A Tale of Two Hollywoods Part 2

Welcome to the second part of my look at the duplicity that is the Hollywood we know and love (or love to hate in some cases).   Yesterday I delved into the mainstream films, such as Transformers, which get little to no recognition by the Academy.  These are movies that represent the very monetary foundation of which Hollywood is built.

Today I’m going to slide the other way and talk about the performance side of Hollywood.  Films with limited budgets, little to no marketing and have to fight tooth-and-nail in some instances for distribution as well as theater screens.  They are the darlings of Hollywood, praised for often dramatic portrayal of characters and deeply emotional stories.  Yet, even with all the attention they receive when nominated for an Oscar, only a select group of viewers end up seeing these films.

In contrast to their mainstream counterparts, performance films have always been the underdog.  It starts from the very point the script is completed all the way to getting onto the screen.  It’s the latter which ultimately proves the most critical because without theaters to show it, what good is a movie?

Unlike mainstream cinema, performance films can’t bury a bad plot in fancy special effects to awe audiences.  They have to achieve so much more in the way of writing, directing and acting just to be considered for theatrical release.  Everything about them is put in plain sight and in that they are judged on a considerably harsher scale than something like Iron Man.

Even when they premiere at film festivals the likes of Sundance, Tribeca, or Cannes, performance films continue their uphill battle to find an audience.  Therein lays an enormous problem.   Mainstream films are the bread and butter of theater owners and few are willing to sacrifice tickets sales by swapping out a big budget film for something considered “arty”.  It’s a harsh reality, but the truth is lower budget performance movies don’t fill seats.  Or do they?

A notable exception last year was Paranormal Activity.  The supernatural thriller was made for only $15,000 and went onto gross over $150 million at the box office.  You’d be hard pressed to find a greater film-making success story.  Certainly a film that managed to defy the performance film odds and succeed on so many levels is worthy of recognition at the Oscars.  This is what Hollywood is all about, right?  Apparently not, as Paranormal Activity received zero nominations.

Just to illustrate how glaring this oversight is, the lowest budget Best Picture contender, A Serious Man cost $7 million and went onto make just over $20 million.  It was only released in limited capacity before finding its way to DVD.  So how did A Serious Man capture a nomination for Best Picture while Paranormal Activity was all but forgotten?  I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact A Serious Man was directed by former Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Cohen.  Actually, that’s exactly why I think it was nominated.

So it seems that Oscar wants to promote the performance films, but is overly selective about it.  In an effort to preserve the decades old pomp and circumstance of classic cinema true Hollywood success stories are being tossed aside.  Oscar would sooner trumpet the films of previous winners than elevate the next generation of film-makers.

That sounds a little heated on my part so let me digress by asking a simple question: how does the Academy discern a film’s Oscar worth?  This is the real process they take, but is there more going on behind the scenes?  The Academy appears to be overly promoting its own instead of looking at the film industry on a whole.   In turn, the Oscars become a walled garden for the elite to pat themselves on the back.

At what point does the playing field get leveled, opening the gates to fair representation of all film?  The Oscars shouldn’t be about how dramatic a movie or role is specifically, but rather the success of film-making.  Paranormal Activity was just such a success, but the Academy paid it no regard.  Robert Downey Jr. was in no uncertain terms Tony Stark in Iron Man, but I assure you he won’t be nominated for a leading actor role next year.  Think about it and I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with a dozen more examples worthy of an Oscar that have not, or will not, get recognition.

As much as I have made performance films out to be a villain of sorts, they aren’t.  There is a place for both mainstream and performance cinema in the industry, in fact it’s crucial.  What leaves me unsettled is how the Oscars are the de facto standard of film merit when they are not a fair representation, in my opinion, of all the rich talent across the board.  The Academy’s reluctance to include mainstream films, whom many of their top actors make a good career off of I might add (Newly minted Oscar winner Jeff Bridges [Crazy Heart] was in Iron Man and in the upcoming Tron: Legacy), has segmented the industry and given rise to more awards shows than I can count.  Unfortunately, you’ll never see an actor billed as “Blockbuster award winner…”.

A time will come when the Oscars redefines itself and in that paradigm shift find relevance again.  You’ll know that day has arrived when the following sentence is uttered on stage at the Kodak Theatre…

And the Oscar goes to…Michael Bay.

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