The Gotham-set “Birdman,” about a fallen Hollywood star seeking redemption on Broadway, swept last year’s Oscars with best picture, director, original screenplay and cinematography prizes. The Fox Searchlight film represents the latest example that shows that when it comes to the Oscar race, the major evolution has occurred in Manhattan, overtaking the Hollywood studio film.
To some extent, the East Coast’s winning spirit is as old as “My Left Foot,” British arthouse imports distributed by New York-based independents in the 1980s and 1990s. That was when Harvey Weinstein at Miramax cracked the Oscar code. Weinstein didn’t create the American independent movement, but he exploited its awards potential.
“After decades of Academy members being admitted from the indie world, it should not be a shock to anyone that the taste is really indie,” says one high-placed insider. Every time an independent film wins, more independent filmmakers flood AMPAS. As the Academy becomes more and more indie, the movie selection has gone more and more indie.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says the insider. “From the early Weinstein era on, it has become an indie-based Academy.”
Emblematic of this trend are the Gotham Awards — celebrating its 25th anniversary this year on Nov. 30. “New York has always been the epicenter of independent film,” says Joana Vicente, exec director of the Independent Filmmaker Project, which presents the Gothams. “In our culture, people get excited by original voices, things that feel organic and original — like ‘Short Term 12,’ like ‘Birdman,’ like ‘Boyhood,’ a traditional story told in an untraditional way, an authentic film.”
Tyler DiNapoli, president, marketing, media & research at Bleecker Street, has a different angle: “Part of the rise in the importance of New York is the need for a prolonged PR push not only on the editorial side, but also on the advertising side. The other piece that is driving awards campaigns to New York is the increasing importance of film institutions like MOMA, the Museum of the Moving Image and Film Society of Lincoln Center in creating events surrounding film and the ability to advertise and promote those events to Academy and guild members.”
Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker sees the evolution less in terms of N.Y. vs. L.A than studio vs. specialized. “These movies you’re talking about would have been made by studios — high quality not blockbusters.
“There was a change in the economics heralded by ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars.’ ” Barker said. “It became standard business for big studios to make and release movies that were broad-based and not platformed. What has happened is that the independent companies (or the specialized companies owned by the studios) ended up taking over those films that the bigger studio used to release. It’s an evolution in the business itself.”
(Pictured: Michaael Keaton in “Birdman”)