And the Os­car goes to ...

Dif­fer­ent fi­nanc­ing strate­gies, emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy and in­creas­ing cin­ema lit­er­acy made for a great crop of films

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY STYLE - BY ANN HOR­NA­DAY

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.

Many of the films widely ac­knowl­edged to be the year’s best are com­pet­ing Sun­day, in­clud­ing “Lin­coln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Sil­ver Lin­ings Playbook,” “Argo” and “Life of Pi.” But 2012 also in­cluded the ter­rific ac­tion thrill- er “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 charac- ters? 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.”

THE WASHINGTON POST IL­LUS­TRA­TION / PHO­TOS FROM ALAMY AND ISTOCKPHOTO

COLUMBIA TRIS­TAR /GETTY IM­AGES

CHARACTERS MAT­TER: What view­ers re­mem­ber of “Lawrence of Arabia” out­side the crafts­man­ship are Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif ’s per­for­mances, a pro­ducer says.

DIS­NEY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

DRECK: With bud­get-bloated flops such as “John Carter” burned into their mem­o­ries, stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives are now painfully aware that dumbed-down spec­ta­cle isn’t enough.

UNI­VER­SAL PIC­TURES/TIP­PETT STU­DIO/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A REAL FORCE: Grown-ups helped nudge “The Avengers,” left, and “Ted” into mod­est or mega-size hits, prov­ing they can be as lu­cra­tive an au­di­ence as teenage boys.

SONY PIC­TURES EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

Fund­ing from out­side Hol­ly­wood pre­served the artis­tic vi­sions of “Cloud Atlas,” left, and “Looper” and of­fered the wide reach of a main­stream stu­dio.

REINER BAJO

A NEW AP­PROACH:

2011 MARVEL

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