A Tale of Two Hollywoods, Part 1

It was an interesting show for the Oscars this year.  From the “Kanye” moment to Sean Penn somewhat proudly proclaiming he’s not part of the Academy.  Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role (The Blind Side) the very same year she accepted a Razzie for Worst Actress (All About Steve).  And, of course, the gross upset of Avatar at the hands of The Hurt Locker.  With 41 million viewers, this year’s Oscars had something for everyone but, perhaps more interestingly, it best reflected the two sides of Hollywood which exist today.

How fitting to have two hosts on the one Oscar night that would truly exemplify both faces of Hollywood.  For so long many have seen Hollywood as one massive, filmmaking entity but that really isn’t the case.  Now more than ever there’s a division between what I’m calling (for the purposes of this article) “mainstream” Hollywood and “performance” Hollywood.  The names pretty much say it all.

Films in the mainstream category are all the summer blockbusters, tent pole movies studios rely on to turn a healthy profit year over year (e.g. Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Avatar).  In contrast you have the performance pictures, lesser known films with limited release and all too often far less money behind them (e.g. Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker).  These are two very different types of films, each vying for the attention of movie goers.

With this interesting dichotomy it begs the question, which side is doing more for the industry?  Do both have their place, or should one get preferentially treatment over the other?  Throughout the last few years Oscar has shown us its primary focus seems to be on more dramatic, performance fair and is that…well, fair?

I’m asking these questions not as a detractor of the Oscars but a movie fan who feels this particular award show has lost some of its shine.  Let me be clear, the Oscars are important. There has been, and never will be, an award bigger than an Oscar. Unfortunately, the Oscars are going through an identity crisis. They want mainstream popularity without paying tribute to mainstream film making.

Speaking of mainstream let me start in that camp. From May to August people like me find themselves at the movies nearly every week. Inundated with film after film it’s sometimes hard to keep up with all the new releases.  These are the movies that really fuel the Hollywood engine, yet are all too often overlooked by the Academy. Aside from tossing a couple technology nominations their way, mainstream movies rarely receive recognition for Best Actor, Actress, or Director. Rarer still is a Best Picture nod for these types of films.

It’s easy to brush these movies off as little more than popcorn entertainment. Look beyond the eye-popping special effects, however, and you’ll quickly discover the vast scope a movie like Transformers 2, for example, requires.  The films that get the least regard is seems are the ones Hollywood banks on for future success. It may pain some people to hear this but, yes, Michael Bay is keeping Hollywood (and the economy) running and is not shy about telling people that:

“The true story is we went to Vegas to celebrate [Revenge of the Fallen] crossing the $400 million mark domestic. I said I’m excited to do my small little movie. They said, well we’re here to talk about that. I’ve become friends with these guys that run Paramount and they [told me,] ‘We’re going to get fired if we don’t have a 2011 franchise,’ so I’m like you can’t let these guys down. The economy’s been so rough, it’s kind of important. When you say yes to movie like this you automatically give 3000 people jobs. 1000 for the toys. 2000 for the film making. I’m going to put [the small film] on hold and do it right after [Transformers 3].”

Films like Transformers require such a massive amount of people to make they become corporations unto themselves, providing months of employment for thousands of people.  Whether you loved or hated Transformers, it created a lot of jobs during a time when people really needed work.  Transformers 3 will be no different and, perhaps, even more critical in curbing the unemployment numbers at least temporarily.  Shockingly, the number of people Transformers employed paled in comparison to another well known franchise, The Lord of the Rings.

During the height of The Lord of the Rings filming the production was the largest private-sector employer in New Zealand.  Generating a staggering 23,000 jobs it helped put $70 million back into the national economy.  It’s hard to argue the good a film of this scale can do for people looking for work.  Fortunately, Oscar recognized the triumph that was The Lord of the Rings and the series defied the mainstream curse that plagues most films like this when nominations are announced.

Yet, in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings’ success so many other mainstream movies get ignored come Oscar season. In turn, other award shows (e.g. Blockbuster, People’s Choice) quickly began to acknowledge these movies and viewers were quick to tune in.  By sidelining these mainstream films Oscar has effectively been biting the hand that feeds it.  Personally, I’m surprised other directors like Michael Bay have not been more outspoken on this point.

In an effort to cater to public opinion, and possibly win back viewers, the Academy opened up the Best Picture category to ten films this year, up from the long established five.  This allowed more mainstream films to be recognized and hopefully show Hollywood that it did in fact care about larger movies.  Whether the producers of the Oscars cared which film won, we’ll never know.  If nothing else, we can at least be certain expanding the category helped generate buzz which probably helped bolster ratings.

Even with ten films nominated, however, two stood out from the pack: James Cameron’s epic Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow’s practically unknown The Hurt Locker.  The films couldn’t be more opposite. Avatar played on well over 3000 screens while The Hurt Locker rarely exceeded 500 at any given time.  Avatar cost over $200 million to make while The Hurt Locker cost $11 million.  Avatar went onto make $2 billion dollars worldwide while The Hurt Locker brought in a meek, by comparison, $21 million.  And just to add some real spice to this stand-off, Bigelow is Cameron’s ex-wife.

For the Oscars, it was a win-win scenario.  Either Avatar would win and validate the Academy’s acknowledgement of big budget films, or The Hurt Locker would take top spot, continuing the prestige of performance drama.  In the end, The Hurt Locker sideswiped the nominations and cast Avatar back into the technical category wins one would expect from such a special effects heavy feature film.  No Best Picture and no Best Director for the highest-grossing film ever made.  So, what happened?

Ballet metrics aside, I would speculate that the Academy turned on the big budget Avatar to promote the underdog film.  It was a star-studded coup d’état.  Why?  Because The Hurt Locker resonates with the artist-side of Hollywood more than Avatar did.  What actor is going to vote for a film that employed, for the most part, computer generated characters?  Simply put, I doubt you’ll ever see an award for Best Acting in a Motion Capture Role.

Okay, maybe that explanation is a little too conspiracy-laden for you.  It’s entirely possible the better film simply won out.  Or maybe it was just a popularity contest between Cameron and Bigelow.  At the end of the day the outcome is still the same; Oscar continues to ignore mainstream entertainment.

The Academy sent a clear message; big budget films need not be nominated.  While I appreciate where they’re coming from, is it a good stand to take?  For the most part, the Oscars have always been about regal appreciation for the art of film-making, especially in the dramatic sense.  Yet, as times change, will the performance films, which are more closely aligned with old school Hollywood values, be enough to maintain an awards show wherein only the minority of viewers have seen the films that have been nominated?

The very films Oscar holds dearest to its heart could be undermining the highest honor Hollywood can bestow.   Moreover, while the Academy clamors to certain performance films it hypocritically ignores some of the greatest performance success stories we’ve seen.

Come back tomorrow for my thoughts on the performance side of Hollywood and what I think the Oscars need to become relevant again.

  • Bob Starr
    April 16, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Yeah, so I’m really late on this comment but my apologies for the errors noted by Proofreader. Yes, even I get lost in all the words sometimes. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, I’ll be more thorough in the future.

  • Proofreader
    March 12, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Don’t be afraid to hire a proofreader. An interesting piece becomes jarringly annoying with its “Kayne moment.” “preferentially treatment” and more. Sheesh.

    • Chris Ullrich
      March 13, 2010 at 12:52 am

      Thanks for your comment. To correct you, we do have proofreaders but sometimes even they make mistakes. Thanks for pointing them out in such a constructive way. We appreciate it.

  • A Rose
    March 12, 2010 at 7:33 am

    These are excellent points and I am certainly glad to see someone understand the scope and difficulty level of a big budget production. I do think it was wise of the Academy to open the BP list and include animated films and films from other genres like science fiction.

  • shannon hood
    March 11, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Excellent piece, Bob. Thought provoking and well written. I look forward to reading part 2. 🙂

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