A funny thing happened on the way to this year’s Oscar nominations: The indie business got punched in the gut.
A decade after the movie Academy changed its rules, allowing up to 10 best picture nominees instead of the previous five (a direct response to The Dark Knight’s absence from the final lineup), the policy may have had a more far-ranging effect than some expected.
True, it hasn’t achieved its original goal: to boost Oscar ratings by acknowledging more mainstream pictures with wider audience appeal — ratings hit an all-time low in 2018, with 26.5 million viewers, but bounced back a bit in 2019 to 29.6 million, still the second-smallest audience ever.
Instead the rule change has achieved something else: placing the studios front and center of the Oscars and edging the indies out.
It’s been almost a century since Louis B. Mayer and other studio chiefs invented the idea of the Academy Awards as a means to boost revenue and prestige, and almost a quarter-century since a wave of anxiety swept through Hollywood when Columbia’s Jerry Maguire (1996) was the only best picture nominee from the majors.
This year, there’s only one true indie among the nine best picture nominees: Neon’s Parasite. The only other contender that could be considered quasi-independent is Jojo Rabbit from Searchlight, the specialty label that’s now a division of the Walt Disney Co.
Six of the nine nominees (including Jojo) come from the majors: Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Little Women; Warner Bros.’ Joker; Fox’s Ford v Ferrari and Universal’s 1917. The two remaining nominees are from Netflix: Marriage Story and The Irishman.
The question is: why?
One factor may be the shorter awards season, which has provided less time for members to watch screeners. When forced to choose among a slew of movies, they tend to opt for the most visible and highly publicized, which often means those with the biggest marketing budgets.
“Nobody had time to watch all the movies,” laments one strategist, “so they ended up choosing the ones at the top of the pile.”
A second factor is the beginning of a shift in studio thinking, a move away from the all-franchise, all-tentpole philosophy that has dominated the majors for much of the 21st century; now most of the majors are leaning into a more varied slate, including non-series titles with somewhat lower budgets and A-list talent. Partly this is a result of necessity and the difficulty in finding strong enough IP to launch multiple films; partly it’s a question of budget; and partly it’s a strategic decision, offering an alternative to Disney’s multiple brands.
Once Upon a Time, Joker and 1917 are cases in point. Each was made for less than $100 million (in Joker‘s case, roughly half that) and each was driven by an A-list director (respectively Quentin Tarantino, Todd Phillips and Sam Mendes).
The fact that these movies have done so well is likely to encourage greenlight committees to back more of them — meaning, we may see a host of studio entries dominate the Oscars for the next few years.
That’s good news for the majors and filmmakers who’d all but given up on their willingness to fund daring features. But it’s vexing for the indie and specialty companies whose economics are driven by awards season.
Financier-distributors such as A24, Neon, Searchlight and Focus depend on the massive free publicity they receive between late August and February, starting with three festivals (Venice, Telluride and Toronto) and moving all the way to the Academy Awards.
Roundtables, profiles, making-ofs and Q&As generate an enormous amount of attention for low-budget pictures that otherwise might get none at all; and stars (often hired at a fraction of their usual salary) are willing to contribute massively more of their time than they otherwise would in the hope of landing an Oscar.
Now few of their efforts will receive the Oscar box office bump they counted on. While Jojo Rabbit (with $44 million so far) and Parasite ($143 million) will likely benefit from the nominations — and Parasite‘s unexpected win at the Jan. 19 SAG Awards — a host of other contenders will fail to do so.
They include such admirable efforts as Amazon’s Honey Boy, along with A24’s Uncut Gems, The Lighthouse and The Farewell, none of which will get the kind of Oscar bounce that propelled La La Land to a global gross of $446 million.
Any sector of the industry can swallow a bad year, but the indies can only hope 2020 is an exception and not the new rule.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.