Oscar’s independent streak

While the Academy certainly tends to recognise a particular type of film, what’s changed in the past few years is the way those films have been financed and made. As The Big Picture noted yesterday:

“Of this year’s best picture nominees, only two were made at major studios: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” co-financed by Paramount and Warners, with Paramount distributing, and “Frost/Nixon,” which is distributed by Universal Pictures. “Slumdog,” along with “Milk” and “The Reader,” were financed outside the studio system or by specialty companies. More importantly, if you look at the recent best picture winners, they are invariably made by fiercely independent filmmakers who rarely take their cues from the studio system.

The Coen brothers, who directed last year’s winner, “No Country for Old Men,” are so leery of Hollywood that producer Scott Rudin had to cajole them into even coming to town for a few glad-handing events. The same goes for Martin Scorsese, a lifelong New Yorker who directed “The Departed,” the winner in 2007. Paul Haggis, who directed “Crash,” the 2006 winner, lives here, but as a director operates just as far away from the studio system as Scorsese or the Coens. Clint Eastwood, who won in 2005 with “Million Dollar Baby,” is the ultimate outsider, making his movies with the same crew in the same quiet fashion, brooking little interference from any studio suit.

This year’s crop of best picture nominated filmmakers is just as independent, “Frost/Nixon’s” Ron Howard being the only one old-pro studio hand in the bunch. “Benjamin Button’s” David Fincher makes studio films, but just ask any executive who’s tried to persuade the filmmaker to change a frame of film–or cut 15 minutes out of his epic-length films. Fincher is the boss. You could say the same about “The Reader’s” Stephen Daldry or “Milk’s” Gus Van Sant, who have happily operated outside the studio system for most of their careers.

Great movies are not made by committee. They are made by strong-willed filmmakers attracted to unconventional stories. But even more importantly, as you can see in virtually every frame of “Slumdog Millionaire,” they are the product of risk-taking, of the willingness to experiment and the courage to leap into the unknown. The same law applies in politics as in art. In the midst of today’s Obama-mania, people tend to forget what a long shot his presidential gamble was, easily as much of a long shot as the gamble Danny Boyle and his backers took heading off to India to make a movie in the tumultuous, crowded streets of Mumbai. It’s a gamble few of today’s bottom-line movie studios are willing to take, but as today’s Oscar nominations have made very clear, with the risks come the rewards.”

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3 thoughts on “Oscar’s independent streak

  1. J-love your writing style. Your sense of humor really comes out in your posts. However, I disagree with your take on this.

    Quoting The Big Picture blog you wrote, “Of this year’s best picture nominees, only two were made at major studios.”

    “Milk” is distributed by Focus Features, a subsidiary of Universal Studios; “Slumdog Millionaire” is distributed by Fox Searchlight a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox and was financed by Film4; and “The Reader” by the Weinsteins. Only the latter could arguably be an independent but even they have an output deal with MGM.

    Although it may be true that these pictures were independently financed, such financing was likely based on the producers having US theatrical distribution in place prior to principal photography. US theatrical distribution essentially drives the value of foreign distribution rights up increasing the likelihood of financing a project.

    For all their laudable (and at times, edgy) works, Scorsese, Rudin, Eastwood and even Haggis are part of the Hollywood establishment. Their involvement in a project can easily (relatively speaking) drive financing of a project.

    Saying that these pictures are truly independently financed by independents is like calling a wolf in sheep’s clothing a ewe.

    That said, I’m pleased to see that the business environment and audience tastes have become more sophisticated and that the nominees reflect that sensibility.

  2. Thank you Peter! And absolutely right — there’s a whole other interesting issue about the hijacking of “independent film” by studios hoping to pick up some extra credibility, which too often results in the exclusion of real independent talent. Labels like Sony Classics and Fox Searchlight are at best a mixed blessing for the real independent sector — and their current woes and even shutdowns are an indication of the actual status that they hold.

  3. Pingback: Interdependence Day | DealFatigue

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