The Decline of Big-Budget Films in the Academy Awards, and the Future of Cinema

Intro:

Living in Columbus for a year changed my perspective on the film industry greatly. Having a theatre that allowed me to view more independent/low-budget films let me in on a growing area of the industry, and one that has seemingly taken over Hollywood. In the past, like most people, I was forced to watch the same big Disney, Fox, or Sony pictures as everyone else, due to the location I found myself in. After now seeing smaller, lesser-known films, such as The Florida Project, I began a fascination with these newer products, and wanted to delve deeper. They quickly found a place atop the list of my favorite movies, and I continue to want more of these films, as I find them taking a new, refreshing approach to the world of cinema.

This all being said, they have recently found themselves in a lot of discussion, surrounding the Academy Awards, and other big cinema events. They’re continuing to get growing reviews from critical audiences, and therefore receiving much more attention overall. However, the common person does not necessarily understand why this is happening, and if this a growing trend, or just a flash in the pan. This surrounding attention and discussion, combined with my recent interest in the area has sparked my desire to delve deeper into the issue and find out what exactly is happening with this newer phenomena.

This blog post is going to focus on four different aspects of the growing trend. Firstly, we’re going to look at the Academy Awards, and the data surrounding the recent years’ nominees and winners, with a specific focus on “Best Picture” (as I find it to be the award with the most focus, and impact out of all of them). Next, we will look at the ever-expanding company A24 as an example of one of the drivers of this “movement.” Thirdly, we will discuss why I personally believe all of this has been happening over the past couple years, and finally I will state whether I think this is going to continue, for how long, and why. So buckle up, and get ready, because this is going to be a very long, and interesting review.

The Academy Awards

Following the 2017 Academy Awards, several people seemed puzzled or upset about why their favorite blockbusters have recently failed to receive nominations for anything noteworthy. After all, many fan favorites have been obtaining a lot of praise from critics recently (Most Star Wars movies, and Marvel movies, as well as others), but despite this, have largely missed awards shows. Originally, I thought this might be an overreaction, or an anomaly, but after a further glance into the actual numbers, it seems that the low-budget films have taken over, and the typical smash-hit films have been absent.

To take a better look at this issue, I decided to analyze the past 9 years of nominees for the Academy Award for “Best Picture”. I chose 9 instead of 10, because in 2009, the academy decided to change the number of nominees from the usual 5, to about 9 or 10, and have since stuck with that. Therefore, not including 2008 made the most since to me, as it would be much different than the other years. I found the box office earnings, as well as budgets for each film, and adjusted the numbers for inflation, so they were all at the same bar. After doing so, I created budget and box office averages for each year, as well as the minimum, maximum, and median for both numbers as well.

When looking at the data, the conclusion is pretty clear. 3 out of the past 4 years have been dominated by low-budget, small-market films. Aside from the year 2015 (which I view as a large outlier), there has been a huge drop off in both film budgets, and box office earnings for “Best Picture” nominees. The average box office earnings for movies before 2014 is $328.9 million, and the average budget for said movies is $57.9 million. Using the numbers for 2014, 2016, and 2017 will give you an average box office of $177.1 million, and an average budget of $25.7 million. This means overall, there has been a 46.2% drop off in box office earnings, and 55.6% drop off in budget, essentially cutting both in half. Then, if you ignore the average, and just look at the number of heavy-hitting films that have received nominations, it becomes even more clear. The 5 years before 2014 had 14 nominees with a budget of at least $50 million. In the years 2014, 2016, and 2017 combined, there have been only 3. This drops the yearly average of big-budget films from 3 in the first 5 years, down to 1 in the last 3 (excluding 2015).

To me, this was eye-opening. I assumed that this discussion was mainly due to some overreactions, rather than an actual trend, but the numbers I’ve gathered back up the notion that most blockbusters are leaving the discussion for best picture. This isn’t to say that a large movie cannot win the award, or be nominated. It instead just illustrates what we’ve seen recently, and that has been a casual exit of these large films from this stage. So the next question I asked myself, and the next question we’ll explore a bit is “who is taking their place?”

A24: The Hidden Gold Mine

Founded in 2012, by Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges, the New York-based production/distribution company has quickly dominated the critics’ views. They began producing and distributing films in 2013, and their large volume of awards/nominations started around 2015. Following hits like Ex Machina, and Room, positive feedback was coming in large spurts. While the founders of the company were not necessarily rookies in the film industry, winning an award for “Best Visual Effects,” and “Best Original Screenplay” in your third year as a company isn’t shabby, as well as racking up one “Best Picture” Nomination for Room.

This success has only continued to grow, winning “Best Picture” for Moonlight in 2016, and receiving 5 nominations for their critically acclaimed (best reviewed movie on all of rotten tomatoes) film, Lady Bird, just this past year. These highlighted films, however, are far from the big picture. Each year they’ve helped create several masterpieces. Just this past year, The Florida Project, which I mentioned earlier, is in my opinion, one of the greatest films I have ever seen. It itself was nominated for “Best Supporting Actor,” as well as a few other awards. In fact, only a few months into this year’s film season, the new film Hereditary is already making waves as one of the best horror movies we’ve seen in a while.

Of course, the success/quality of these films cannot solely be put on the backs of A24. They are not the people who write every screenplay, direct the movies, act in them, or do anything like that. However, they do have a lot of say in these decisions, and they obviously have a special eye for something if their products are constantly being praised like this right now, and perhaps more companies like this will continue to pop up in the future.

Looking at A24, and all of their products thus far, it seems that they are at the forefront the new wave of critically acclaimed, award-winning cinema. Before, a large majority of the film nominees and winners had been discussed a lot, and were well known, but I can guarantee you that most people have never heard of (or at least seen) The Florida Project, as well as a large majority of the films they help back. This is what’s taking the place of movies like Avatar or Toy Story 3, which a few years back were winning (or at least being nominated for) many of these awards. Then, the obvious question is “Why is this happening?” and I’ll do my best to make an educated guess at it.

WHY?

At this moment in time, we may live in the golden age of cinema. Sure, several brain-dead action movies come out each year, the sequels are never-ending, and DC Films still exists (Unpopular opinion: even Wonder Woman isn’t a super great film. Had to get that out there), so it’s not perfect, but the number of quality films seems to be growing each year. With the growing impact of critics’ reviews on websites like Rotten Tomatoes, it seems a lot of people have started caring about how well the movie is made, and less about the entertainment value. I, myself, am a result of this as well. With this, comes an improvement in the quality of large, blockbuster films. Aside from looking pretty, the large-budget film market is now forced to try their best with features that used to be glossed over. Now, we finally have the super hero movies we want (or half of them), and whether or not you agree with the decisions behind the recent Star Wars films, they are quality, and are well made pieces of cinema.

This would have most people assuming that they would, in fact, be receiving more awards, instead of less, however, as we have discussed previously, this is not the case. Why?

Well, increasing the quality of a film does not necessarily make it shine, or stick out above the rest. Rather the opposite actually. With this heavy increase in quality, most films get watered down with the rest. Whether or not you like Marvel’s films, they do seem to be incredibly similar, and often do not do much different or special, from the rest of them. This immediately puts them at a lower chance of getting nominated for something, as it is so similar to something else, and not at all independent from those around it. Instead, with this improvement in much of the film industry, critics and award-nominaters (is that a word) are forced to look outside the box, and to something as good, or better, but with a more interesting approach to something. This, I believe, is why more films like those from A24, are being praised with award nominations.

When glancing at these newer, smaller films that are receiving attention, most are focused on questions, scenarios, or people that have not gotten a spotlight in a film before. Take Moonlight for example (semi-spoilers ahead – will be done in like 2 sentences). Moonlight is about an African American male, with a not-so-good upbringing, who happens to be gay. The film surrounds him growing up, and illustrates how he deals with these emotions that are brought up by his scenario, resulting in who he eventually becomes as an adult (spoiler (?) over). This issue hasn’t been discussed much in a cinema environment, and that combined with the overall amazing quality of the film itself, culminates into a wonderful experience deserving of an award. And to me, it beat other movies like La La Land deservedly. These films that focus more on unanswered aspects of “real life” or “the human condition” are way more interesting to me, and to a lot of people that are searching for something different, and when they’re done well, they seem to serve more of a purpose than another Guardians movie.

I could go on and on about my opinions on cinema, and great movies, but I’ll save that for another time. It seems as though in this newer, better era we have on the big screen, the films that stick out are the ones that win awards. This happens to be more often in the “indie realm” because it’s less about the money, and they don’t follow other films’ lead, or have sequels really. They’re most often an honest depiction of something that the writers/directors want to make, to discuss, and to give a purpose. The one large-budget film that was nominated this past year was Dunkirk, which is a masterful depiction of a war we haven’t quite seen on the big screen before, and it shows some things that are so real, it leaves an impact. It is those large movies that get noticed as well.

Finally, I’m going to predict whether we’ll see this in the future or not, and why!

Future?

As this is a growing trend, the question is “will it continue?”. In my personal opinion, I believe it will. It isn’t clear to me for how long, but I think for at least the next few years, we will see smaller-budget films dominate most award shows. Here’s why:

These large-budget films are increasing in quality, and as a result, they’re continuing to make money. Now, while one would want an award for their film, that’s not often the main goal in large cinema. This is why bad comedies continue to be made. With Star Wars and Marvel films often making billions of dollars at the box office, they have no incentive to delve deeper into more interesting questions or scenarios. Also, after all, they’re in a series that doesn’t always have the flexibility to go on its own and do that. With their continued success, combined with that, until people are ever sick of these movies, they won’t have the incentive to get creative and then compete for any award.

Now, if I were to say when this would end, it honestly may be never. As one of my favorite youtubers/reviewers pointed out recently, people are now obtaining the ability to make about whatever they want, increasing the amount of filmmakers ten fold, just due to the technology that is available to the common man. All of these award winning films still have multi-million dollar budgets, but you can make an amazing film with 2 or 3 million dollars instead of 50. In fact, from the same guy behind The Florida Project, the critically acclaimed film, Tangerine, had a budget of only $100,000, and was filmed on iPhone 5s! This movie is now on Netflix, and people love it! As we progress with technology, these small-budget films will only continue to increase in number, and while most of them aren’t masterpieces, the number of those that are will inevitably go up. I’m even starting to write a screenplay right now! Just because I can. If you have a vision, you can go for it, and there’s really nothing to stop you.

In conclusion, the film industry is constantly changing, and as a result, the large award shows are as well. The rise of newer companies like A24, as well as indie cinema as a whole has taken blockbusters out of the limelight of large award shows, and instead, hard-working, less rich people are being awarded for their efforts. There will of course be exceptions to this like the year 2015, where there are some large-budget films that take a step back from normal, “typical” films like those often made by Disney, but the overall trend shows no sign of stopping. In the end, maybe it will be those nice, new, independent films that will prevail over the colossus that is big-budget cinema.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s