It’s a tale as old as time, and one we’ve discussed here plenty of times before: Studio greenlights “prestige” movie, studio realizes it has little to know mass appeal, studio executes a distribution plan that only puts the movie into a couple of theaters in a handful of markets that allows only 20% of the potential audience to actually see it, studio then spends as much (or more) on ads that seek an awards nomination as they did on the initial release, studio secures nomination in the hopes it produces a box-office “bounce” that will help it recoup some of the money it cost to produce/acquire the movie.
Only this year that box-office bounce isn’t happening (Los Angeles Times, 3/3/10) for most of the movies that are up for this year’s Academy Awards. So this grand plan is hitting a bump.
Part of the problem is distribution, sure. If people aren’t living within 10 miles of a theater that’s playing An Education they can’t see it, plain and simple, so there’s not going to be any bounce there. But part of it, I think, is that Avatar is still sucking the air out of the room that every other movie was depending on. So many people are still going to see it that there’s no audience left over for the smaller movies people might try out if they are indeed able to. Here you have Hollywood basically shooting a toe of its foot, yowling in pain and figuring the best solution is just to shoot the other nine off while they’re at it. By focusing on mega-spectacles that are going to bring in repeat viewings they are fouling the water for the smaller movies they depend on for awards.
That’s why the battle between The Hurt Locker and Avatar for Best Picture at this Sunday’s Oscars is being viewed with such intensity. Will the Academy give the statue to The Hurt Locker and thus place the emphasis on what was felt by critics to be the far better movie or Avatar, which is the populist favorite – and which is therefore seen as resonating more with the home TV audience, an important metric with so much ad revenue (Adweek, 3/1/10)at stake?
If you believe the analysis coming out of Waggener Edstrom based on Twitter conversations it will be The Hurt Locker, though since such chatter is more representative of the general audience than of Academy voters the conclusions are questionable at best and hardly something I would change a money bet based on.
(Brief digression: Monitoring service Radian6 and interactive shop Deep Focus have partnered on real-time Twitter tracker for the Oscars broadcast that will be hosted on MSN.com. This is similar to something Radian6 did for last year’s MTV Video Music Awards and is pretty cool.)
There’s only so much longer Hollywood can try to have it both ways, continuing to look at tent-pole event movies that exist firmly within the audience’s comfort zone as the way to bring in lots of money, both directly and in-directly through tie-ins and merchandising, and continuing to relegate smaller, more challenging movies to second-class status until it’s time to trot them out for awards consideration. And honestly if they’re going to also hope their blockbuster movies are also going to be awards challengers then there’s little reason for them to. It’s not a great situation since studios continue to be the ones with the monetary resources that could truly champion worthwhile movies. But continuing the current situation, where they seek both critical approval and box-office success but are only willing to put money toward the latter, is not truly sustainable in the long term.