The Oscar goes to ...

Q&A/This film scholar and author of a book about Hollywood culture talks about the past and present of the Oscars—and what the future holds for the movie industry.

“I think people still like the experience of going to movies. It’s ... a communal experience.”

Peter Decherney

Peter Decherney

Photo credit: Candace di Carlo

Making movies is hardly an exact science, says Peter Decherney, so it’s a bit of a guessing game to know what’s going to spark an audience’s interest and what’s going to flop.

It’s safe to say that genre movies and films with big names above the marquee are safer bets than serious films about politics, race or forbidden love. But not always—and that’s one reason why the Academy Awards, which air on Sunday, March 5, matter so much, says Decherney, assistant professor of English and Cinema Studies. The awards, he says, are a convenient way to market otherwise tough sells to American audiences.

Decherney, author of “Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American,” says Hollywood is well-aware of slumping ticket sales and the threat to its industry posed by expanded home theaters, on-demand cable systems and the convenience of Netflix and the Internet. What’s uncertain is how studios are going to fix the problem. “Movie theaters have the same advantage that airports have,” he says. “You’re captive for a certain period of time and they don’t take advantage of that.”

Q. What are the trends in this year’s Oscar nominees?

A. I think Miramax really changed things, because they made films to be nominated for Oscars, and did a lot of campaigning, and there’s nothing like Miramax anymore. All the independent distributors have basically become part of the studio system. One of the most interesting trends, looking over the list of nominees, is almost every film is made by a specialty division or a former independent that’s not part of a studio—and they’re films that are made for small audiences—but they’re films that are actually made to win Oscars. The one exception that I noticed was “Walk the Line,” which is kind of a straight, big budget, star-driven studio release.

Q. What did Miramax do that was so different?

A. They spent an unbelievable amount of money. One rumor that I remember is that they spent $15 million on “Shakespeare in Love,” which ended up winning. They actually never recouped that by remarketing the film and so the question is: Why did they do it? Well, my guess is they did it to win acceptance within the studio system.

Q. How do studios try to sway Academy votes their way?

A. There’s unbelievable advertising. It does seem to be the case that the films with the largest campaign budgets actually do tend to win. But also, there are screeners that are sent out. A lot of [voters] only see films on video.

There’s been a lot of controversy about screeners lately, because there’s a fear that they lead to piracy, so they’re watermarked so they can be traced if they’re copied. One of my favorite stories about Academy screeners—I remember reading this in Variety in 1993 that there were actually two films that they thought would lose so much on video that screeners weren’t going to be sent out. One was “Schindler’s List” and the other was Robin Williams’ “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Q. Who are the members of the Academy?

A. The Academy is still an exclusive club. There are around 6,000 members, give or take 500, and in order to become a member you have to be proposed by two members. Then you’re invited by the Board of Governors to become a member, but there’s no real criteria. You have to have some significant credits and you have to be either important in the industry or important to the industry.

Q. That’s how it worked from the beginning?

A. Yes. The very first Oscars were in 1929. It was a very different affair then. The original Oscars were actually given for three year’s worth of films—’27 to ’29. Interestingly, in 1927, before the Academy of Motion Pictures started, Harvard offered some film courses and tried to start a film archive and an awards ceremony, which looked a lot like the Oscars. The major reason the Academy was founded was to try to stave off talent unionization. In 1926, below-the-line talent—all the engineers—had become unionized. Hollywood really didn’t want the very powerful actors, directors, cinematographers to become unionized as well, so founding the Academy of Motion Pictures created, as some people called it, a union for studios. How does the Academy Awards fit into that? The way I read it, it’s a way of defining film artistry as artistry rather than labor. By celebrating a few individuals, it gives the impression that a few special people can make movies. It’s not a form of work, of labor.

Q. How can being nominated affect an actor, director or studio?

A. Winning Academy Awards is something else marketers can use to help sell a film. The kind of films that are rewarded are often the films that come at the end of certain trends, rather than the breakthrough films. In 1944, one of my favorite films, “Double Indemnity,” the pioneering film noir, lost to a Bing Crosby vehicle, “Going My Way.” In 1973, “American Graffiti” and “The Exorcist” lost to “The Sting”—two films which dramatically changed the film industry, for better or worse.

Q. Is this year’s Best Picture favorite, “Brokeback Mountain,” coming on the tail end of a trend?

A. I haven’t seen “Brokeback Mountain.” Not having seen it, I’m pretty sure it’s going to win. Yes, I think it does fall on the end of a trend. I don’t actually know how to define it, but a trend that [director] Ang Lee has been on the forefront of. …The most interesting category [is] the Animated Feature. This category is only five years old. Why did it take so long? Well, [the Disney Co.] would have won every year until 2001 but CGI—computer graphics—dramatically changed the field. … If you look at this year’s nominees—Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” “Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Ware Rabbit,” which actually isn’t a CG film at all—it’s an old-fashioned claymation, stop motion film—they’re amazing. I think they’re three of the best films of the year.

Q. What is the industry doing about slumping ticket sales?

A. Hollywood’s treating it in a way like television. And they’re trying to do something to increase the theatrical experience so that it doesn’t compete directly. What’s interesting from a historical perspective, is no new communication technology ever replaces an old communication technology. Television didn’t destroy the theatrical film experience. Cable didn’t destroy it. The VCR didn’t destroy it. I think people still like the experience of going to movies. It’s not just about technology. It’s about a communal experience. It’s about popcorn. It’s about being with other people.

Q. Will we see more of the simultaneous release of films—in theaters, on pay-per-view and DVD—such as the recently released “Bubble?”

A. Obviously it’s an experiment. I think there’s a division in Hollywood about what to do with release times. Some people advocate making it longer and trying to force people into theaters, and others advocate shrinking it even further and just creating different markets—theatrical release markets and home video markets. I think you’ll see different tiers of movies. Big budget spectacles will have longer theatrical runs and ... smaller films—the kind that win [awards]—will come out on video much more quickly.

Originally published on February 23, 2006