The Oscars, Between Old Studios and New Faces

By awarding seven Oscars to the film about space “Gravity,” the panel of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has put a very expensive film at the top of its annual distribution of prizes — its budget has been estimated at $100 million (72.5 million euros) — funded by a Hollywood studio, Warner, that can already claim it as a blockbuster with its $700 million in revenues across the world. If it were not for the nationality of the director of “Gravity,” the Mexican Alfonso Cuaron, and the producer, the British David Heymann, who helped produce the “Harry Potter” series, you could almost see a validation of the old Hollywood system in the success of “Gravity.”

This would ignore that the program of the evening took into account the changes in American cinema: first, its increasing openness to the outside — it was a British project, “12 Years a Slave,” by a filmmaker with a contemporary art background, Steve McQueen, that won the Oscar for Best Film. There was also the almost total split between the large multinational companies, especially concerned with producing tremendous films of certain commercial success at all costs, and the independent producers and financiers who work on sometimes pharaonic projects that the studios would have formerly supported.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was nominated four times and went home empty-handed, had a budget of $100 million, thanks to the support of Red Granite, a company headed by Riza Aziz, the stepson of a former prime minister of Malaysia. And his company Appian Way probably only obtained this contribution because of presence of the star of the film, Leonardo DiCaprio, in the credits and co-producers list.

Brad Pitt as Producer

Similarly, when it came to looking for the Oscar for Best Film awardee on the Dolby Theater stage, it was Brad Pitt who took the floor. The star of “World War Z” was speaking not as a performer, but as a producer of “12 Years a Slave,” a film with a much more modest budget than Scorsese’s — $20 million — which nevertheless still needed the artistic and financial backing of an actor who, like some of his peers — George Clooney or DiCaprio — takes his second profession as a producer seriously.

[This is] an arrangement that we also find across the ocean, since British star Steve Coogan was also the producer of “Philomena” by Stephen Frears, who played a role in it as well.

To the side of these superstars, we find young magnates like Megan Ellison. At 29 years of age, the daughter of the founder of the computer company Oracle has become the fallback for demanding writers. This year, she financed all or part of the films of Spike Jonze (“Her”) and David O. Russell ( “American Hustle”). While Hollywood and the Oscars leave the meanest share to female directors, women producers are taking a growing place. Two women, Robbie Brenner — who directs the production department of the independent studio Relativity Media — and Rachel Winter have produced “Dallas Buyers Club” by Jean-Marc Valley, another triumphant victor of the evening.

Of course, the major [film] studios are not completely losing interest in art films. But it is no longer a matter of them carrying projects from conception to their emergence in movie theaters, which they were doing previously, whether they directly produce the films or they pay great advances. Paramount was committed to “The Wolf of Wall Street” before withdrawing when the crash of 2008 happened, as other studios did with other films. The crisis has provided a reason and an excuse for major studios to disengage from films that in France we would label as “smaller budget” in order to devote their resources to blockbusters, to films whose heroes are already household names before the previews. The studios intervene only at the distribution level: Fox ensured [the distribution] of “12 Years a Slave,” and Sony that of “Blue Jasmine.” From this point of view, the presence of Paramount Vantage among the producers of “Nebraska” by Alexander Payne seems like an anachronism.

The cleverly calculated feebleness of the studios translates into a decrease in the number of films each of them puts in the pipeline and the explosion of the budget of those [films] that actually obtain a green light — a situation that has forced independent producers to look for investors elsewhere, other than in California, and all over the world. Whether they are Indians, Malaysians, Germans, Russians or Brazilians, these [investors] demand a rapid return on their investment, and the Oscars are one of the ways to ensure this profitability. The opinion is widespread that a film that does not pick up through mass marketing has a vital need to be present at the Oscars in order to reach a wide audience: hence, the spectacularly inflated campaign expenses that producers and distributors taken on in order to ensure the nominations and then the awarding of trophies, an inflation that in turn gives rise to ever-increasing media coverage, so much so that the mechanisms of the race to the statuettes are adapted to the whims of social networks.

Yet, will it be necessary for the Academy to adapt to this new configuration of a more globalized, more diversified, more feminine American cinema? According to a Los Angeles Times survey carried out in 2012, 94 percent of approximately 5,700 subscribers were white, only 14 percent were under 50 years old and three-quarters were men.

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