THE OSCARS ARE ABOUT BOX OFFICE, NOT ART
Box-office takings are the driving force behind the Academy Awards, writes Michael Bodey
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.’’
Some of this year’s best-picture nominations, top,
and, above, clockwise from top left,