It's too early for me to make any picks for this year's Academy Awards. I have the list of nominees in front of me; sure, there are names on it I don't recognize and a few usual suspects that make what seem to be annual appearances, but I'm waiting for a few more of the guild awards to be announced before I make my (semi-)educated guesses.
Today, though, my focus is on the Best Picture nominees; specifically on the issue of the visibility -- and viewability -- of the movies the Academy membership selected as their top choices. It used to be that most of the movies nominated for the top Oscar played everywhere, but these days, that's not the case.
Among the 9 films nominated for Best Picture, only "The Help" -- with its $169 million domestic gross -- even comes close to being a box office blockbuster (although, to be fair, a number of the films on the list are lower-budgeted independent efforts which aren't likely to play in theaters across the country). I know that Oscar voting isn't supposed to be based on how many piles of money this movie made versus that one versus that other one, but it sure seems that financial success trumps acclaim for certain films. For example, the not-Best-Picture-nominated seventh and final "Harry Potter" movie was easily one of the most critically-lauded pictures of 2011 -- more acclaimed than most of the nominees -- oh, and it also raked in $381 million in North American theaters alone.
I'm not advocating for the Academy Awards to become a tribute to the most glorious examples of how Hollywood develops its fattest cash cows, but over recent years, a disconnect has developed between public reception and industry appreciation. To be fair, "Harry Potter" did receive 3 nominations, but all in technical categories. (Also nominated for 3 technical Oscars: the $352-million-grossing "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," which enjoyed far, far less acclaim.) Additionally, Best Picture nominations for acclaimed blockbusters like "Avatar" and "Up" in 2009 and "Toy Story 3" in 2010 at least showed that the Academy notices good work and not just the individual technical achievements.
I'm sure the Academy is happy that "Harry Potter" -- and the six previous films in the series -- were box-office smashes; it only shows that American film production remains at the top of the heap. That they were also good movies, well-received by audiences here and abroad, is surely the icing on that cake.
But think about these titles: "Jaws." "Star Wars." "Raiders of the Lost Ark." "E.T." "Titanic."
All five were not only massive box office hits, produced during the era of the modern blockbuster, they were all also critically-acclaimed -- and Best Picture nominees. "Titanic," the most financially-successful of them all, actually took home the top prize. Since the dawn of the Indie Age, there's been a separation between what the industry expects from their Big Movies and from their "artsier" productions (cash versus prestige) but there are still a number of very good movies being made that more than a handful of people have seen.
The flip side of the argument is that a good film is a good film, no matter the budget or box office take. For example, consider the case of "The Artist," a French-produced salute to the glamor and joy of Old Hollywood. It's nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay. It has been lavished with praise by American critics since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last summer, and seems to be the front-runner for a number of Oscars, particularly Best Picture, since winning the top prize from the Producers Guild of America last weekend. Their prestigious Darryl F. Zanuck Award is usually prescient around Oscar time -- the two groups have agreed on their best picture winners each of the last four years.
The question is, will it be seen in theaters around here? The odds seem pretty long. After all, "The Artist" has a bunch of strikes against it -- it's in black and white, it's a silent film and it's a foreign production. Any single one of those details make it more difficult to market; taken together, the movie becomes especially exotic. Sure, I want to see it (and maybe so do you and a couple other people you know), but the people who are tasked with booking the movie theaters in our area aren't going to keep their jobs very long by bringing in titles that are likely to play to mostly empty auditoriums.
This is where technology could ride to the rescue -- and I'll use another Oscar nominee as the example. "Margin Call," a low-budget drama with a cast of well-known stars, started playing in theaters late last year to broad acclaim; soon after its release, it also premiered on DVD and Blu-ray and was made available via a number of video-on-demand (VOD) providers.
I had read reviews of the film and had a genuine interest in seeing it, but was also pretty sure I'd never catch it in a theater. When I noticed that the movie was available for purchase at Wal-Mart, I took a chance. The movie didn't disappoint; it's a gripping look inside Wall Street with a terrific cast, including Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci and Jeremy Irons. (Spacey, as a trading floor leader whose conscience is catching up to him, is particularly good.) So I was genuinely pleased to see that the writer of the film, J.C. Chandor, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and I hope that the nomination leads to more people taking a chance on the movie itself.
I know that the major studios and theater chains are at odds over shrunken VOD and home video windows (which is the amount of time between when a movie premieres in a theater to when it shows up in your local store), but I also know I would not have seen "Margin Call" as soon as I did if it hadn't been for the distributor's video strategy.
Sure, most feature films should be seen in a theater first, as the makers intended. In the case of small films like "Margin Call" (or "The Artist") however, the alternate at-home viewing options could -- and perhaps should -- present a golden opportunity to those of us who want to keep up on smaller films, but rarely have access to the theaters that show them.