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Sean P. Means: After Oscar night, the war of art vs. money continues – Salt Lake Tribune

It’s an argument that played out in the Oscar ceremony’s opening production number. After Neil Patrick Harris, with help from Anna Kendrick, sang about the magic of “moving pictures,” Jack Black cut in with the harsh reality of moviemaking today:

“Opening with lots of zeroes, all we get are superheroes: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Jedi-Man, Sequel-Man, Threequel-Man — formulaic scripts! And after ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ they’ll all have leather whips!”

And it’s an argument that carried on after the ceremony, sparked by a post-ceremony analysis by New York Times movie-industry writers Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes.

“The Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] and the echo chamber of Hollywood’s awards-system machinery have nearly broken their connection with the movies that many millions of people buy tickets to watch,” Cieply and Barnes wrote.

Their chief evidence? The fact that “Birdman,” winner of four major Oscars, had taken in just under $38 million at the box office, while fellow Best Picture nominee “American Sniper” (which won only one Oscar, for sound editing), had earned $320 million as of last weekend.

The Times reporters quoted Philip Hallman, a film studies librarian at the University of Michigan, who opined, “It’s sad, but most people have to finally accept that the Oscars have become, well, elitist and not in step with anything that is actually popular.”

The suggestion, the argument presented by Cieply and Barnes seem to make, is that the Academy Awards should be somehow revamped to give popular movies a boost in awards potential.

That’s nonsense, of course, especially when you consider that the Oscars were created to give Hollywood moguls something to strive for besides big piles of money.

The moguls, led by Louis B. Mayer, formed the Academy to help with labor issues (a role that quickly disappeared) and boost the film industry’s image. The Academy’s Awards of Merit — later nicknamed “Oscars” — were designed to showcase what the industry deemed to be the best of what they made, the movies that made the movie industry look important and relevant.

The Oscars, and the spate of awards that precede them every January and February, are arguably the reason movies without superheroes get made in the first place. Filmmakers seeking to tell a good story, or tackle an important issue, can squeeze a little cash out of a movie studio by uttering the magic words “Oscar contender” — because the studio knows an award can boost the movie’s box-office haul. The grosses may not be in the hundreds of millions, but a small movie with prestige can bring in more than it cost to make and market.

The reaction to Cieply and Barnes’ article was swift this week. Sam Adams, writing in IndieWire, suggested the Times writers had gone native and “seem to have internalized [Hollywood's] values, Stockholm Syndrome-style. … What’s good is what makes the most money, and the Oscars had better get with the program or risk being put out to pasture.”

My favorite response was given on Twitter by freelance film writer James Rocchi (of whom I am a fan). Rocchi put it succinctly: “You know, there’s already an Award for the Oscar Nominee seen by the biggest audience. It’s called ‘Money.’ ”

Of course, money is Hollywood’s motivation to do most of what it does. Case in point: As soon as the champagne bottles from the Oscar parties were hitting the recycling bins, Disney/Marvel released the poster for this summer’s “Avengers” sequel.

So leave the Oscars to the smaller films, the ones that don’t draw $300 million or more at the box office. For one night, let the people see what else is on the menu.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.



Sean P. Means: After Oscar night, the war of art vs. money continues – Salt Lake Tribune

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