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Three Lessons to Learn From the Oscars

Oscar winners were uncompromising, both in the way they were made and the stories they told

The Oscar victories for “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” and “Dallas Buyers Club” transcend their combined 13 trophies; they offer examples of successful risk-taking in subject matter, technology and funding.

1. Don’t underestimate films about the black experience.

“12 Years” will help put an end to the long-held Hollywood assumption that films about the black experience don’t sell internationally. So far, the pic has earned more than 65% of its $140 million-plus box office take -— and counting — outside of North America. (Fox Searchlight handles domestic, Lionsgate overseas.) That haul is hardly record-breaking, but it’s impressive for a movie budgeted at less than $20 million. Plus, its theatrical and ancillary money undoubtedly will get a boost post-Oscars.

Equally important, the success of the pic proves there’s an audience for films with tough subject matter, handled with artistry and without the sop of sentimental concessions. It will be even more encouraging if it motivates studios to trust serious pictures made by and starring blacks, beyond lightweight fare like “Barber Shop” and Tyler Perry movies.

2. Far-reaching technological ideas can lead to great cinematic art.

Warner Bros.’ “Gravity” is a technical game-changer, as much as “Jurassic Park” was. While that 1993 Steven Spielberg tale didn’t spawn many dinosaur movies, it left a giant filmmaking footprint by demonstrating the capabilities of CGI, which became widespread in everything from commercials to indie pics. “Gravity” will prove as influential. Its creative team extended the filmmaking capacity of computers. When the pic was in the planning stages, much of its jaw-dropping technology had never been conceived, much less attempted. And the use of traditional post-production techniques before the start of principal lensing reflected the radical thinking that’s often at the root of great art.

In addition, “Gravity” starred a near-solo performance by Sandra Bullock, helping dispel theories that women can’t carry action films. The picture’s global box office success ($705 million to date) is great news for creative risk-taking and for the prospect of further meaty roles for actresses over 40.

3. It doesn’t take a big budget and a traditional studio system to succeed.

“Dallas Buyers Club” leaves lessons that are both cautionary and inspirational. It marks the changing of the guard at Focus Features, since the label’s co-founder and longtime leader James Schamus exited shortly before the film was released, and the company will head in a different, more commercially-minded direction. And the movie’s Oscar success — including wins for actor and supporting actor — showed off scrappy indie ingenuity: The drama was filmed on a budget of less than $5 million, in 25 days, using only natural lighting. It was one of six best-picture contenders funded outside the traditional studio system (only Warner Bros.’ “Gravity,” Paramount’s “Nebraska” and Sony’s “Captain Phillips” fit that bill).

While the three films represented progress, in other areas, the 86th Academy Awards offered reminders that the movie biz has a long ways to go:

  • There were no women nominated for Oscar in direction, cinematography, editing, visual effects or the two sound categories.
  • Campaigning, with countless Q&A’s and receptions, overshadowed debates about film quality. Awards mania also is threatening to overwhelm the festival circuit.
  • On Feb. 23, a Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed that two-thirds of Americans had seen none of the nine best-picture contenders. That’s not a slam at the Oscars or the films — it’s a troubling clue to the state of moviegoing.

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