Oscar nominations see shift away from major Hollywood studios

Dr Yannis Tzioumakis is a Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Communication and Media

The Golden Globe nominations was a strong warning!

When it comes to American cinema there is a major disconnect between what most people watch in the theatres – films almost exclusively released by the Hollywood majors – and what passes as good, critically acclaimed, award-attracting US cinema – films almost exclusively released by small companies that hardly make a stir at the box office. Now the 2017 Academy Award nominations have come to confirm this further and to continue an undeniable trajectory in the last few years: when it comes to critically acclaimed films the Hollywood major studios are not the place to find them. And even if some majors have found other ways of staking their claim in certaib films with artistic pretensions through specialty film labels such as Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, it is becoming increasingly clear that critically acclaimed American cinema exists primarily outside the main Hollywood powers.

If one looked at the Top 10 list of the most commercially successful films of 2016 (6 out of which were released by Disney) these are nowhere to be found in the Academy Award nomination with the exception of a couple of technical categories. Indeed, one has to go an additional 21 places below the Top 10 to find the most commercially successful Oscar nominated film, Arrival (released by Paramount but made independently). On the list of the nine feature films nominated for the Best Picture award Arrival is accompanied by two other films released by the Hollywood majors: Fences (starring Denzel Washington and released by Paramount) and Hidden Figures (starring three relatively unknown African American actresses and released by 20th Century Fox). Both these films, are relatively low-budget productions that were made because of the star power of Washington (Fences) and because of the presence of a clear demographic, African American women (Hidden Figures). Each of these films cost approximately $25 million or less than 1/10th of the budget of Star Wars: Rogue One.

The rest of the nominated films represent small (in some cases very small) film productions by relatively unknown filmmakers and featuring actors that are far from household names. Films such as La La Land (directed by Damian Chazelle), Manchester-by-the Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan), Moonlight (directed by Barry Jenkins), Lion (directed by Garth Davis), Hell, or High Water (directed by David McKenzie) and Hacksaw Ridge (directed by veteran actor-director Mel Gibson) are not considered productions representative of Hollywood cinema. Indeed, if one looks at the companies that released them, one will not find Universal, Columbia, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Disney, big finance and distribution companies that have dominated the American cinema business since it was constituted into an industry in the mid-1910s. Instead, the names of the companies one would see will be Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, A24, the Weinstein Company, CBS Films and Lionsgate again, respectively.

An even more interesting picture can be found in the Best Director category. The directors of La La Land, Manchester-by-the Sea, Moonlight, and Hacksaw Ridge together with Jacques Villeneuve, director of Arrival, constitute arguably the least recognisable group of Oscar nominated filmmakers in the history of the awards. With the exception of Gibson (who despite his major star status has been a persona non grata in Hollywood for over a decade) the rest are filmmakers associated with the independent film sector or, in the case of Villeneuve, with international art cinema.

The acting categories paint the same picture. Despite the presence of super star Meryl Streep, established star Natalie Portman and up and coming young star Emma Stone, the remaining two nominations for Actress in a Leading Role went to Isabelle Huppert, a pillar of international art cinema and the relatively unknown Ruth Negga. Taking away Stone and La La Land, the remaining four films featuring the actresses nominated for an Oscar in this category (Florence Foster Jenkins, Jackie, Elle and Loving) have grossed so far $47 million in total at the US theatrical box office. This compares with the $325 million for Suicide Squad, the 10th highest grossing film in the US in 2016. And while the films of the actors nominated in the Actor in a Leading Role category have done a little bit better (Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge ($65.5 million so far), Denzel Washington in Fences ($48 million so far)), these numbers are still a far cry from the $408 million that Captain America: Civil War, the 3rd most commercially successful film of 2016 achieved.

These results can be interpreted from a number of perspectives. In previous posts on Oscar nominations (LINK) I focused on what this means for the so called US independent cinema. This year, I concentrate on the particularly striking absence of the Hollywood majors from the Academy Awards when they continue to dominate American cinema in terms of box office success.

Up until the mid-1990s Oscar winners almost exclusively tended to be major Hollywood film productions that also tended to do great box office business: Gone with the Wind (1939), The Best Year of Our Lives (1946), Ben Hur (1959), The Sound of Music (1965), The Godfather (1972), Gandhi (1982), Forrest Gump (1994), Gladiator (2000) and many others in between. From the 1990s and all the way to last year much smaller films released primarily from the Hollywood majors’ specialty film divisions such Fox Searchlight or independent companies such as the Weinstein Company led the way: Shakespeare in Love (1998), Chicago (2002), Crash (2004), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Hurt Locker (2009), The Artist (2012), 12 Years of Slave (2014), Birdman (2015), Spotlight (2016).

However, with the exception of Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics these divisions have been closed by their parent companies and a host of new companies without corporate ties to the Hollywood majors (such as A24 that released Moonlight, Roadside Attractions that released Manchester-by-the-Sea and Bleecker Street Media that released Captain Fantastic) have been vying to claim some of their market share. The box office has not been particularly encouraging but when it comes to prestige of the Academy awards they seem to be faring much better.

As for the Hollywood majors themselves, making films has increasingly been about identifying opportunities for franchise building with a view to exploit a property not only in the theatres but in other markets (games, television, music, print, etc.) in which the majors’ parent companies (Sony, 21st Century Fox, Viacom, Comcast, Disney, TimeWarner) also control. Such films dominate the box office lists year after year but are rarely considered artistic achievements worthy of recognition come awards season.

Among other things, this development suggests a major disconnect between what is ‘popular’ and what is considered ‘good filmmaking’. And one victim of this disconnect has been the Oscar ceremony itself, which has struggled with audiences in recent years. Can the Oscars remain relevant when a fraction of the cinema going audience is watching the films the Academy nominates and gives awards to? And can the Academy remain a major force in the industry when the films it privileges have little success and when the major Hollywood players that support it are producing fewer and fewer films worthy of artistic recognition? The Academy responded strongly to the criticisms it received last year about the lack of cultural diversity in the films it nominated by nominating more films made by and with diverse talent this year. But the majority of these films have continued to make very little money at the box office. It will be interesting to see how the Academy will navigate these issues in the future and whether the protracted absence of the Hollywood majors from the awards will continue to have an impact on the relevance of the Oscars as a celebration of Hollywood cinema.

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