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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own