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Why blockbusters still matter

Have the Oscars swung too far in favour of indie movies? Without big-budget hits, everyone loses, says Geoffrey Macnab

You wouldn’t presume to call the Academy Awards an esoteric event for arthouse movies. As we know from the saturation coverage that this year’s Oscars have received in the UK media as elsewhere, the fascination with just who wins those statuettes, what they wear (and what they say when they take the stage) is undimmed. Nonetheless, there is evidence that the world’s biggest gong show is suffering from at least the hint of an identity crisis.

Scan through the list of previous Best Picture winners and contenders and you’ll come across big studio movies that pleased audiences and critics alike. These were often films about weighty themes but they were also invariably made with a mass public in mind.

Whether Gone With the Wind, Schindler’s List or Forrest Gump (all previous winners), everyone had seen them, everyone had a stake in them. The fact that this is no longer the case is surely one reason that ratings have declined in recent years. Box-office figures suggest that the millions of people watching the Oscars on Sunday night will not have seen the movies vying for the main prizes. Worldwide grosses for The Wrestler stand at around $27m; Milk is at $36m, Frost/Nixon is $23m and The Reader is $32m. Compare this with The Dark Knight (controversially overlooked for a Best Picture nomination), which has now raked up over $1bn at the box office worldwide, and you realise that this year’s awards contenders haven’t necessarily caught the public imagination.

On one level, it’s heartening that independently financed films such as Paul Haggis’s Crash and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire can win Best Picture awards. It suggests that the Academy is becoming as open and adventurous in its choices as other awards shows. However, there is also a sense that the kind of films contending for Oscars is changing. “Serious” movies with brooding, self-conscious performances now seem to predominate. The Sound of Music may have won a Best Picture Oscar in 1965 but there was no danger that Mamma Mia! was going to follow suit this year. Meanwhile, big studio movies seem increasingly marginalised.

“Real Oscar buzz: it’s too highbrow” reads the headline in an article this week by Michael Cieply in The New York Times, who describes this year’s award season as “the most downbeat in memory”. Cieply suggests the studios are growing increasingly aloof from the Oscars game. “As little as a year ago, the prestige that came with an Oscar contender could seem worth at least a small financial loss to studios, which could always make up for it with their summer hits... In tougher times, not so.”

In the studios’ absence, the Oscars have opened up as never before to independent films. There are now many movies made with Academy Awards in mind. Their producers know that projects that might be too dark or too offbeat to finance otherwise suddenly seem viable when there is the prospect of Oscar glory. As David Hare (who scripted The Reader) told the BBC’s Today programme: “In America, there are so few serious films made, unfortunately, and then every December there is this ridiculous donkey derby in which all the serious films come out. The way in which people are persuaded to go to these serious films is through awards.”

The downside is that these movies end up cannibalising each others’ audiences. Partly as a result of the Oscars, the release schedules have become increasingly lopsided. The summer is reserved for the big tentpole movies (few of which are acknowledged by the Academy in anything other than the technical categories.)

Then, as awards season beckons, the darker, more earnest movies all arrive at once. The teen audiences won’t go to them, while the older cinemagoers won’t have the chance to see everything.

Still, you’d have to be a curmudgeon to begrudge the success of Slumdog Millionaire. Unlike some of the other Oscar contenders, Danny Boyle’s exuberant drama has been both a popular and critical success. Its success is bound to give an enormous fillip to its backers (Film4 among them) and to boost the UK film industry in general at a difficult time.

Whatever else it is, Slumdog Millionaire is not formulaic. A lowish-budget, British-financed film with unknown actors, shot on location in Mumbai, this was a risky and offbeat venture. However, since it won the audience award at the Toronto Festival in the early autumn, the momentum behind it has grown and grown. Despite its unprepossessing credentials (in terms of stars and subject matter), it was an overwhelming favourite.

The Indian actors and technicians working on the film may look askance at the rush of the Brits to claim the film as their own on the grounds that it was wholly UK-financed.

If the money behind a project is what determines its nationality, the Brits won’t be able to bask quite so comfortably in Kate Winslet’s success in The Reader. “If I was asked, I would say it is a German film. It was made by Germans predominantly and predominantly financed by Germans,” the film’s director, Stephen Daldry, recently commented.

Nonetheless, Kate Winslet (who finally won her Oscar after five nominations) is undeniably British. So were most of the key creative personnel on the film. Ever since Charles Laughton won his Best Actor Oscar for his rambunctious performance in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), the Brits have rarely hesitated about celebrating Oscar glory, however it has come.

Some may be fretting about what seems to be a growing tension between mainstream Hollywood and the Oscars. That, though, isn’t something that will be preying on the minds of Kate Winslet, Danny Boyle and co as they celebrate what was – from a British point of view – an exceptional night.

The only quibble is likely to be that another Brit – Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight – surely deserved a little more recognition.