In January 2004, the third instalment of The Lord of the Rings received 11 Academy Award nominations. From the outset, it was the clear favourite in the Oscars race. Behind it, there was an assortment of studio films such as Mystic River, Seabiscuit and Master and Commander (all of which were nominated for the coveted Best Picture Award alongside The Return of the King).
There were also many smaller, “indie” films. Made with relatively small budgets by independent companies and studio specialty divisions, films like Pieces of April, In America, 21 Grams, Monster and Thirteen represented a crop of dramatic features that dealt with difficult, unconventional and often controversial material that was not deemed suitable for the “think big” Hollywood studios.
These films received numerous nominations, though not in the Best Picture category. There was only one “indie” film, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, that received a Best Picture nomination. On the night of the awards, The Lord of the Rings easily beat all its opponents. It won an Oscar in every single category it was nominated, demonstrating its complete dominance that year.
Year of the Hobbit?
This year’s Oscar nominations could have told a similar story. This year we’ve had the third and final instalment of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, another Middle Earth-based, special effects-laden, blockbuster trilogy made by The Lord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson. And there has also been a mixture of studio pictures such as Gone Girl (Fox), The Judge (Warner Bros.), Into the Woods (Disney) and of several “small” movies supported by the studios’ speciality film divisions or independent film distributors, including Boyhood (IFC Films), Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight), The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Company), The Theory of Everything (Focus Features) and Whiplash (Sony Pictures Classics).
But the outcome was somewhat different this year. The last instalment of The Hobbit was snubbed at the Best Picture category and was also left out of every other category except for a technical one (Sound Editing). Instead, it was the “indie” films, alongside two relatively low-budget, and therefore unconventional, studio pictures that were nominated in the Best Picture category. These are Selma (Paramount), a story about Martin Luther King, and American Sniper (Warner Bros.), a film that examines America’s war in Iraq and its aftermath through the story of a Navy SEAL, directed by veteran filmmaker Clint Eastwood.
A lot of people with an interest in the American film industry have interpreted this result as a big victory for the “independents”. The Wall Street Journal gets excited about Whiplash, “The $3 million indie film that’s now an Oscar-nominated Best Picture”. Mercury News called it a “great year for indie films”. The BBC reports Theory of Everything producer calling the list “very interesting, very varied, very different and quite indie”. The Detroit News didn’t beat around the bush, saying: “Indie films dominate nominations at Academy Awards.”
So is this an indication that even the film industry itself (the members of which determine the Academy Awards nominations through their vote) is getting tired of the huge influx of comic book-based blockbuster and franchise films that have been dominating the theatrical box office over the past 25 years or so?
Times are not a changin'
Sadly, I doubt this. The recent history of the Oscars has seen numerous examples of “indie” years. In 1986 Kiss of the Spider Woman and Trip to Bountiful were nominated for many awards and won two. In 1990 Sex, Lies, and Videotape, My Left Foot and Henry V received numerous nominations and some high profile awards. And in 1997, “independent” films received a record 44 Academy Award nominations, four of which were nominated for the coveted Best Picture (The English Patient, Fargo, Secrets and Lies and Shine).
Such declarations of independence have lent themselves to many triumphant headlines. But the reality is that Hollywood has always managed to assert itself. From the 1990s onwards, an increasing number of those small “independent” films started to be financed, produced and distributed by companies that belong to the same entertainment conglomerates as the major studios. They tightly control cinema on a global scale. And as the years passed these companies made increasingly large budgets and marketing resources available even for “small” films.
From the list of this year’s nominated films, only The Imitation Game can lay some legitimate claim to the label “independent”. It’s distributed by The Weinstein Company, a production-distribution outfit with no corporate relationship to the studios and their entertainment conglomerate parent companies. The rest of the nominated “small” films represent companies that are subsidiaries of these entertainment conglomerates. Fox Searchlight is part of News Corporation, Focus Features part of Comcast, Sony Pictures Classics part of Sony. Even IFC Films – which stands for Independent Film Channel Films – is part of AMC Networks, a large media conglomerate with stakes in a number of film and television ventures.
In this respect, this year’s Oscars don’t suggest a shift in the Academy’s tastes. Instead, they demonstrate that the Hollywood majors are ever trying to copy and assimilate the independent film sector through an increasingly extensive use of their vast resources.
We seem to have a deep desire for the underdogs to win, to conquer Hollywood. But despite appearances, the underdogs are not in fact underdogs at all, but very much part of Hollywood.