Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ten Best Pictures

Back in 1995, my home town of Erie, PA, was all abuzz about the new movie theater being built just past the Millcreek Mall. It was going to be a generational leap in the moviegoing experience. In addition to the usual refreshment stand, there would be a sandwich and pizza shop. There would be fresh cookies, made in-house. There would be a full coffee/espresso bar. There would be a full-size, stand-alone video game arcade. And as for the movies themselves... there would be 17 screens, surpassing the previous largest-theater-in-town by 11.

All of this under one roof. And they would call it... Tinseltown!
I know, I know... this does not sound impressive at all. These days, every town has a multi-multi-megaplex with all the amenities listed above. But for those of you who are too young to know -- and for those of you who are too old to remember -- I'm here to tell you that this wasn't normal back in the '90s. When I was a kid, you couldn't really imagine needing more than six screens in a multiplex. And arcade games were never anything more than a way to decorate a corner of the lobby. And they'd never sell sandwiches in the building because, really, they didn't want you bringing that kind of food into the auditorium. And in those days before the crushing success of Starbucks, asking for coffee in a movie theater was like asking for popcorn at an autopsy.

The mid- to late '90s were an exciting time in movies. The independent cinema movement was at its peak, with so many movies that were of both high quality and high profitability. The studios figured out not only how to cash in on buying and distributing indie flicks, but also realized they could take indie-type risks with their own projects. Even the failures were more interesting.

The promise of Tinseltown, with its 17 screens, was that there would be plenty of room for everything. While all those silly little four-screen theaters in the country would be carrying nothing but the big blockbusters, our SEVENTEEN SCREENS would have room left over for indie films! And foreign films! And revivals of the classics! Everything! Arthouse cinema would no longer be the provenance of big cities. Eat it, New York! We would have it all right here in Erie!

When Tinseltown opened its doors in the summer of 1996, I arranged a trip up there as soon as I possibly could. I wasn't quite able to drive yet, and neither were most of my friends, so it took some coordinating. I gathered up a couple of friends, forced one of their parents to drop us all off at the theater, and arranged for a double feature of comedy: Cable Guy and The Nutty Professor. Cable Guy, as history records, ended up being a disappointment. As for The Nutty Professor, we never quite made it to see that. In the confusion of theater hopping, my party inadvertently ended up in a screening of The Rock. We were too young by a year, but nobody was throwing us out and we were all interested in seeing it. (Months later, when I finally caught The Nutty Professor on video, I was definitely happier to have seen The Rock that day - still the best Michael Bay film.)

Then came Independence Day - one of the biggest moneymakers of all time, and easily the highest earner of that particular year. At Tinseltown, it was playing on three screens.

Here are some movies that played on zero screens at Tinseltown that same month: Moll Flanders, Trainspotting, Foxfire. All small, inexpensive, obscure little indie flicks. Exactly the kind of movies that Tinseltown's inexhaustible supply of screens was supposed to accomodate.

The die was cast.

We all know how this story ends. These days, just about every city and every town has a multiplex of ten or more screens. And the increase in screen capacity is not used for diversity in programming; it's used to play the same old stuff... a whole bunch of times! Did you miss the 12:10 showing? Don't worry about it! Kill a half hour at the arcade or the cafe (or both!), and then catch the 12:45.

All of this is to say that I have a tough time believing the Academy when they tell me that increasing the number of nominees will help diversify the field.

On June 24th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced that they're upping the number of Best Picture nominees to ten per year. Representatives for the Academy claim that this move will open the door to a wider variety of movies. Animated films, comedies, and blockbusters now have a better chance of receiving a nomination. (Whether they actually stand a chance of winning is a whole different matter.)

As 2008 came to a close, there was a great deal of anticipation -- among fans and industry professionals alike -- that The Dark Knight would be nominated for Best Picture. Some felt Iron Man was the stronger superhero contender. Alas, neither was nominated. This led to the inevitable accusations that the Academy is out of touch, snobby, irrelevant, and generally prejudiced against popular movies.

Those accusations aren't completely unfounded. Even if we're unable to specifically define it, we all have a sense of what an "Oscar movie" is like. Holocaust/World War II movies are always strong contenders. Biopics. Period pieces. "Issue" movies. Serious movies. Redemptive movies. Epic movies. Movies with showy performances from actors who are always spouting off about their political views. Year after year, we see the kinds of movies that get awards, and we're not always happy about it. Because, frequently, the movies we really enjoyed, the ones we really had a good time watching, are completely ignored. Where are the comedies? Where are the cartoons? Where are the action movies? Dismissed as "kid stuff."

In 2001, the Academy added a Best Animated Film category. Progress maybe, but not without problems. Like padding. In the category's debut year, Shrek and Monsters, Inc. were up against Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius - not exactly one for posterity.

But the biggest issue with creating such specified categories is ghettoization. I'm not the only who thinks such movies as Wall-E and Spirited Away should have been up for Best Picture. But as long as there's a Best Animated category, no animated film will ever receive a Best Picture nomination. Of course, it's worth mentioning that in the entire history of the Academy Awards, only one animated film was ever nominated for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast). Animators are forced to accept that some recognition is better than none.

Which is why some studios and producers have been pushing the Academy to add a Best Comedy category, which the Academy has consistently declined to do. Some have gone so far as to recommend a Best Blockbuster category, to legitimize the big summer movies. This is more of a fringe notion, but it's still out there.

But with the expanded Best Picture category, the Academy claims that all this exclusivity is a thing of the past. Now, they say, there's room for superhero movies, science fiction movies, action movies, foreign movies, animated movies, comedic movies, all movies.

They say.

First of all, if the Academy were really so confident in the all-encompassing nature of the new, expanded Best Picture category, then they'd eliminate the Best Foreign Film and Best Animated Film categories.

Second, let's pause for a moment and consider the possibility that The Dark Knight was never actually close to getting a nomination. That's very, very possible. Everybody has been working under the assumption that it was thisclose to being nominated; but with no legitimate facts or figures from the Academy, that can only ever be an assumption. What if everybody's wrong? Where would that leave us?

That would leave us with 17 screens, all playing Independence Day.