WHEN I took a bleary-eyed glance at the nomination results early Tuesday morning, I have to admit that my first reaction was -- is this the Oscars or the Independent Spirit Awards?
Four of the five nominees for best picture are films released by studio specialty divisions, which largely focus on movies with a limited commercial reach. The fifth film, "Michael Clayton," was released by Warner Bros. but financed by Steve Samuels, a real estate developer from Boston who bankrolled the project when no studio would put up the money.
It's hardly a shock to discover that today's studios are so risk-averse that they've gotten out of the quality picture business. This makes the third consecutive year that the best picture nominations have been dominated by films financed by outsiders and released by specialty divisions.
In 2005, four of the five best picture nominees were independently financed, including "Crash," the eventual winner, which was bankrolled by Bob Yari, another real estate developer turned film producer. Last year, three of the five films were released by specialty divisions, while a fourth film, "Letters From Iwo Jima," was made by a studio only because it had a director, Clint Eastwood, with the clout to get financing for a Japanese-language World War II drama.
To understand how little the Oscars and the big movie studios who started the awards have in common today, you have to look not only at the films but at who made them. You definitely get a sense of out with the old, in with the new. Of the six men nominated for best director (Joel and Ethan Coen, who made "No Country for Old Men," work as a team), only one -- Joel Coen -- has ever had a director's nomination in his career, Coen earning it for "Fargo."
In fact, of the five nominated directors -- the Coens, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tony Gilroy, Jason Reitman and Julian Schnabel -- only "Michael Clayton's" Gilroy has a long history of work within the studio system, having written a variety of commercial thrillers, notably the "Bourne" series. The Coens have occasionally tried their hand at studio productions, but with little success. They remain fiercely independent outsiders. The same goes for Anderson, who retains total control over his films, as does Schnabel, director of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
Most telling of all, the best picture nominees are not films that could have endured the "Survivor"-like experience of receiving notes from today's studio executives, cautious overseers obsessed with establishing character motivation and ensuring that the audience is never confused or particularly challenged. I won't give away any spoilers, but both "No Country for Old Men" and Anderson's' "There Will Be Blood" have striking endings that have confounded or even outraged viewers, but they've remained intact, since when you throw your lot in with these guys, if you're in for a dime, you're in for a dollar.
One can only imagine what would've happened to any of these nominees if they'd been forced to run the gauntlet of research screenings, with "No Country's" unflinching lack of emotion, "There Will Be Blood's" baldly unsympathetic lead character, "Atonement's" fractured flashback-and-forward narrative, "Michael Clayton's" elusive storytelling and "Juno's" casual acceptance of a 16-year-old girl's unplanned pregnancy. Although distributed by Fox Searchlight, "Juno" was independently financed by Mandate Pictures, which specializes in low-budget art-house and horror movies. If the film had been at a major studio it wouldn't be a stretch to hear a studio executive saying to Diablo Cody, who wrote the script, "I really love the cool slang and the funny phone, but does Juno really have to be pregnant?"
The other way to look at the best picture nominees is by studying which films didn't make the grade. According to the Oscar pundits early last fall, the favorites were studded with such studio productions as "American Gangster," "Charlie Wilson's War" and "Sweeney Todd." Yet all three were shut out of the writing, directing and best picture nominations. What happened?
"Sweeney Todd" has been a big disappointment at the box office, which proved fatal, since the academy rarely votes for costly movies that don't hit pay dirt. "Charlie Wilson's War" was entertaining but hardly thought-provoking, opting for comedy instead of provocative perspective. "American Gangster" had the scope and ambition of an Oscar film, but it left many academy voters (and critics) cold, feeling derivative of older, better gangster films.
In fact, one of the intriguing subplots of the best picture race is how much influence our much-maligned film critics had over the picks. For all of the talk of critics' waning influence, the five nominees racked up tons of critic valentines, all scoring more than 80 on Metacritic's 1 to 100 scale. Even though some of the films will never find a big audience in Middle America, their artistic daring and ambition resonated with both critics and academy members.
All this unbridled creativity does come at a price. It's hard to imagine ABC programmers taking much delight from the prospect of an award show whose two leading best picture contenders -- "No Country" and "There Will Be Blood" -- are brutal, nihilistic pictures that will be studied by film students for years but aren't the kind of pictures you can recommend to your Aunt Gladys in Des Moines. Of all the nominees, only "Juno" has the kind of feel-good vibe and commercial reach that helps spur TV ratings at Oscar time.
Some people will say this is a bad thing, another worrisome omen that the Oscars are devolving into a rarefied exercise in highbrow cinema snobbery, taking movies from the big stadium of public acceptance to the dingy basement club of film society nerds. It certainly bodes ill for TV ratings, which have largely been in a downward slide in recent years. But the Oscars -- thank the lord -- are not a popularity contest.
We spend the other 364 days of the year grading movies on their box-office earnings. It doesn't seem so much to ask for one night when we can appreciate art for art's sake.
"The Big Picture" appears every Tuesday in Calendar. E-mail questions or criticism to Patrick.firstname.lastname@example.org.