Saturday, March 02, 2013

On Argo and the studio system

I have been thinking about the Oscars this week, and not just about who won and who lost and which jokes host Seth MacFarlane should have omitted (the Cruz/Bardem/Hayek joke was the worst of the night, IMHO). MacFarlane and Kristen Chenoweth's delightfully tongue-in-cheek commentary in the midst of their show-closing song honouring the "losers" - "who lost to Chicago?" - made me think about the nature of this year's nominees and of the Oscars themselves. Of course, I knew most of the answers to the flippantly hypothetical proposition (The Two Towers, The Pianist, and The Hours, although I temporarily blanked on Gangs of New York), as well as a couple of other notable films from 2002 (Talk To Her, Adaptation.), but I'm admittedly a movie nerd with a freakish memory for these things. Most people do not have much of a memory even for Best Picture, much less the other films that are in competition in any given year.
I wrote in mid-November about the onset of "Awards Season" and how there are at most thirty films that are ever really in contention for multiple and major awards at the Oscars (making exemption, of course, for the half-a-dozen or so films that earn one technical nomination like Visual Effects, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, or Costume Design). That number is usually narrowed down to about fifteen films at the nominations, and further reduced by the amount of Oscars and the quality of the awards that each film wins at the ceremony. After this year's Awards, that short list for 2012 is Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Les Misérables, Django Unchained, Skyfall, and Silver Linings Playbook, which seems to be a fairly good approximation of the movies that really did matter in the past year on a wide scale. Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and even Zero Dark Thirty seem more likely to fade into relative obscurity (at least from popular awareness and discourse), along with other films like Moonrise Kingdom, The Sessions, Flight, and The Master. This whole discussion is interesting, particularly in terms of what films are memorable and what makes a film memorable, even as 2012 marks one of the more accomplished and memorable years in film in a long time. What are the films that people will remember in five, ten, twenty, or fifty years? (Quick: try to remember the five films that were nominated instead of The Dark Knight, without looking it up. I bet you get one - Slumdog Millionaire - but try to remember one or two more. Yep, didn't think you could.) Apparently, Argo is one of those memorable films, if its victory is supposed to be any indication; I'm not convinced of that fact, and here's my explanation as to why.
I'm certainly not convinced that Argo was the Best Picture of the year; I'm not even convinced that it was the best in its genre in the year - though I have not seen it, I'm inclined to lean toward Zero Dark Thirty as at least equal to Argo in the "international espionage thriller" genre. Argo certainly does not have much company in the "action thriller" genre in Oscar memory, which is, I believe, part of the reason why it won. The fact that Affleck and company crafted a movie in a stereotypically straightforward genre that had the kind of heart and soul of a movie that could win Best Picture gave it that extra bit of oomph and put it over the top. Perhaps the most comparable Best Picture winners in recent memory are The Hurt Locker and The Departed, which is in itself a bit of a stretch to connect to Argo thematically - though it too, was certainly not the best of its year. Perhaps, particularly after the emphasis on "sentimentality" with the last two Best Picture winners - The King's Speech and The Artist - the fact that a thriller could thrill and be smart about it made it about time that an action thriller would win the prize. The Academy has honoured westerns and epics and musicals and war movies and biopics and detective flicks and film noirs and romantic comedies (though still rarely honoring horror, science fiction, fantasy, or black comedy), but they had not really been able to honour a direct action thriller like Argo, so the fact that they could meant that they did. Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed Argo, and it's on my Top 10 for the year, but it's not really a Best Picture. If I were to take the last twenty years of Best Pictures, it would rank somewhere in the middle of the pack, behind the instant classics (Unforgiven, Schindler's List, No Country For Old Men, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), but ahead of the overly sentimental (Forrest Gump, The Artist, The King's Speech, Million Dollar Baby), the bloated epics (Braveheart, The English Patient, Gladiator, Titanic), and the travesties (Crash and Shakespeare in Love, which is not a terrible film of itself, but when compared to Saving Private Ryan...yeesh). It's somewhere in the bottom half of the top 10, along with The Departed, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, American Beauty, Chicago, and A Beautiful Mind. In some order. (Maybe I should try that exercise sometime - rank the Best Picture winners. Of course, I actually need to watch all of them then, and that would mean that I would have to sit through The English Patient. This might be a topic for a future post.) Argo is entertaining, well-crafted, anachronistically timely with its exploration and development of themes and ties between eras, and it is definitely one of the better action thrillers of recent memory and perhaps longer - but it's not quite a Best Picture.
But there's more to the discussion that I feel the need to unpack. Previous to Sunday night's Best Picture win, Owen Glieberman wrote for EW about how Argo is representative of the populist nature of the Academy, that Argo was the film that they most enjoyed watching. He compared it to Chariots of Fire, and much of his commentary on how the Academy votes for Best Picture and how that relates to box office and popularity and the role of the awards race (arguably now more than ever) is accurate and interesting, but I do not think that it gives a full picture of what Argo's win really means. I think the part that Owen missed out was looking at the current state of the studio system and what it means for the Oscars, as represented in Argo's win. That, to me, is the key as to why Argo won, and I think that considering that one of the main thrusts of Argo is a critique of the Hollywood studio system that a further examination of this factor is in order and eerily prescient.
Let's look roughly at the era of "independent film" for this discussion - the past twenty years, since 1992. I am aware that there were independent films starting in the 1960s and 1970s, but the kind of critical and commercial embracing of independent film really did not happen until the early 1990s. Within a decade, starting in 1992, each major studio - Disney, Columbia (Sony), Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount (Viacom), and Fox - had its own independent division that was financed by its parent company but allowed to function as an essentially independent entity. Over the past two decades, these divisions - Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage, and Fox Searchlight, respectively - have accounted for a surprisingly high number of nominations and victories, even of Best Pictures. (I'm not sure of the exact numbers, but sometime it would be worth it to break down the percentages over the years. Not now, though.) Moreover, this period has featured the development of "mini-major" studios that have vacillated between a philosophy and practice of independence and the realities of the corporate conglomerates that engulf the entertainment landscape. Some are affiliated with one of the big six, though with significant self-management - DreamWorks (now affiliated with Viacom), Pixar (now with Disney), and MGM (the former film giant that is now affiliated with Sony) - while others often function in partnerships with those major studios - LionsGate, the #7 studio, and The Weinstein Co., which was born out of the Weinstein brothers' need to leave Disney's control and was responsible for two consecutive Best Picture winners, The King's Speech and The Artist. Then there are a host of genuinely independent studios, many of which have been started by producers, directors, and actors to create their own films. Many of them are at least loosely affiliated not only with one another, but also with more significant independent affiliates of major studios (or the studios themselves). There have, of course, also been genuinely independent films that have achieved critical and commercial success (Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity come to mind initially), but the vast majority of "independent films" that have hit the big time have still come through these major (or mid-major) studios. The reality is, despite the flourishing world of independent film and the great strides that have happened with the evolution of technology and so on and so forth that the road to success still, with very few exceptions, goes through the big six studios.
LionsGate is an interesting entity, so please allow the digression. Most of the studio's success has come from action and horror movies, as well as several series (Saw, Madea, The Twilight Saga, and The Hunger Games most prominently), and they rarely partner with major studios, but they have risen significantly in the past decade and a half nevertheless. In spite of their commercial success, the studio has has only mild success in the Academy Awards in its 15 years, with only a half-dozen films making any kind of impact at the Oscars. A few films - Gods and Monsters, Rabbit Hole, Hotel Rwanda, and Monster's Ball - have garnered minor attention and nominations, along with one high-profile win, Halle Berry's Best Actress in 2001 for the latter film. The two LionsGate films that have had the most success were 2009's Precious and the Best Picture travesty in 2005, Crash. But they do work with smaller independent studios (including a few in which they have financially invested), and they have just recently announced a low-budget film division of their own. So even the mini-major "independent" studio has an independent division. Huh.
With this understanding of the majors, mini-majors, subsidiaries, affiliates, and independents, we come to the core realization that emerged from this year brought, particularly as Argo arguably brought Hollywood's self-aggrandization: despite the rise of independent film in the past two decades and an increasing acknowledgement of the necessity of independent film as part of Hollywood, the studio system is as in control (if not more so) than it ever has been. Some of that control comes through its independent divisions, but the primary reason that independent films are still being recognized is that the field is slightly larger in terms of nominees, not in terms of the studio system opening up. let's look closer at this year's nominees. Of the nine nominees for Best Picture, three were considered "independent" and were nominated and/or honoured at the Independent Spirit Awards: Amour (Sony Pictures Classics), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight), and Silver Linings Playbook (which was distributed by the Weinstein Company, one of those mini-majors). While the first two were certainly independent films, SLP had as much a feel of a major film as an independent one, and it seems hard to argue that any film that is distributed by Weinstein could truly be considered independent. Still, the fact that one-third of the nominated movies (and three of the five Best Director nominees) came through the independent system is impressive, and it would seem to counteract my initial argument, save for the fact that there seemed to be so much attention given to the fact that "Hollywood notices the little movies now" because of the two former movies being nominated that it virtually invalidates any real progress that may have been made through nominating them. Perhaps more than any of the past three years since the field of Best Picture nominees was expanded, it was almost impossible to tell which of the nine nominated films were the "major" and "minor" nominees, but other than the Best Director oddity, it sure seemed like Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild were on the outside looking in, just happy to be there (save for Amour's inevitable win in Best Foreign Language Film). The remaining six films - arguably the "real" nominees - were all associated with major studios, though some were in partnership with mini-major studios: Argo (Warner Bros.), Django Unchained (Weinstein/Columbia), Les Misérables (Universal), Life of Pi (Fox), Lincoln (DreamWorks/Touchstone/Fox), and Zero Dark Thirty (Columbia). All of the major six were represented, though I'm sure that both Disney (Touchstone) and Paramount (associated with DreamWorks) would have wanted greater representation, which would have happened for the latter had Flight been nominated for Best Picture. Aside from Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence - perhaps the poster girl for traversing the line between independent film and major studio franchise work - the independents were mostly marginalized, as they usually are.
To further the conversation, let's take a quick look at the nominees from the last three years, the time since the Best Picture field was expanded. 2011's nine nominees featured five of the six studios, including three of their independent divisions, along with one mini-major: The Artist (Weinstein), The Descendants (Fox Searchlight), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Warner Bros.), The Help (Touchstone), Hugo (Paramount), Midnight In Paris (Sony Pictures Classics), Moneyball (Columbia), The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight), and War Horse (Touchstone) . Universal's year was fairly sparse, with only A Dangerous Method seeming like a possible contender; their main entry ended up being Bridesmaids, which had only two nominations. In 2010, all major six studios were represented - though two of those by their independent divisions - along with one mini-major and one true independent film: The King's Speech (Weinstein), 127 Hours (Fox Searchlight), Black Swan (Fox Searchlight), The Fighter (Paramount), Inception (Warner Bros.), The Kids Are All Right (Alliance/Focus), The Social Network (Columbia), Toy Story 3 (Pixar/Disney), True Grit (Paramount), Winter's Bone (Roadside Attractions, the only true independent represented in recent memory). In 2009, the first year with ten nominees, the field was a little more diverse, but still fairly studio-centric, again with each of the major six represented, as well as two of their independent divisions and two mini-majors: The Hurt Locker (independent, but with involvement from Universal in US), Avatar (Fox), The Blind Side (Warner Bros.), District 9 (TriStar, which is part of Columbia), An Education (Sony Pictures Classics), Inglourious Basterds (Weinstein/Universal), Precious (LionsGate), A Serious Man (Focus), Up (Pixar/Disney), and Up in the Air (Paramount). So, to recap, in the past four years, of a total of 38 nominees, there were only two films that came from outside the established Hollywood systems of major studios, mini-majors (which are still considered independent, even though they really are not), and independent divisions of major studios. Though there were fifteen "independent" films nominated, only two of those were truly outsiders to the studio system: Winter's Bone and Precious. I am sure it would be interesting to go back through the years and to determine how many nominees were really outsiders to the system; off the top of my head, I can think of one truly independent film (1996's Secrets & Lies) and a couple of "mostly-independent films (Shine and Fargo from that same year). Of course, in true Oscar style, they were mostly unacknowledged, save for recognition of incredibly iconic lead performances in the latter two films, because of the nine-award juggernaut of The English Patient - a semi-independent film released by Miramax, which was owned by Disney at the time. So even in the midst of celebrating independent film, Hollywood was still meeting the needs of its own studio system.
To bring it back to this year's Oscars, it seemed clear that part of the love for Argo was a sense of "haha, look how far we've come since those studio days of the 1970s". There has been progress, to be sure, but the road to an Oscar still goes through that same studio system that has been running the Academy for 85 years. Save for a couple of genuine aberrations in the system, it is still the same machinery and mechanism that runs the box office and the awards season. That is, of course, part of the joy of watching the Golden Globes: they really don't care about that system, so anything can (and often does) happen. Sure, there are more opportunities now to appreciate films of all origins, but the reality is that the road to Oscar glory still runs through six major studios. I know that this kind of majority control and manipulation is enough to turn some people off of movies entirely, but I do have hope that the rise of independent movies will continue to force the major studios to release films that are intelligent and well-composed. Argo was more than it might have been otherwise because of the independent film mentality, and that's what ultimately allowed it to succeed - ironically both in spite of and because of that same studio system that it simultaneously mocked and honoured. In that sense, Argo was the perfect winner for this year, as it managed to feel indie without actually being indie, which is perhaps the mark of where Hollywood is headed: in order for movies to succeed, they have to go through the studio system but look and feel like they did not. Argo hit that juxtaposition perfectly, and that played a huge part in its victory. After all, as John Chambers said to CIA agent Tony Mendez in the movie, "So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot...without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in!". Argo did that, and it worked, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the future as a result.

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