Cinema needs more than explosive visuals if it is to once again come up with commercial and critical hits
PUBLISHED: 10:42 27 December 2017
There was a time when Oscar-winners were also crowd-pleasers. As the Golden Globe nominees are announced Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at how the box office no longer mirrors the trophy cabinet
With the announcement of the nominees for The Golden Globes being proclaimed this week, it means that Oscar season is officially up and running.
Hollywood is buffing up its high profile awards movies and treating them to some glossy publicity and, for a while, we could be fooled into thinking that everything in the cinematic garden is rosy. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old dinosaur, the truth has to be faced that Hollywood is no longer producing movies for a broad range of audiences.
Oscar season is now reduced to essentially the last three months of the year in the US and the first three in the UK. Films are commissioned with the view to being ‘prestige projects’ and rolled out during the all-important awards window and although they may gain critical acclaim it’s very unlikely they will figure in the end of year Top Ten box office lists.
In 1967, often unfairly described as a poor year for the movies, three Oscar-winning movies counted for in the top four box office hits that year. The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Bonnie and Clyde still stand up today and prove that there is such a thing as a commercial and critical success.
Jump forward to the 21st century and it is a rarity to see an Oscar-winner get into the year’s Top Ten films. Last year’s Best Picture, Moonlight, made it to number 92 in the Top 100 with fellow nominee Florence Foster Jenkins languishing at 94. Even the crowd-pleasing La La Land only made it to 19 while awards front-runner Manchester By The Sea only crept up to 69th place on the box office chart.
Spiral back to 2015, things were a little better when Best Picture winner The Revenant made it to number 13 in the year’s top earning list but that was the exception that proved the rule. Movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Furious 7 dominated the Top Ten while awards season bait like Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies could rise no higher than number 42.
It’s not as if the awards films are especially difficult or obscure. Films like Arrival, Intersteller and Gravity even have an element science fiction spectacle about them but for some reason audiences are being turned off by these so-called ‘weighty’ movies.
Part of this is the way that movies are viewed and marketed. Independent film maker Steven Soderbergh, director of the Oscar-nominated Sex, Lies and Video Tape and this year’s awards favourite Logan Lucy, told the San Francisco International Film Festival that major studios were no longer interested in producing smaller, personal films because it was easier to market massive blockbusters and special effect-filled superhero movies. “It’s very hard for a $20 million movie to make a profit if a studio insists on spending a further $50 million to advertise it.”
The effect of this has been to drive grown-up audiences and independent film-makers away from cinemas. Even those who enjoy the spectacle of a high-action blockbuster don’t want to be fed a never-ending diet of explosions and car chases.
The result is that as more discerning audiences of all ages are finding their entertainment needs met in long-form television series like The Deuce and Big Little Lies with big name stars like James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon.
This means when awards season movies, that they may enjoy, arrive in the cinema then they are less likely to see them in the two week window that most films now have before they are unceremoniously shunted out of the way for something else.
The nature of Hollywood movies has also changed. Movies are now more international. Two thirds of Hollywood’s revenue comes from overseas. Overseas no longer means Britain or mainland Europe. After America the biggest markets for Hollywood movies are Russia and China, territories where English is not always understood.
Studio marketing departments have discovered that the films that sell best in these lucrative new markets are films with minimal dialogue and maximum explosive spectacle. It seems that story holes can be filled with a chase or breath-traking stunt rather than a clever plot twist. This means that action works best and complex stories featuring lots of dialogue are shunted off onto TV. Because dialogue has been relegated to an easily translatable two or three words per scene movies have almost returned to their silent movie roots. Cinema may be a visual art form but smart dialogue does make a trip to the flicks much more satisfying.