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The State of the Race: “Write Me Well”

This year there are more writer/directors than there have been in a long while.   Scripts, original and adapted, usually power the engine that makes a great movie great.  All of the wonderful writing in the world, however, can’t save a film that a director, producer or studio has strangled within an inch of its life.  One decision can completely derail the best screenplays, just as a minor change can sometimes mean the difference between a good movie and a great one; we tend to think always of Roman Polanski and Robert Towne on Chinatown, still one of the best films ever made and much of that is due to Polanski’s singular decision to change the ending, to not give it a happy one.  Chinatown would probably not be considered the masterpiece it is today without that significant change.  It’s hard to imagine a studio taking such a gamble now, as films cost too much money to take such a risk.  At that time, though, it seemed that they were more concerned about making a great film than they were about how much money that film would make.  Priorities have shifted as the cost to make big Hollywood movies has soared.  Making something more palatable for audiences, though, can often detroy the film’s intent.  Witness the end of Charlie Wilson’s War as written by Aaron Sorkin versus the glossed over, neutered ending that the Mike Nichols film ultimately delivered.  The whole point of the film was lost with that one decision.  But it’s like William Goldman wrote, nobody knows anything, and in truth, you make your best call and let the chips fall where they may.

It’s not so big a gamble when the script you’re writing is a joyful crowdpleaser, or a weepy with a happy ending.  It’s also not so big a gamble when you write a script or make a movie that is deliberately obtuse so that it invites many different interpretations.  In such a situation, a writer is never really held accountable because he or she offers up no map for deeper meaning to be found: you see what you want to see.  It is so much harder to write a story that makes sense and has a point.  So often, such stories fall into cliches, offer up bad dialogue, and follow a predictable trajectory.   If 256 movies were eligible for Oscar this year and yet only a maximum of about 20 are being considered, you have to wonder what the problem is with the other 230.  Is it the script? The direction? The timing? The subject matter? How can there be so many films that Oscar won’t consider?  What was that? Oh, right, most of them aren’t “oscar movies.”

A screenwriting teacher at UCLA once told me that there are no such things as genre movies. There are only two kinds of movies. Good movies and bad movies. It would be almost twenty years later that I’d have to come to terms with the notion that there are three kinds of movies.  Good movies, bad movies and Oscar movies.  I used to believe that if the movie is good enough Oscar would pay attention.  But we know this isn’t true.  It isn’t about whether the movie is good or not. It is about what kinds of people it appeals to.  If it appeals to the kinds of people who write film reviews for elite readers, chances are it will be too high brow for Oscar.  If it appeals to teenagers, fanboys and general audiences, makes a pile of cash, wins an MTV movie award or two, it won’t be the kind of film that Oscar voters will take seriously.  Goldilocks likes her porridge not too hot, not too cold, but just right.  Good reviews but not necessarily great reviews.  Good movie, but not so great it can’t appeal to the masses.  Please let it be a drama, with a smidge of (straight) sex here or there, Nazis and Jews preferable, but any old war time will do.  British people, a plus.  International directors who are afforded the freedom of making better films than directors here in America? A major bonus.

These days movies made on the cheap are far more valuable Oscar players than those made for upwards of a hundred mil.  The Departed was the last Best Picture winner that cost more than $15 million to make.  That’s a fairly significant figure, especially when you think about what The King’s Speech was up against last year and how much those movies cost by comparison.

The King’s Speech budget: $15 million/take $135 million
The Hurt Locker budget: $15 million/take $17 million
Slumdog Millionaire budget: $15 million/take $ 140 million
The Departed budget: $90 million/take $130 million
Crash budget: $6.5 million/$54 million 
Million Dollar Baby budget: $30 million / take $100 million
Return of the King budget $94 million/take $377 million
Chicago budget $45 million/take $140 million
A Beautiful Mind budget $58 million / take  $170 million
Gladiator budget $103 million/take $187 million
American Beauty budget $15 million/take $130 million
Shakespeare in Love budget $25 million/take $100 million
Titanic budget $200 mil/take $600 million
The English Patient $27 million/take $78 million
Braveheart budget $72 mil/take $75 million
Forrest Gump budget $55 million/take $329 million
Schindler’s List budget $22 million/take $96 million
It is through this prism that you have to look at 2011’s Oscar race.  What are the budget costs this year? The film that most closely mirrors the Best Picture winner paradigm in every way is Tate Taylor’s The Help, which was made for a scant $25 million and made around $160 million.  Also doing well is Moneyball, which cost around $50 million and made around $75 million.  I can’t find the budget costs for The Descendants but The Artist was made for that magic number of $15 million.  Oh that Harvey Weinstein. They don’t call him the Oscar whisperer for nothing.

Hugo doesn’t have its own production costs listed, nor can I find War Horse’s.  But we do have something to work with where The Help, Moneyball and The Artist are concerned. In truth, The Help — once again — could ride this whole season out and come on top if only the people handling it could believe that it could win.  It can win, my friends. It really really can.  It’s all about perception.  The Help is Oscar old school.  It is a crowdpleaser ensemble that should have no problem collecting the SAG ensemble win, if it can snatch the prize from The Artist.  The thing is, The Help is the least intimidating of those that are about to take on The Artist.  The power that film has is that it’s the perceived underdog.  It is seen as “the little movie that could,” just like The King’s Speech last year. Giving it some major heat right now is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, keeps winning the director accolades.  He is beloved, his appreciation of film preservation invaluable.  Hugo is about why we treasure movies at all,  and to see masters at work this year, like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher and Scorsese is, well, potentially trouble for The Artist in so much as it’s not a homegrown product, but rather a French production.

Despite its low metacritic score, The Help is sitting pretty, even without the heat of a Best Director nod. If the DGA actually nominates Tate Taylor, the movie moves its rook into a very threatening position.  The main reason is that actors rule the house, and actors are kind of ass over elbow for both The Help and The Artist. The movies, not so much.

The two important branches next to the actors are the directors and the writers. Three of the films in contention were directed by writers – The Artist, The Descendants, and The Help, which was adapted and directed by Tate Taylor, the man nobody yet knows.  If you think Michel Hazanavicius is a hard sell, Tate Taylor is an even harder sell.  No one knows him.  If The Help had been directed by a known director there would be no question of its position in the race as a formidable contender.  Sure, it’s the story of women, which isn’t the usual subject matter for the male-dominated Academy, but its likability and its huge success makes it a force to be reckoned with, especially if the Academy is really ready to break ties with the critics.

Moneyball and Hugo are marvelous adaptations by some of the best writers in the business – Aaron Sorkin, Steve Zallion and on Hugo, John Logan, who also wrote the exceedingly clever Rango.  To this end, one has to conclude that the movies heading towards Oscar, those movies that somehow managed to rise to the top out of 256 entries, were driven by great scripts.

So what is an Oscar movie? Yes, it’s palatable, dramatic films aimed at adults, but it also has to be good writing, good acting, good directing.  A film has to have all three or it won’t go all the way.  The word “good” used deliberately, because when greatness comes into play so does divisiveness.  Many would have described, for instance, The Social Network as having great writing, directing and acting (which it did) but once you use the word great it invites people to then say, yeah, it wasn’t that great.

This also means, of course, that the Best Original and Adapted Screenplay races will be dominated by the Best Picture contenders.  In the original category, it already feels like The Artist will do battle with Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, with Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life in the conversation, with other screenplays likely to be nominated that aren’t Best Picture contenders, like perhaps Young Adult, 50/50, Shame or Margin Call. The Adapted Screenplay race, though, will be dominated probably by Best Picture contenders and it’s filling up fast.  It looks like Moneyball and The Descendants are going to go head to head there, with Hugo, The Help, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, War Horse, Drive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all in the game.

Alexander Payne is one of the best unrewarded writer/directors American film has ever produced. And though he is already an Oscar winner for screenplay, I suspect that what is going to propel The Descendants forward is its love for Payne and his impressive body of work.   The Descendants is his most emotionally realized film to date, funny, bittersweet and a quintessentially American story.  This makes it stand in stark contrast to The Artist, which is about American film, perhaps, but is far, far removed from our experience in 2011.  The Descendants, and Moneyball, target and hit the sweet spot.

The outside-the-box screenplays that really are worthy of recognition probably won’t get within fifteen feet of the Kodak – and those would be the clever Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Attack the Block, Bridesmaids, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Drive, and even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows J. Edgar, and Rampart.

The one screenplay I personally hope isn’t forgotten is JC Chandor’s tightly, expertly written Margin Call, about the financial meltdown from the perspectives of the guys making the deals.  It is deceptively simple but in reality, layered and complex.  Chandor worked on it for many years, and the tinkering shows.  Would that more writers would take such care crafting a story with such fully developed characters — most especially Kevin Spacey’s character.

How about you, Oscar watchers? Which are the scripts that you think ought to get noticed from 2011?