Art Vs Commerce: Rise of Oscar Season (90s)

So when last we left the dance between Oscar winners and the top earners, Commerce had blown up and left Art in the distance. The Oscars fell back into biopics, with four out of ten winners being biopics, also Amadeus which doesn’t count, and audiences started saying “Yeah, you do you, Oscars” and ignoring them.

Now this had two effects, from what I can tell. First off… art movies kind of… receded? For half the decade (off and on), the Oscars seem to be once again leaning towards crowd-pleasers over what was becoming their usual arthouse fare. Was this a conscious choice, or was it that the only people leaning into High Art were Merchant Ivory? (Merchant Ivory, purveyors of languid period romances, were in full swing this decade but never sealed the deal at the ceremony and were never big money films so we don’t discuss them much.) There definitely seem to be some years where, even at the time, I thought “Wow, not a big year for for art movies if these are the nominees.”

But then some studios had themselves an idea.

Sure their Oscar fare might not play well in the summer or against the big November/December tentpoles, nothing plays well in September, and if you release them too early in the year then people forget about them come nomination time… but here’s the thing. There’s a loophole. To be eligible for Oscar nominations, you only need to play a limited time in a limited amount of theatres by the year’s end. So you do a week in LA, maybe New York, open wide in January when nothing’s happening, get yourself a Best Picture nomination and scoop up an extra $10 million or so when the buzz hits.

And so begins Oscar Season. The time of year when studios who want some prestige, in addition to a multi-film action/comedy tentpole franchise starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson*, toss out some Great Man Biopics with flashy lead actor performances or classic literary adaptations or films that played well enough at festivals to warrant a “For Your Consideration” campaign.

(*I kid, I also some Dwayne Johnson.)

(Not that all studios are choosy about what movies got FYC campaigns, The Bone Collector got a FYC campaign, and you couldn’t tell me one detail about what that movie’s about if I paid you.)

(I will not pay you, I’m aware you’re on the internet right now.)

And where loopholes exist, monsters arise to take advantage. If prestige and money can go hand-in-hand again… well. The Golden Globes are easily swayed by shiny things and schmoozing with big casts (explain how The Tourist got a Best Musical/Comedy nomination otherwise, Hollywood Foreign Press, the few positive reviews were embarrassed about it), and enough money and pressure can get you on that Best Picture list at the Oscars.

A perfect situation for somebody trying to be an Old School Studio Head like Louis B. Mayer.

Exactly like Louis B. Mayer.

Right down to getting handsy or worse with your female talent.

Miramax Films was an incredibly influential studio through the 90s. Bought by Disney in 1993, they gave platforms to young, experimental, eventually heavily influential filmmakers: Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Stephen Chow, and one Quentin Tarantino. Miramax helped Peter Jackson get Lord of the Rings into production.

It was also run by an absolute monster named Harvey Weinstein, whose crimes were numerous and Hollywood’s worst kept secret, yet it took decades for him to be brought down, and now hopefully he’ll stay in prison and away from actresses until he’s too old to hurt anyone.

Sadly we will have to come back to Harvey sooner rather than later. But let’s see what we can get through before then.

Our new game? The 90s are where the Oscars fell back into some legendarily bad calls. So we’ll be asking what the real best picture was, or what should have taken the box office crown. (No decade owns bad choices by audiences, that is forever.)

(I’ll give the 90s this, at least the Domestic/International Box Office Champs sync up more than they don’t. I’m gonna miss that moving forward.)

Next Page: White saviours, alive and otherwise

Art Vs Commerce: This Time It’s Personal (1980s)

So up until now, “Art Vs Commerce” has been more of a friendly rivalry. The Golden Age/Studio Era didn’t have the same hard line between “art movie” and “popcorn movie,” or in other words “award movie” and “movie that makes money,” like we have today.

Up until this point, the Best Pictures and Box Office Champs have been somewhat aligned. The Box Office Champ has been nominated for if not won Best Picture 35 out of 52 times*. Even more significant? The Best Picture winner was in the box office top ten for the year 44 times.

Well that’s changing. Eight Best Picture winners didn’t make the top ten box office for the years between 1928 and 1979**. Eight out of fifty-two. In the 80s, it’s five out of ten. That’s a pretty dramatic shift. And come the 2000s that’s only gonna get worse.

It’s as though Art and Commerce are like Clark Kent and Lex Luthor in the first few seasons of Smallville let me finish. [Ahem] In the first few seasons (20s-60s), they’re good friends, admittedly they have some drastically different goals, but their interests do tend to overlap. Then comes season five (the 70s/80s), and suddenly their interests are at odds, and they begin to go from friends to enemies. One starts to get bigger and more ambitious, one tries to prove they’re smarter and grows to hate anything with a cape and a secret identity.

(Am I the only one to use Smallville to describe the growing rift between Oscar movies and popcorn movies? Because I’m not sorry. Honestly I’d have used Gotham but it’s impossible to describe the relationship between any two characters on that show without a corkboard and a lot of yarn.)

And the reason why? Blockbusters. Audiences were turning out in bigger numbers for popcorn flicks, which allowed studios to spend more money on them, leading to bigger hits. And more importantly, they had no set genre. Big hits in past decades tended to focus on a genre: the 40s liked war movies, the 50s acted righteous with biblical epics, the 60s got big into musicals, and the early 70s enjoyed a disaster movie. But the thing about genres is they hit a saturation point, often because studios flood the market trying to get a piece of the new hotness, then average quality drops while quantity shoots up, a bunch fail, and the bubble bursts. The one exception seems to be the current King Genre that one studio in particular is keeping afloat, I’m sure I needn’t name either.

But blockbusters weren’t a genre, they were just a scale of movie. They could be anything. A space opera, a superhero, an archaeologist punching Nazis, a kid travelling back in time to get his father some action. Anything. They were immune to genre fatigue or changing tastes. The only thing that could kill blockbusters would be, I don’t know, a deadly global pandemic that forced all public forms of entertainment to shut down indefinitely, but the 80s had a different kind of deadly global pandemic. So there were more and more blockbusters that got bigger and bigger, and there was less and less room at the box office for the simpler, human stories the Oscars were embracing.

So this decade we have a new game: no matter how far apart in tone and content they get, what thematic link joins them? And what would the mash-up movie look like? That could be fun. ‘Cause the distances get wide.

*The 17 box office champs that didn’t get nominated include a couple of classics, but are mostly things the Academy skips: comedies, a cartoon, a superhero flick. And also, thankfully, Cinerama Holiday, This is the Army, and the entire oeuvre of Eddie goddamn Cantor.

**The eight Best Pictures audiences didn’t turn out for are Cavalcade, The Life of Emile Zola, Gentleman’s Agreement, Hamlet, All the King’s Men, On the Waterfront, Marty, and In the Heat of the Night. So… real mixed bag there.

Before we move on, I just need a moment… based on what I intend to include, I have crossed the halfway point of my watch list!

I am now in the back nine oh no I reminded myself of mortality quick more space wizards

Not counting any optional viewings I might throw in down the road. Like, say, if two movies from a particular trilogy make the list in one way or another, but the objectively best one doesn’t, I might just go ahead and rewatch the other one anyway. But what are the odds of that happening. Three times. In one decade.

Oof. Might need to move this along if I’m going to wrap this project up before the Oscars improbably happen this spring, and I have to compare/contrast Nomadland or Mank with 2020’s default box office champ… let’s see here… Bad Boys For Life? Huh.

Congrats, Hollywood, you’ve concocted a scenario where I’d be disappointed to not be watching Sonic the Hedgehog.

Anyway let’s get tubular with the 1980s!

Next Page: Ordinary Vs Extraordinary