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
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
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.

    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower