As I re-watched Avatar last night, or tried to, I was thinking about the future of cinema. I was thinking about how hard it is to sell dramas now to the general public. I was thinking about the Academy, and how difficult it must be for them to evolve out of the old way of presenting films to the new way they will be sold from now on. The only film that sort of addresses this changing of the guard is Hugo, which is traditional storytelling utilizing modern technology to ramp up the showmanship; the fresh enticement to get people out of their houses to buy tickets. We have to audiences a reason. An Avatar-like reason to shell out the dough. And with Hugo, the money is coming but it isn’t MI:4 money. It isn’t even Sherlock Holmes money or Twilight money or Harry Potter money or, alas, Bridesmaids or The Help money. And so people start talking about that like it actually matters. We can’t even count on our critics anymore to help us out here. They hard line it without considering the bigger picture, without seeing what’s coming next.
When it was down to Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker, most people knew by the end that the Academy would opt for the more nuts and bolts, traditional filmmaking –both as a way to silently protest the changing tide, but also to stem the tide for performance capture, 3-D technology and movies that cost a lot of money to make. That’s all fine and well if the nuts and bolts films make money and get good reviews. The Hurt Locker made no money but it was helped along by the critics. This year, you can mostly forget the critics. They’ve all but gone on vacation. Advocacy was never really their thing but it is even less their thing this year, after what happened last year.
For all of the bitching the top tier critics do about the Oscar race, and the people who cover it, from where I sit, the Oscar race is the only place where the celebration of real movies is still alive and kicking. It’s the only place where a film like The Descendants, Moneyball or The Artist really matters. It’s the old guard, preserving what we’ve had for 8 decades. But they can’t really do it alone. If Oscar buzz only drives a limited section of the general public to the multiplex of what use is it, ultimately? It’s been steadily becoming less relevant as the years progress, but that’s mainly because the general public is so dumbed down now compared to twenty years ago.
Worse than dumbed down, we are branded consumers — our children are raised to identify themselves with Coke and Pepsi, McDonald’s and Apple, NickJr. and Disney. They are branded as kids and they grow up branded as adults, which is why it is so much easier to sell a franchise than an original story. But my question is this – if that is what drives the box office, how on earth can we use box office as a gauge for quality? The truth is, we can’t. The model for the Oscar movie now is made for a low cost, like say the magic number, $15 million, then profits are a certainty. But try to work within the evolving technology, as Martin Scorsese has done with Hugo — give the general public a reason to spend money by seeing something in 3-D, and the costs soar, the profits don’t. Why, because it isn’t branded. You will hear many complaints coming from the target demo all growed up and they will always say the same thing: it doesn’t know what movie it wants to be. The truth is, they don’t really know how to pigeonhole it.
The future of film is effects-driven, sequels, animated, performance capture, 3-D. The public is going to want to spend money on those kinds of films rather than traditional dramas because they can most certainly wait for DVD. There is no need to go out to the movies and spend so much money — they can watch it much more comfortably on their flat screens. Sure, there are still upper middle class bored adults who want to see “quality entertainment” around the holidays. Retirement folks out in Pasadena, and New Yorkers with disposable income and too much time on their hands — and therein your Oscar demographic lays.
As we move into the heat of the season, where everything is final and nothing is negotiable, we take stock of the critics and their influence. Last year we saw unanimous agreement about one movie, at least where majority votes were concerned (dig a little deeper and you’ll find much dissent among the ranks) with high praise being dolled out for many more that didn’t end up winning the Best Picture prize. Most of the films up for the award were very well reviewed. Such will not be the case this year. Of the films up for Best Picture only one, The Artist, has managed to even get remotely close to the coveted score of 90 and above. It is closely followed by Moneyball and Harry Potter, sitting at 87.
The Artist – 89
Moneyball – 87
Harry Potter – 87
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – 86
Tree of Life – 85
The Descendants – 84
Hugo – 83
Melancholia – 81
Midnight in Paris – 81
Drive – 79
A Dangerous Method – 76
Martha, Macy, May, Marlene
Bridesmaids – 75
Shame – 72
War Horse – 72
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – 71
Young Adult – 71
We Need to Talk About Kevin – 69
My Week with Marilyn – 65
Tyrannosaur – 63
The Help – 62
J. Edgar – 59
We Bought a Zoo – 58
Carnage – 57
In the Land of Blood and Honey – 57
Albert Nobbs – 53
The Iron Lady – 52
Anonymous – 50
Another Happy Day – 45
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close = 44
W.E. – 38
Who fared the worst in this season’s first-round shakeout? Female filmmakers, by far. I’d put critics right in there with them as I can finally say I agree with people who don’t listen to critics anymore. You’d be foolish to follow the critics this year, as you’d miss much of what the year had to offer; when we put our films down to a scoring system, our art in competition this way we’d better trust the judges or we can’t respect the race. We don’t, most of us, respect the judging that happens amid 6,000 or so Academy voters – or else we wouldn’t debate their choices. And I think, this year, you can throw the critics in that mix too. It’s mostly been a wash. We can only hope that the coming guild races enliven the year in film the way the apathetic critics failed to do.
Apparently, the New York Times critics, who have a love/hate relationship with the Oscars, actually try to inject themselves into the race (of course, because in the end, everyone wants to rub up against it) by putting out a ballot — they are fairly predictable – each will have a film represented — Scott: War Horse and Dargis: Hugo, Holden: The Descendants.
So, the question is, when will the Academy notice the change? It’s hard to know. Watching Avatar I was wondering that same thing. Are they ever going to see a movie like that as a serious Best Picture contender? Are they ever going to say: that is our future, we’d better embrace it.
It isn’t just the car fires here in Los Angeles that making for anxiety. It feels suddenly like the end of everything. Sure, we are hopeful – we see the slate of films coming in 2012 and we can see that there are still some actual dramas coming out of American film. But we also see that internationally, they’re continuing to kick our ass in terms of story and character. We know they don’t raise branded consumers, not yet anyway, and we know that most of the time box office isn’t even a part of the discussion.
Tomorrow, the Producers Guild announces. Two days later, the Writers Guild. The following week, the Directors Guild, and then finally, the Academy. We will pretend like any of it matters. We will pretend like their choosing films no one really wants to see is a way to preserve traditional storytelling and the Hollywood of old. The fight will rage for many years but I think we know what side will invariably win. What, then, is the future of the Motion Picture Academy? I ask the question because I don’t know the answer.