Oscar could use a big hit

by Rich Copley

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

13 November 2008


After this year’s Academy Awards, the question was whether the Oscars were still relevant or if they were going the way of art galleries and modern dance, perceived as too elite and avant garde to appeal to the masses.

Of last year’s best picture nominees, none cracked the Top 10 at the box office and only one (“Juno”) topped $100 million. Numerous reasons were cited, including studios obsessed with movies calculated to open big, art be damned, and the presence of boutique subsidiaries such as Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures to release “specialty” and “prestige” fare.

Well, the buzz is that Oscar night 2009 might look quite different.

Not that we will suddenly see “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” contending for best picture or anything like that.

But you could have Batman.

The late Heath Ledger, a 2006 best actor nominee for his performance in “Brokeback Mountain,” is being talked about seriously as a best actor possibility for his consumed-by-evil turn as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.”

Think that’s funny?

A lot of people think Robert Downey Jr. was brilliantly funny as a method actor who darkened his skin to play a black soldier in Ben Stiller’s Hollywood-bashing “Tropic Thunder.” Now, he’s a serious contender for a best supporting actor nomination for the box-office, which has made more than $110 million.

“Dark Knight,” also considered a contender for best picture and director, as well as a shoe-in for numerous technical nominations, sits atop this year’s box office chart, and it’s likely to stay there. Why? For a while, during the summer, “Dark Knight” was threatening to overtake “Titanic” for the all-time box office record of $600 million, although with a home-video release of the Batman movie set for Dec. 9, it appears that won’t happen.

Speaking of “Titanic,” the 1998 winner for best picture was the last film to generate true mass hysteria at Oscar time, and its leading man and woman are back together this year in “Revolutionary Road.” The Paramount Vantage offering with a downbeat plot centering on a crumbling 1950s marriage isn’t likely to be all the rage with teenage girls as “Titanic” was. But it does have an intriguing A-list cast with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Other A-listers on short lists for Oscar contention include Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie and, seriously, Beyonce Knowles for her role in “Cadillac Records.”

This isn’t any concerted effort to help Oscar avoid going the way of the Tony Awards in terms of its national spotlight. But there are a few trends that might boost the awards’ star power and box-office relevance this year and in years to come:

It’s the economy, stupid: If you’ve ever been around Hollywood, it’s hard to imagine expenses being spared. But they are, and they’re putting the squeeze on specialty shops and independent films, particularly in the distribution department.

According to a Nov. 6 Los Angeles Times story, the credit crunch is making it harder for filmmakers to find financing and for smaller and foreign distributors to buy rights to films. Major studios are either closing or curtailing their specialty arms. Warner Bros. closed Warner Independent, which released George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and Picturehouse earlier this year. So, the sources for the art-house fare that was flooding the market - and the Oscars - a few years ago has shrunk.

On a more positive note: There’s more artistic ambition behind blockbusters these days.

“Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan made his name with the art-house hit “Memento” in 2000, and the film’s star, Christian Bale, became known as an actor before he was a movie star. This week, the new James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace” opens with Oscar-winning writer Paul Haggis on the script and Oscar-nominated director Marc Forster behind the camera. With their recent outings, the Bond and Batman franchises have gone from being regarded as essentially comic book fare to being taken seriously as drama.

It’s a trend that can be seen in other hits, including “Iron Man,” and recent efforts from Pixar Studios, which hopes to get in the best picture race with “Wall-E.”

And it’s a trend that makes sense. If you can make a few hundred million bucks and win an Oscar, why not?

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