but a clas­sic Os­car best-pic­ture con­tender in so many ways? Argo feels like an in­die movie but it is a stu­dio movie. And do you clas­sify the We­in­stein Com­pany (be­hind Sil­ver Lin­ings Playbook) as a stu­dio?’’

The in­dus­try has changed to such an ex­tent that rules in­tro­duced six years ago al­ready seem re­dun­dant. Many of the smaller art­house or ‘‘ in­die’’ arms of the stu­dios — Sony Pic­ture Clas­sics, Para­mount Van­tage, Fox Search­light — that de­liv­ered so many best­pic­ture nom­i­nees have folded or shrunk. Con­versely, the big stu­dios have al­lowed a num­ber of au­teurs, in­clud­ing David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scors­ese and Christo­pher Nolan, as well as Pixar An­i­ma­tion the bud­gets and free­dom to cre­ate com­mer­cially at­trac­tive and crit­i­cally suc­cess­ful films.

Con­se­quently, many of the big­ger stu­dio movies that might have missed the top five in pre­vi­ous years — in­clud­ing Up, Toy Story 3, Django Un­chained, Money­ball, The Help, Argo, In­cep­tion and District 9 — have earned nominations in the best-pic­ture cat­e­gory.

So the no­tion that the stu­dios needed some af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion to push back into the best­pic­ture cat­e­gory is re­dun­dant. The rai­son d’etre of the wider nom­i­na­tion pool re­verts to the mar­ket­ing im­pact. Do more best-pic­ture nom­i­nees mean more bums on seats?

The an­swer, in Aus­tralia at least, un­doubt­edly yes.

Trans­mis­sion Films’ co-founder An­drew Mackie says on smaller art-house films, a best­pic­ture nom­i­na­tion can add 25 per cent to 30 per cent to a film’s Aus­tralian box of­fice. Cer­tainly, he hopes so.

Trans­mis­sion has held Michael Haneke’s widely lauded Amour, which pre­miered at the Cannes film fes­ti­val last May be­fore screen­ing at the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val midyear, for re­lease un­til this week.

‘‘ It’s risky be­cause you need three to four weeks at least to plan for a re­lease of a film, and when we booked that date we didn’t know whether we would get any nominations at all,’’ Mackie says.

‘‘ In ret­ro­spect we prob­a­bly should have gone out this week or last week, but we didn’t ex­pect [lead ac­tress] Em­manuelle Riva to get the BAFTA, so it’s got more at­ten­tion than we ex­pected. And if we’d gone any ear­lier than that we would have got run over by Sil­ver Lin­ings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, Flight, Django Un­chained and Les Mis.’’


The box of­fice ef­fect of a nom­i­na­tion, and then win, for the 2011 best pic­ture, The Artist, was in­dis­putable. The silent black-and-white film earned $4.5 mil­lion here amid strong re­views.

The ef­fect of a best-pic­ture nom­i­na­tion on big­ger films is harder to quan­tify but nev­er­the­less sig­nif­i­cant.

Last year, who could have an­tic­i­pated the hum­ble drama star­ring Ge­orge Clooney, The Descen­dants, earn­ing $15m and an­other best­pic­ture nom­i­nee, The Help, earn­ing $8m? But against them, Scors­ese’s adap­ta­tion Hugo barely squeezed past $10m.

This year’s batch of best-pic­ture nom­i­nees ap­pears to be one out of the box. Life of Pi ($26.8m), Les Mis­er­ables ($25.3m), Sil­ver Lin­ings Playbook ($7.6m and count­ing) and Django Un­chained ($12.8m and count­ing) have ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions, while Lin­coln ($3.4m) and Zero Dark Thirty ($2.8m) could do with a best-pic­ture win. Argo’s $11m last year will re­ceive a big boost with its DVD re­lease two days af­ter the Academy Awards on Mon­day.

It will be the strong­est box-of­fice haul for the best-pic­ture nom­i­nees (or at least the top five) since the late 90s, not­with­stand­ing the out­liers of Avatar and the Lord of the Rings tril­ogy.

They’re pop­u­lar, yet they all align as ‘‘ best pic­ture’’ kind of films, Tre­ole says. ‘‘ Cer­tainly, hav­ing a broader spread of ti­tles has al­lowed ev­ery­thing from Beasts of the South­ern Wild to Les Mis, but the feel­ing of most of the movies when you look through that list, they all have a slightly in­die flavour,’’ she says.

‘‘ Even Life of Pi, be­cause it’s such a ridicu­lous propo­si­tion to adapt to the big screen, but done with great brio ... It’s in­ter­est­ing to have it be­ing a min­i­mum of five, so in a strong year, like this year, you can look and say there’s not one dud there. Each of those films, in their in­di­vid­ual ways, has a good claim to be­ing the best pic­ture.’’

The af­fir­ma­tion of the Os­car nominations has helped, adds Mike Baard, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures Aus­trala­sia, dis­trib­u­tor of Les Mis­er­ables.

He be­lieves a best-pic­ture nom­i­na­tion is in­valu­able in cut­ting through to the broad mar­ket at a time when in­di­vid­ual crit­ics have lit­tle sway.

‘‘ We love us­ing lo­cal quotes [from re­views] but an Os­car nom­i­na­tion tells the pub­lic that a large pro­por­tion of peo­ple who are in the know think this film is pretty good.’’

Mackie be­lieves this can be par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant when con­sumers make de­ci­sions in the DVD store or down­load­ing.

‘‘ The other ben­e­fit of a nom­i­na­tion is in the long tail,’’ he says. ‘‘ An Os­car win in a key cat­e­gory guar­an­tees a cer­tain level of peren­nial vis­i­bil­ity in an­cil­lary mar­kets [such as DVD, video on de­mand and sub­scrip­tion TV].’’

The num­ber of ‘‘ peo­ple in the know’’ vot­ing has been con­tentious this year. The best­pic­ture cat­e­gory is the one in which the broad mem­ber­ship of the Academy, al­most 6000 peo­ple, can vote. This year’s vot­ing was tarred by a shorter nominations pe­riod as the Academy tried to pre-empt the Golden Globes and other guild award shows by an­nounc­ing nom­i­nees early last month.

There are small mem­ber­ships in some cat­e­gories, such as direc­tors (about 370 mem­bers), cin­e­matog­ra­phers (about 210) and edit­ing (about 220), who choose the ini­tial nom­i­nees in their fields — as against the 1200-plus ac­tors who se­lect the nom­i­nees in their cat­e­gory — so the in­abil­ity of many mem­bers to view all films be­fore Christ­mas com­pro­mised the chances of some po­ten­tial nom­i­nees.

It meant nom­i­na­tion vot­ing among Aus­tralian and New Zealand mem­bers, a not in­signif­i­cant num­ber, was down this year. Un­for­tu­nately for The Ses­sions, a highly re­garded in­de­pen­dent film by Mel­bur­nian Ben Lewin that could have an­tic­i­pated a best­pic­ture nom­i­na­tion, it is be­lieved screen­ers weren’t even sent to AM­PAS mem­bers here.

Academy Award vot­ing, larger best-pic­ture cat­e­gory or not, re­mains an im­per­fect sci­ence but, says Baard: ‘‘ They’ve found a very happy medium be­tween re­ward­ing great crafts­man­ship and pure film­mak­ing and align­ing it with the tastes of Joe Pub­lic.’’

Life of Pi, Les Mis­er­ables, Sil­ver Lin­ings Playbook Argo; Django Un­chained

Some of this year’s best-pic­ture nominations, top,


and, above, clockwise from top left,

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