Academy Award nominations 2020: The return of the “quality” Hollywood studio film

Dr Yannis Tzioumakis is a Reader in Film and Media Industries in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Communication and Media

In the last two decades or so, the Oscars have been dominated by the so called indiewood movies: modestly budgeted films that were financed, produced and distributed primarily by large standalone film companies or specialty film divisions of the major entertainment conglomerates: Chicago (2002, Miramax), Crash (2005, Lionsgate), No Country for Old Men (2007, Paramount Vantage), Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Fox Searchlight), The Hurt Locker (2009, Summit), The King’s Speech (2010, The Weinstein Company), The Artist (2011, The Weinstein Company), 12 Years of Slave (2013, Fox Searchlight), Birdman (2014, Fox Searchlight), Spotlight (2015, Open Road), Moonlight (2016, A24), The Shape of Water (2017, Fox Searchlight).

The major film studios, on the other hand (Paramount, Universal, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Disney and Columbia) had very little to show come Oscar night. Indeed, Warner Bros. was the only Hollywood major to boast Best Picture victories since 2002 (Million Dollar Baby, 2004; The Departed, 2006; Argo 2012) until Universal’s Green Book won unexpectedly in 2018 (another modestly budgeted film that Universal distributed without having actually produced it – what they call in industry speak “a negative pick up”)

But signs that the hegemony of indiewood would soon end have been on the horizon for some time. Since the late 2000s the major entertainment conglomerates that control film globally had started closing or repurposing their specialty film divisions. Realising that their divisions’ modestly budgeted indiewood films were getting increasingly expensive to produce and required huge investment in terms of marketing to make them stand out in the marketplace, the conglomerates started moving away from the indiewood game. Paramount Vantage closed in 2008; Miramax in 2010; Focus Features (responsible for such film as Brokeback Mountain and The Pianist) was repurposed as a more commercial company in 2012.

Meanwhile newcomers in the late 2000s and 2010s such as The Weinstein Company, A24, Open Road and others, despite having deep pockets, did not have a conglomerate parent to support them at times when their films underperformed, when the film market was having a slow year or indeed when their main executive became embroiled in a scandal that shocked the industry and the world. Such companies could not afford to take risks in the same way that Fox Searchlight could with News Corp (and later 21st Century Fox) as its parent company.

As a result, the number of indiewood films started to decline in recent years, while an interesting side effect was that certain established (male) filmmakers, mainly associated with such films (Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, the Coen brothers Spike Jonze, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino) moved to the Hollywood studios in search of funding and distribution for their films.

Even though their films continued to be differentiated from the studios’ blockbuster and genre-star vehicles, these filmmakers nonetheless started making films that were increasingly removed from the modestly budgeted films they made for indie companies (Payne’s Downsizing, for instance, made for Paramount, was estimated to have cost more than $70 million, while Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, made for Sony/Columbia cost close to $100 million). They were still much cheaper than Paramount’s Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) which cost close £250 million or Columbia’s Spider-Man: Far From Home which cost $160 million.

Perhaps more importantly, however, films like Downsizing, Inherent Vice (Warner Bros.), Up In the Air (Paramount), American Hustle (Columbia), Her (Warner Bros.), Joy (20th Century Fox), Nebraska (Paramount) represented a (small) effort by the Hollywood studios to work with key filmmakers from the indiewood sector with a view to produce “quality” or “prestige” films. Even if these films stood little chance of becoming box office hits (with many of the above titles proving commercially disappointing), they nonetheless provided the studios with some critically acclaimed pictures that also competed at the Oscars throughout the last decade (without managing to receive the coveted Best Picture award).

When the Academy Award nominations were announced on Monday 13 January 2020, one could not fail to see that the main nominations were for these types of “quality” studio films. Seven out of the nine films nominated for Best Picture were released by the Hollywood major studios (one by Fox, two by Columbia, one by Warner Bros., one by Universal and two by Netflix, which these days is compared, often favourably, to the Hollywood majors on account of the money it spends on the production of its films). This leaves only two titles that were released by “indie” or specialty film labels: Jojo Rabbit (Fox Searchlight), and Parasite (Neon).

Compare this with the Academy Awards nomination announcements 5 years ago (2014) when from the eight nominated films for Best Picture, six (Boyhood, The Imitation Game, Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman and The Theory of Everything) were made without studio resources and only American Sniper and Selma represented major Hollywood studio nominations.

Another element that corroborates this new trend is that most of the nominated films for Best Picture were helmed by filmmakers who once plied their trade in the indie film sector. Director of Ford vs Ferrari James Mangold made his name in the 1990s indie scene with films such as Heavy and Copland released by Cineplex and Miramax, respectively. Greta Gerwig, writer-director of Little Women emerged from the low-end independent world of mumblecore, a loosely defined film scene of the 2000s. Marriage Story was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, a major NYC-based indie filmmaker and frequent collaborator of Wes Anderson.

Sam Mendes, the filmmaker behind 1917, made his striking debut with American Beauty (1999), one of the first films to be released by Dreamworks SKG when the company was trying to compete against the studios. Finally, Quentin Tarantino arguably defined indie and indiewood filmmaking more than any other of his contemporary filmmakers, though since the late 2000s studio finance and distribution helped produce and market his increasing expensive films Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and, this year, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.

This leaves only Martin Scorsese and Todd Phillips as bona fide directors with a long history of working within then main Hollywood studios. But even in this case, the director of The Irishman has enjoyed decades-long reputation as a filmmaker of “quality” films (and as a champion of cinema extraordinaire), while the writer-director-producer of Joker Todd Phillips has been making genre films, especially adult comedies for years, before making Joker, a film recognised by critics for being particularly artistic for a comic book hero films (in other words for being a “quality” film). Not surprisingly, it also received the most Academy Award nominations.

To this picture one could add the fact that with the exception of The Irishman (which famously cost $150 million to produce) none of the Best Picture-nominated films cost more than $100 million to make (with the budgets ranging from $11 to $18 million for Parasite, Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit; from $40 to $70 million for Little Women and Joker; and approximately $100 million for Ford vs Ferrari, 1917 and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood). This distinguishes them from the studios’ major releases of the year such as Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which cost over $250 million to make, and puts them in the studio “quality” cinema bracket that among other things makes them Academy Award hopefuls.

One side effect of this development, however, which has not gone unnoticed by early reactions to the Academy Award nominations announcement is that this “return” of the studio film has arguably impacted the Academy’s effort to make the Oscars (and the American film industry more broadly) more diverse. Helped by the strong presence of independent companies and indiewood films that have traditionally been more open to providing non-mainstream representations, and in the face of strong demands by the (paying) public for more diversity, the Academy was seen to be making positive steps towards including in its nominations talent that was racially and ethnically diverse.

This year, however, this progress seems to have been halted abruptly with only one non-white performer nominated in the Acting categories. On the other hand, the Best Supporting Actor category reads like who’s who of (white) Hollywood stardom: Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Anthony Hopkins leaving no space for up and coming talent of diverse origin.

Even more blatantly, there were no women filmmakers in the Directing category, despite the fact that several films by women filmmakers received both great reviews and proved box office successes (Little Women, Harriet, The Farewell, Book Smart and others). The snubbing of female filmmakers from the Directing category, in particular, seems to have produced another public outcry four years after #OscarsSoWhite – Oscar nominations host Issa Rae’s comment on the announcement of the five nominees in the Directing category “Congratulations to those men” immediately becoming a poignant slogan through which journalists and social media have started to criticise the Academy anew.

Whether the Hollywood studios will continue to recruit seasoned indiewood filmmakers, whether they will continue to make these quality films in higher numbers, whether these films will remain modestly (for studio standards) budgeted or whether such films will continue to be nominated for major Academy awards, it remains to be seen. Netflix and the other major on-demand platforms continue to impact developments in the film sector; Disney, completely locked out from the Best Picture award continued to dominate the theatrical box office in ways that were unimaginable 15 years ago. Independence continues to be redefined away from the theatres in the age of digital filmmaking and provides the kinds of representations a lot of people see missing from studio pictures. As for the Oscar ceremony itself it has been struggling with staying relevant and with the ratings.

Predictions of how things will develop even in the near future are futile in the film and media industries. But unless on 9 February 2020 when the 92nd Academy Award ceremony takes place there is one of the most major upsets in the history of the event, the winning film this year will be a studio film!

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