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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 05, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
'Juno': The Big Picture column in the Jan. 23 Calendar section said that "Juno" was distributed by Fox Searchlight but independently financed by Mandate Pictures. The film was financed and distributed by Fox Searchlight.
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.