Rebels with a cause take over the Oscars

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The Independent US

Most years, the Oscars play out as the big Hollywood studios' orgy of self-congratulation - the moment when, for a night at least, everyone can pretend that the artistic excellence of a few select titles justifies the otherwise crass, money-grubbing commercialism.

This year, though, the big studios are glaringly absent from the line-up of Best Picture nominees. The films they hoped would make the grade, such asKing Kong, Memoirs of a Geisha or Cinderella Man, have been relegated to minor, mostly technical categories.

The five leading contenders for next Sunday's Academy Awards, meanwhile, are almost all independently produced by Hollywood outsiders and made for less than $15m (£9m) - the sort of money that wouldn't induce Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford to climb out of bed.

Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's gay cowboy romance, which is the odds-on favourite to win Best Picture, was co-financed by a family that owns a baseball team in Minnesota. Crash, an ensemble piece about racism in Los Angeles, was put together by a property developer. Capote and Good Night and Good Luck were similarly backed by outsiders hoping to break into the Hollywood game.

The one exception is Steven Spielberg's Munich, a big-studio production with a big-studio budget ($75m). But it, too, is a labour of love rather than a hot commercial prospect, which probably would not have been made at all but for the prestige and box-office gold attached to the Spielberg name.

If this is the year of the outsider, it may be more than a fluke. For several years now, the Paramounts and Warner Brothers and MGMs have been outshone by the independent sector - most notably, for much of the 1990s, by the Weinstein brothers and the company they have now sold to Disney, Miramax.

The Weinsteins, responsible for films such asPulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient, have gone back to their indy roots and are largely sitting out this year's Academy Awards. The big studios, meanwhile, have focused on popcorn crowd-pleasers - action movies and comic-book adaptations and endless clones of movies. That, in turn, isdampening box-office receipts, as audiences complain that they are tired of the same old formulas.

"What this shows is that the big studios have basically given up on making good movies. And when they try, it doesn't work," said Sharon Waxman, the New York Times's Hollywood correspondent and author of a book about the new generation of counter-cultural film-makers, Rebels on the Backlot.

Patrick Goldstein, who writes a film column for the Los Angeles Times, says. "There are two Hollywoods today, with a growing chasm between them. One Hollywood is made up of giant studio machines that make lavish special-effects franchises designed to lure teenagers to the megaplexes. The other Hollywood... is largely made up of iconoclastic outsiders who want to make movies that have something to say."

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