It’s time for too much of a good thing
DID you notice that there are suddenly a lot of good movies in town?
From early October until New Year’s, the floodgates are open, with a stylish, daring or thought-provoking adult film arriving every week. This past weekend alone saw the arrival of a potential best picture candidate, Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” along with two confections of classy entertainment, Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” and Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” as well as “Running With Scissors,” a literary adaptation with a stellar cast.
There is so much more to come that it raises the question: Why does Hollywood put out virtually all of its best adult-oriented movies in the last 12 weeks of the year?
The simple answer: Oscar fever. The industry’s obsession with the Academy Awards, which began as a symbol of achievement and are now a high-powered marketing tool, has transformed the end of the year into the Oscar Follies, offering a legitimate batch of award contenders surrounded by a scrum of hapless pretenders being released at year’s end only because of studio delusions, blind adherence to conventional wisdom and arm-twisting by narcissistic stars and filmmakers.
The result is often a bloodbath. Steve Gilula, chief operating officer at Fox Searchlight, a studio division famous for its discipline in such matters -- it releases its films only when the studio thinks they will make the most money -- doesn’t mince words. “The fall can be a demolition derby for serious, thought-provoking movies. There are just too many of them.”
With a multitude of highbrow movies competing for the same adult audience, film after film takes a nasty tumble. Last year, for example, a host of movies tanked at the box office despite being touted -- either by the studios or some breathless Oscar prognosticator -- as having Academy Award potential. A partial sample includes “Jarhead,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The New World,” “North Country,” “Casanova,” “The Producers,” “Elizabethtown” and “In Her Shoes.”
Some of these movies would undoubtedly have failed no matter when they were released. But I’d argue that many of them would’ve had a better chance for survival if they’d had a chance to find an audience in a less competitive environment. In the fall, the bar is perilously high: Every movie is graded on an Oscar curve instead of being judged on its own merits. If some of these movies had been released in a quiet weekend in the spring when quality-starved adults had nothing else to see at the multiplex, they might have had a fighting chance for survival.
What the studios don’t seem to grasp is that a film’s reception, both from critics and filmgoers, is all about context. Not every movie can bear the weight of award season expectations. Released last October, after a dismal reception a month earlier at the Toronto Film Festival, “Elizabethtown” was written off as a creative mess. Its fall release proved disastrous. If the film had arrived this spring, after audiences -- and critics -- had suffered through an endless parade of homely comedies and horror films, “Elizabethtown” might have been viewed as a minor gem, not as a big disappointment.
It’s gotten to the point where there are five seasons of movies in Hollywood, four of them largely bereft of anything that would satisfy the hunger pangs of a serious filmgoer.
The first six weeks of the year make a barren winter, full of movies that the studios are usually too embarrassed to even show to critics. This is followed by a false spring, when an occasional cheery romance or animated family film is drowned out by a slew of noisy comedies and action films not good enough for summer. That season brings with it a stretch of sleek special-effects films, teen comedies and steroid-injected sequels that run the gamut from good to extremely ugly.
Fall, which lasts from Labor Day to the first days of October, is full of either earnest inspirational stories (“Gridiron Gang,” “Everyone’s Hero” and “Flyboys”) or films being dumped on the scrap heap (“Wicker Man,” “Idiocracy”).
Then -- voila -- just when we thought we’d never go near a multiplex again, the buzz begins to ricochet around the word-of-mouth corridor inhabited by adult members of the tribe, from the carpool line at school to the gym, the farmers market and the sidelines of the Saturday afternoon soccer game -- the good movies are here!
Most of the credit -- or blame -- goes to Harvey Weinstein, who in his years at Miramax was the industry’s leading Oscar impresario, with a decade-long string of best picture nominations. A canny marketer without the deep pockets of a big studio czar, Weinstein essentially invented the modern Oscar campaign. The key ingredient to his success was his realization that by opening a movie at year’s end he could essentially run two campaigns at once, using his ad dollars to market the movie to general audiences and Oscar voters simultaneously.
Every nomination became a marketing hook. As 42West partner Amanda Lundberg, Miramax’s former head of publicity, explains: “Harvey used nominations not just for recognition but to help market the films. He always believed that he could make $1 million in ads go a lot farther if you tagged them to the message -- ‘Chicago’: Five Golden Globe nominations’ or ‘Seven Academy Award nominations.’ It made every ad buy count.”
Unfortunately, now that every studio has adopted Weinstein’s strategy, we have a glut of Oscar pretenders every fall and an unhealthy suspicion that if a quality film isn’t being released at year’s end, there must be something wrong with it. The accepted wisdom is that it’s impossible to get adults to see movies any other time of year. When I asked Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal why she was releasing what are arguably her studio’s five most artistically ambitious films in the last eight weeks of the year, she replied: “Because it’s the time when adults go to the movies.”
On back-to-back weekends in December, Sony is releasing two star-driven films: “The Holiday” and “Pursuit of Happyness.” I couldn’t help but wonder whether they wouldn’t cannibalize each other, not to mention suffer from having to compete with a dozen other quality adult films arriving in December.
“Not at all,” Pascal says. “They’re very different kinds of movies. It’s sad, but the truth is that nobody wants to see those kinds of movies in the summer. We’ve done the research. It’s impossible to get adults into theaters except during the holidays.”
Warner Bros. chief Alan Horn acknowledges that Oscar hopes play a big part. “If we’re going to spend a significant amount of money on a thought-provoking film, as we’ve done with ‘Blood Diamond’ [an upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio film], you really get a lot of help from Oscar consideration. And Oscar voters, like all of us, have a better memory for recent films, so it helps to put them out in the fall.”
Studios are storehouses of conventional wisdom, so once the Miramax late-season strategy proved successful, everyone copied it. As recently as 1995, four of the five best picture nominees were released in summer. By 2003, the year “Chicago” won, all five nominees opened in December.
It took Lionsgate, a maverick independent, to show what lemmings the studios had become. Suspecting the correlation between Oscars and year-end releases was largely a self-fulfilling prophecy, Lionsgate followed the Fox Searchlight strategy of releasing a film when it had the best chance for commercial success. When the studio acquired “Crash,” it saw the racially charged drama could be both a box-office hit as well as an award performer. Released in early May to good reviews, the movie not only ended up being one of Lionsgate’s biggest hits, it also went on to win best picture nearly 10 months later. “We thought, since we had the goods, that getting out in front was a plus,” says Lionsgate President Tom Ortenberg. “All the films in the fourth quarter were judged against ‘Crash.’ And, as we suspected, a lot of people ended up saying, ‘Well, we liked this film or admired that film, but we really loved ‘Crash.’ ”
But this year the Oscar Follies are back. I’m sure every studio chief believes he or she is simply doing what’s best for the film’s box-office chances, since a best picture nod often gives adults an added incentive to see a serious movie. Unfortunately, of the 25 or so adult movies jammed into the last 12 weeks of the year, only five will get one of those cherished nominations.
The rest will be orphans, ignored instead of adored, left to wither on the vine when all the free media hype goes to the five nominees. The problem is simple: No one wants to tell a hotshot filmmaker -- or admit to him or herself -- that a film isn’t good enough to compete. Instead the studios put the blame on us, claiming that we won’t support any serious movies the other 40 weeks of the year.
But the real reason all these good movies are coming out at exactly the same time is because everyone in Hollywood is smoking the Oscar crack pipe.
“The Big Picture” runs each Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.