You could be forgiven for thinking we were on the eve of a big boxing bout, writes Geoffrey Macnab. In the run-up to the big night, the underdog's team has been busy bad-mouthing the favourite, trying to induce doubt in the minds of its supporters. The favourite's team has been responding in kind. Meanwhile, the media has been assiduously stirring up the controversy, trying to tantalise the public and to weave a compelling storyline around an event that might otherwise be short on sparks.
Welcome to the world of the 2010 Oscars. The 82nd Annual Academy Awards, which take place on Sunday, are being talked up as a tussle between James Cameron's super-heavyweight Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow's plucky outsider, The Hurt Locker. The preliminary skirmishes have been inconclusive. Avatar won the Best Film award at the Golden Globes but Cameron's CGI epic has been given a bloody nose by its rival at several other awards events, most recently the Baftas.
One might have expected the filmmakers themselves to rise above all the petty point-scoring and squabbling between publicists and commentators. Invariably, though, they embrace it. Nicolas Chartier, one of the producers of The Hurt Locker, added piquancy to this year's Oscar contest with the email he sent out last month to voters proclaiming, "we need independent movies to win like the movies you and I do." Chartier went on to write, "If everyone tells one or two of their friends, we will win and not a $500m film."
Chartier, the boss of Voltage Pictures, an independent sales and financing company founded in 2005, subsequently apologised for his original email. Even so, he has had his knuckles severely rapped by the Academy. The French producer has now been barred from Sunday's awards ceremony. If The Hurt Locker does win the Oscar for Best Picture, he won't be there to receive the statuette in person. Chartier may have inadvertently contravened Academy rules but it is hard to get too worked up about an independent producer lobbying for his $15m film as it tries to compete against the mighty Avatar.
Besides, he has a point. What this year's Academy Awards underline is the huge divide that now exists between the major Hollywood studios and the independents. This is reflected in the budget disparity between the various Best Picture contenders. (By the most conservative estimate, Avatar cost several hundred million dollars more than Lone Scherfig's An Education.)
Of course, treating film awards as if they're a competitive sport is childish and reductive. It is debatable whether it makes much economic sense any more, either. In the "old" days (that's to say, around a decade ago), the media loved big spats between Oscar rivals. The tussle between Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan is especially fondly remembered. Back in the halcyon era of the late 1990s, the studios seemed willing to spend fortunes on "for your attention" ads in every media outlet available. The trade press did especially well out of a rivalry that it helped fan. If one contender bought an ad, the other would invariably do likewise. Special Oscar supplements used to be as thick as small telephone books. The video and DVD releases reaped the benefit of all the hype. Those days are long since past. One can only guess what immediate economic significance an Oscar win will have for either Avatar or The Hurt Locker. Maybe it will boost the DVD sales for the latter but these are both movies that have been in circulation for a long, long time. The fight appears to be less about money than prestige and status.
The intense focus on Avatar and The Hurt Locker is, of course, disrespectful to the other eight candidates in the running for the Best Picture Oscar – a newly expanded category, which this year has the look of a grab-bag into which a bit of everything has been thrown willy-nilly. (Among other candidates, we have animation in the form of Pixar's Up, pulp courtesy of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and even a low-budget British film in the shape of An Education.) There is a new voting system for Best Picture, too, which is causing as much excitement among psephologists as proportional representation in swing seats. (Academy voters are now obliged to list their 10 choices by order of preference.)
As has been well chronicled, the US studios have been concentrating their production activities on big tentpole movies: Batman films, The Wolfman, Avatar and the like. There is an increasing perception that what is needed to lure potential cinemagoers out of their homes is spectacle. That's why such a fuss is being made of 3D and IMAX. It is also why awards shows such as the Oscars risk appearing so unbalanced.
A certain cultural snobbery seems to come into play when the artistic merits of multi-million-dollar-budget movies are considered. Since Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won in 2003, the Best Picture Oscars have gone to films from such directors as Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Danny Boyle, Paul Haggis and Clint Eastwood. It is noticeable that tentpole movies have been frozen out of the nominations. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight received nods in many other categories but it wasn't nominated for Best Picture.
Recent Oscar history is confusing from the point of view of indie filmmaking. Paradoxically, at a time when the studios were busy closing or downsizing their speciality labels, films from companies such as the Disney-owned Miramax and Paramount Vantage were racking up Oscar nominations. In the eyes of many observers, there has been an increasing gulf between the movies that worked at the box office – that people actually see – and those that were most fêted by the Academy Awards. That was surely one of the reasons why the TV audience for the Oscars fell to a record low in 2008 (albeit increasing by 6 per cent in 2009.) It also explains why the Best Picture category has been expanded, and why high-profile figures such as Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin have been recruited to host the Oscar show. The Academy is reaching out to a mass audience that might have been put off by previous Oscar nights in which dark and challenging indie fare was foregrounded.
If, as expected, Avatar does win the Best Picture Oscar, there are bound to be howls of dismay from commentators complaining that a big-budget, effects-driven epic, full of computer-generated imagery, beat all those lovingly made indie films. Such complaining seems a little off-beam. For better or worse, Avatar has been the defining film of the year. In the wake of its box-office success, it is easy now to forget what a foolhardy and quixotic enterprise it once seemed, and just how much gumption Cameron showed in completing it. One prediction can be safely made: Avatar will be the story of the Oscars, whatever its fate on Sunday night. If it doesn't win in any major categories, its failure to do so will be the prime talking point.
At least, Avatar has left plenty of space for its rivals. The film that wins the Best Film or Best Director award will generally be in the running for the acting and screenplay awards. Avatar wasn't even nominated by the Academy voters in any of these categories.
You can't help but notice how quickly the wheel turns in the film industry. As soon as a new cycle is observed, something immediately happens to reverse it. In theory, these are terrible times for the "indies." The DVD market is in freefall. TV isn't buying indie fare. Foreign pre-sales are harder than ever to achieve, which means the films are tougher than ever to finance. The US studios are markedly more conservative about what "indie" films they are prepared to distribute. Even a relatively modestly budgeted film such as the $15m The Hurt Locker would struggle to get greenlit today. It was financed two years ago, before the industry had suffered the worst of the global economic crash. Speaking in Berlin last month, Nicolas Chartier explained that the producers were able to access financing from Wall Street and pre-sell the film widely. Now, he pointed out, the "silly" money from investors who had cash to burn on indie movies has all but disappeared.
In other words, the indie sector should be on its knees. However, it's very obvious that indie films aren't going away. The Best Picture nominations for titles such as the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, Lee Daniels' Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, Scherfig's An Education and Neill Blomkamp's District 9 suggest that 2010 might even be seen in hindsight as a vintage year for indie fare at the Oscars.
Meanwhile, certain trends are working in the indies' favour. There is a new austerity in Hollywood. The majors are making less films than before and are cutting stars' pay packets. That is likely to be to the immediate benefit of the independent producers. Hollywood agents trying to find jobs for their actors and directors are increasingly turning to the indie sector. These actors and directors will anyway be looking for artistic challenges that big studio-tentpole movies won't give them.
The Avatar vs The Hurt Locker clash may make this year's Oscars more polarised than ever before in terms of the divide between majors and indies. What is clear, though, is that you need large dollops of luck to be in the running for the Oscars at all. The Hurt Locker, for example, could easily have sunk almost without trace if it hadn't been picked up for distribution in the US by Summit Entertainment after its screening at the Toronto Festival in 2008.
"Let's face it, 99 per cent of the movies we are making will never be released by the studios," Nicolas Chartier observed of films made by the independents. There were many other indie movies screening in Toronto in the same year as The Hurt Locker that weren't acquired by US distributors. Some may even have been as good as Kathryn Bigelow's tour de force. However, without US distribution, their chances of Oscar glory were stymied at birth. There have also been very strong Hollywood studio movies that have been overlooked by the Academy.
All the portents suggest that this will be Avatar's year. As so often happens, British interest sits primarily in the acting awards and British loyalties lie with the independent contenders, not Cameron's behemoth. However, if Avatar does triumph, the Brits will be able to claim some credit. They may not have had any creative influence on the 3D epic but they did help raise the money. The film was co-financed by London-based Ingenious Media Investments. Given the number of British Oscar contenders over the years that have had US money in them, it is worth noting that the top-grossing movie ever and this year's favourite for Oscar glory was backed by a UK financier.