"After two years in a row in which the Best Picture race was populated with a handful of blockbusters, The Help, is the only one of 2011's nine nominees that has so far earned more than $100 million. On average the movies have made just $57.6 million prior to the nominations, which is up on the five-nominee years from 2004-2008 but way off from ten-nominee years 2010 ($119.5 million) and 2009 ($151.5 million)."
This year's frontrunner for Best Picture is a black & white silent film. As of today, it's made less than its budget of $15 million. The Hurt Locker, Best Picture winner from 2009, only made $17 during its time in the theaters. The gap between artistic taste and popular taste doesn't seem to be closing. As I look at the list of Best Picture nominees, I can't help but think it was a horrible year to be a theater goer. If you read my previous post about the DGA nominated directors, I thought Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris was a great film. That's where my thoughts about it end. With this year's crop of competition, it deserves to be nominated. But it shouldn't be.
What does Best Picture mean? What are your criteria? A film is first and foremost an emotional experience. It needs great characters and a great story, and at the end, I wanna feel like I've been through an experience and have learned a little something about myself. People can't stop complaining about Hollywood making nothing but sequels and remakes, but let's face it, of the top 10 grossing films of 2011, only Thor wasn't a sequel. Hollywood is first and foremost a business. The people making those movies are in the business of entertainment.
In the clip above, Steven Spielberg touches on the importance of watching classic films. He states that if you just study the films from the New Hollywood of the 70s, you're studying a pretty weak carbon copy of the generation before them. I agree. Spielberg implemented Hitchcock's "Vertigo" camera technique during Jaws, and Scorsese used the Psycho shower killing as a blueprint for one of the boxing matches in Raging Bull. Francis Ford Coppola asked himself how Hitchcock would film the sequence in The Godfather when Michael kills the two men in the diner. These guys learned from Hitchcock's techniques and made them their own for their films. Today, I feel that the carbon copy is only fading more, and getting weaker. The filmmakers who are producing the big budget blockbusters of today are not producing anything of an artistic nature like their predecessors. They aim to please, as they should. It's not like Lawrence of Arabia wasn't meant to please.
Lawrence of Arabia was released in 1962. How The West Was Won was also released that year and 1/4 of the business as Lawrence. How The West Was Won was a huge production as well, and had a massive cast that included Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Debbie Reynolds. It was the 11th highest grossing film of 1962. Lawrence of Arabia made over $20 million and How The West Was Won made just under $5 million. I see How The West Was Won as a film that tried to be enjoy the success of Lawrence of Arabia, but it lacked the timeless character, story, and artistic care that Lawrence had. The audiences apparently recognized that Lawrence of Arabia was a worthy Best Picture winner and that the film would go on to greatly influence that New Hollywood generation.
The filmmakers behind the big budget, top grossing blockbusters of 2011 aren't making what anyone would classify as great art that will last and inspire future generations. I crave the original carbon copies, but not everyone has the same craving, they're turned off by black & white, they feel that something can't be good unless it was made within the past thirty years. The pace of editing in films has come to please the MTV generation, who is concerned with consuming information at an incredibly fast pace. As Martin Scorsese says in the documentary The Cutting Edge, a feature about editing and its history, the problem with the fast cutting doesn't have to do with consuming information, it's about achieving an emotional connection. This is where I see the big split. Artistic leaning films are often seen as preachy, which offends the audiences who reject them. Entertainment films allow for pure escapism, and can afford to be more intellectually based, concerned more with creating catch phrases that will resonate schoolyards and workplaces, stimulating the body through pure shock, that will cause discussion about content. After seeing Hugo with a friend, he kind of lost interest in the last twenty minutes, because he couldn't clearly articulate the meaning behind the film. What resulted for the ride home was a discussion about the meaning and how the characters' journeys reflected our own. And there is the difference between art and entertainment. Art causes the audience to look within themselves. Entertainment causes pure escapism for the audience.
Lawrence of Arabia is a masterpiece that was as much art as it was entertainment. How The West Was Won lacked artistic quality, in my opinion, despite being star-studded and even director-studded. It was sheer entertainment. It made plenty of money, because it was plenty entertaining and certainly caused a lot of discussion, but on the superficial side of the production or content. The blockbusters of today are plenty entertaining for its audiences. They crave escapism from these hard times, and sequels are perfect in that the audiences already have an emotional connection to the characters and situations. Where the New Hollywood generation got it right, is that they were able to produce artistic works that were tremendously entertaining. The problem today, is that people aren't going back to the original carbon copies for inspiration. They go to what entertains them. What inspires filmmakers is great films and filmmaking. So they make films about films. Producer Gary Kurtz, who produced the Episodes IV and V of Star Wars, before running into huge conflict with George Lucas over the direction of Episode VI, says that today's filmmakers are running on the fumes of past generations. They aren't infusing life experience into their pictures, which is what the New Hollywood accomplished with films like American Graffiti and Taxi Driver.
Every so often the gap between critical acclaim and popular acclaim widens quite a bit, but I'm sure there will be a reaction to the current situation, when younger filmmakers start taking inspiration from the original carbon copies, and learn that films are supposed to as entertaining as they are artistic.