After Dreamworks pulled the hat trick in 1999, 2000, and 2001 with American Beauty, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind, the only major studio to win Best Picture has been Warner Bros., who did it three times over the past 13 years with Million Dollar Baby, The Departed and Argo. All three of these films were warmly received by the public and critics alike. All three made money. And all three represent the ideal scenario by which a film most often wins Best Picture – when it unites the industry and the public (nevermind the critics for now). It rarely happens that a film will hit all of the markers heading in: well received by critics, a box office draw, and released by a major studio. Even when such alignment occurs, it doesn’t often end with a Best Picture win – and sometimes it doesn’t even result in a nomination. Then there are other factors to be considered, like director cred, buzz and “gravitas.”
For most of the years when I’ve been covering the Oscar race, we’ve been dwelling in the “indie breakthrough” era where independent players crashed the Oscar party, namely Fox Searchlight, the boutique arm of 20th Century Fox, and most notably Miramax, which was absorbed in its entirety by Disney and then sprouted anew from Harvey’s hearty roots as The Weinstein Co. In the 70 years before that revolution, the Oscars had almost always been dominated by the majors. Anne Thompson reminds us not to misuse the term “indie.” If it’s a film produced on a lot, or one of the lots, then it’s considered a studio movie. Once in a blue moon throughout Oscar history, a genuine indie maverick like Selznick or Goldwyn could crash the Big Five party. More recently when we talk about indies in the Oscar race, these production companies lack traditional studio real estate. In fact, we’re mostly talking about distributors, not production companies, though their functions can often overlap as financing is patched together. Who puts up the money, who buys the film’s rights and then stands to make money usually determines which individual producers can take credit when or if the film wins Best Picture.
For a brief span in this millennium, various niche branches of the big studios flowered with the freedom of thinking outside the box and were able to dominate the Oscar race for nearly two decades. Most prominent have been Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, Focus Features, New Line, Sony Classics. Except for Lionsgate which stood truly apart, these divisions carried indie cred but remained under the corporate umbrella of their parent studio. We sometimes refer to 20th Century Fox as “Big Fox” for instance. Most people don’t think Universal when they think Focus but they really are cousins at the family table. Likewise Tristar and Columbia.
It’s been rare for any outright independent studio to win Best Picture. I believe it’s happened only twice in the past 10 years. Lionsgate with Crash and Summit with the Hurt Locker. Way, way before that was Two Cities Films, which shocked (and infuriated) much of Hollywood when Hamlet won Best Picture in 1948, prompting The Hollywood Reporter to quip that it couldn’t locate a single person who had voted for Hamlet and demanded a recount. Other distinguished newcomers, like Dreamworks and Orion emerged in the ’80s and ’90s as fully formed big name corporations – although independent in their genesis and kind of, sort of regarded as outsiders. UA from its foundation 1919 in was always considered, according to Mark Harris, more of an indie studio of sorts:
“United Artists, which had a huge and impressive Oscar track record pre-1984, functioned in many ways more as a foster home for indie orphans than as a traditional studio – it would partner with powerful outside producers, agree on budgets and scripts, then split the costs and profits and would not really interfere. Really different than, say, MGM or Warners.”
Significantly, Orion enjoyed a spectacular run at the Oscars, wining Best Picture 4 times in 8 years. Orion rose briefly like a phoenix from the ruins of United Artists when the twin debacles of Heaven’s Gate and (worse) the smothering creative interference imposed by Transamerica Corp led to the unraveling of UA at the end of the ’70s. Top executives broke away from the sinking ship in 1978 and tried mightily to salvage the UA aesthetic. But this last gasp against global conglomeration was not to last.
According to Tom O’Neil:
It’s no coincidence that Oscar voters started to snub big-studio flicks as soon as VHS screeners came onto the scene in the late 1990s. Suddenly, they could watch the little indies in the coziness of their homes. They didn’t have to attend screenings, which means they saw more indies and they found them irresistible because, well, academy members are snobs.
Let’s look at how the major studios have sliced the Best Picture pie over the past 86 years, according to Wikipedia (I’m not going to count “extra” associate participants, just the names of big 5 studios.)
Universal-All Quiet on the Western Front
Columbia-It Happened One Night
MGM-Mutiny on the Bounty
MGM-The Great Ziegfeld
WB-The Life of Emile Zola
Columbia-You Can’t Take it With You
MGM-Gone with the Wind
Fox-How Green was My Valley
Paramount-Going My Way
Paramount-The Lost Weekend
RKO-Best Years of Our Lives
Two Cities Films*-Hamlet
Columbia-All the King’s Men
Fox-All About Eve
MGM-An American in Paris
Paramount-Greatest Show on Earth
Columbia-From Here to Eternity
Columbia-On the Waterfront
UA-Around the World in 80 Days
Columbia-Bridge on the River Kwai
UA-West Side Story
Columbia-Lawrence of Arabia
WB-My Fair Lady
Fox-The Sound of Music
Columbia-A Man for All Seasons
UA-In the Heat of the Night
Fox-The French Connection
Paramount-The Godfather Part II
Universal-The Deer Hunter
Columbia-Kramer vs. Kramer
WB-Chariots of Fire
Paramount-Terms of Endearment
Universal-Out of Africa
Columbia-The Last Emperor
WB-Driving Miss Daisy
Orion-Dances with Wolves
Orion-Silence of the Lambs
Miramax-The English Patient
Miramax/Universal-Shakespeare in Love
Universal-A Beautiful Mind
New Line-Return of the King
WB-Million Dollar Baby
Miramax-No Country for Old Men
Fox Searchlight/WB-Slumdog Millionaire
Summit*-The Hurt Locker
Weinstein Co*-King’s Speech
Weinstein Co*-The Artist
Fox Searchlight/Regency-12 Years a Slave
Over the past several years, there has been no win for Fox, Universal, Disney, or Paramount. Astonishingly, the last time Columbia won Best Picture for a film it produced was 33 years ago, Gandhi, in 1982. (The Last Emperor was already a completed film before Columbia acquired its distribution rights in 1987). Searchlight and Paramount Vantage still kind of, sort of count as studio wins even if they were under the specialty arm.
So, after watching the rise and fall and rise again of the studio’s grip on industry power structure, it’s an interesting notion to think that 2015 might really change the course of the Oscars for the first time in quite some time. Fox – or “Big Fox” is in the game with three major films – The Martian, The Revenant and Joy. They also hold Brooklyn and Youth in their indie/specialty arm hopefuls. History tells us that they are likely to get a maximum of three of these films nominated. It would be unheard of if Fox got five nominees for Best Picture. That is what many are currently predicting. Scott Feinberg has The Martian, The Revenant and Joy at the top of his predictions, all three “Big Fox” movies.
Universal has three strong contenders – Straight Outta Compton, Steve Jobs, and By the Sea – one or all could be headed for the race, in addition to their specialty arm, Focus Features, which has Suffragette and The Danish Girl (neither looking that strong for Best Picture). Where in the past their big studio efforts would be sidelined for their indie fare, this year it looks like the big studio movies are going to do better in the race than their indie fare. Funny, is it?
Though not as solidly at the moment as Fox and Universal, Warner Bros. is very much in the game with maybe Mad Max: Fury Road, maybe Black Mass, maybe Creed, maybe In the Heart of the Sea. Paramount is making a last -minute run with The Big Short and possibly even Anomalisa, which could pick up enough #1 votes to sneak into the Best Picture race.
Dreamworks/Disney makes its move with Steven Spielberg’s brilliant Bridge of Spies. Is there a more reliably profitable and sophisticated director than Spielberg?
Columbia (now the feature film division of Sony Pictures Entertainment) has Concussion, debuting at the AFI Fest. They also have Sony Picture Classics as a specialty arm with Son of Saul, Lady in the Van, Diary of a Teenage Girl. “Sony Pictures Classics, by the way, was originally United Artists Classics, then Orion Classics…before they went to Sony,” says Anne Thompson.
The Weinstein Co. is doing its usual thing, abiding with two prestigious flagship films this year – Carol and The Hateful Eight. Either both or neither will get in. It’s too soon to know.
Finally, there are the flat-out outsiders seeking to push in for the first time. Open Road with Spotlight, a surefire Oscar contender straight outta Telluride. Ditto A24’s Room. Roadside continues to bring good films to the race, and is back this year with Love and Mercy and Mr. Holmes. Netflix is really trying to change the rules of the game with Beasts of No Nation, finding a potential solution to the ever-widening separation between people who see movies in the theater and people who see movies at home.
There were some rumblings last year that Boyhood was shut out because IFC Films was an outsider, and that Inside Llewyn Davis was excluded because it was CBS Films. Does that prejudice still exist? Is there an advantage to being released from a known studio, either because so many of the voters work within the studio system (or were in their heyday when studios reigned supreme)?
Says Mark Harris:
“I don’t think a studio has an inherent advantage, or rather, the inherent advantage a studio has is not, in most cases, enough to make a meaningful difference. Of course a studio may have money to burn on an awards campaign, but if available cash to spend were everything, Avatar would have beaten The Hurt Locker, Inception or Toy Story 3 would have beaten The King’s Speech, and so on.”
There are so many reasons a movie wins, or doesn’t; some of them are capricious and some are substantial,” he continues, “some are matters of taste and some are matters of LACK of taste! But I think people almost never vote punitively; if they did, how could these films get nominated in the first place?”
2015 does seem to represent a shift, however, away from the smaller films that usually dominate, and maybe a return to the bigger studio fare that dominated Oscar Night prior to 1996.
What the Oscar race has been for the past decade and a half is “more indie” and less “big studio” movie because the idea was that big studio films are moving more in the direction of the tent poles and away from the smaller, character-driven films that Oscar and industry voters prefer.
This year indicates that there is some push-back in that regard. Universal standing behind a film like Steve Jobs the same year it released Jurassic World, for instance is a good example of a unification of quality with for-profit mass entertainment, as opposed to creating division with specialty arms, for instance. Warner Bros. bringing to the table several titles that reflect Hollywood’s desire to make films where people aren’t dressed up in superhero outfits while, at the same time, releasing superhero movies. These films will make money, perhaps make a major play for Oscar and before long, the studios could regain what they’ve lost in terms of perception – that they are taking Hollywood in the wrong direction.
Regardless, this year there are several films that prove studios are doing what they’ve always done best – make good movies. The Martian is one of the best films of the year because it is just a plain good movie, the kind I used to go see at the theater when I was a kid and throughout my life. The kind of movie only a Hollywood studio could make. The same can be said of Bridge of Spies and Steve Jobs and Mad Max: Fury Road. It is also true of the smaller movies that are harder to get made and really benefit from Oscar exposure, like Carol, Spotlight, Love and Mercy, Anomalisa.
We have in 2015 one of the richest slates we’ve seen in a while – films that run the spectrum from the tiniest independent to the most profitable blockbuster. The Martian, should it actually win Best Picture, will be the first time “Big Fox” has won Best Picture since Titanic, which it shared with Paramount. The last time Big Fox alone won Best Picture before that? The French Connection.
There are still many more films to see and the race is far from being completely defined. At the moment, there seems to be room for every kind of film. What it will boil down to, though, is how how many of these films will land in the top five spots of most industry voters. Will it matter if they’re from a big studio? Does “indie cred” still mean what it used to? Or is the industry ready to support the bigger studios as they make an effort to broaden the kinds of films they make in the era of the franchise, the sequel and the tent pole?
Hollywood and the Oscar race are ever-evolving. The same laws that apply to natural selection and human evolution apply to studios and filmmakers. Adapt or die.
Speaking of Anne Thompson, she’s on record today putting Mad Max: Fury Road back in her frontrunner’s spot, along with Inside Out. She also has Ian McKellen currently predicted to land in the Best Actor race.
I would be very surprised if the following films did not make it in the race, thinking in terms of what five films voters will put in their top five favorites of the year.
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Hateful Eight
That’s ten off the top. The last three have their place in line – if they make it, no sweat. If they don’t, there are other movies poised to take their place and those include:
In the Hear of the Sea
Son of Saul
I sent in my predictions for Gurus of Gold today and I wrote down the following:
1. The Martian
3. The Revenant
4. Bridge of Spies
8. Steve Jobs
10. Mad Max: Fury Road
11. The Hateful Eight
12. Son of Saul
Why Son of Saul? I don’t know. Like Anomalisa, just a hunch it will be loved enough to surge to the top of the list. I could be wrong. Anne and I part ways with Inside Out. I don’t see voters putting that in their top five, despite there being enough in the animators branch to do that (I think they’ll go for Anomalisa instead, if they go that route at all).