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How Big Studios Began Making Indie-Style Movies

Our all-encompassing cinematic landscape has evolved over the decades, but within the past few years, something startling has occurred within the realm of independent cinema. Not only do the major studios have their own well-funded artfilm divisions that are in the business of making movies that feel independent, but the truly indie studios and distributors are having a tougher and tougher time staying afloat and remaining visible, as they face opposition from streaming services and an unpredictable ticket-buying populace. During the indie-explosion of the mid-1990s, audiences were introduced to fresher modes of storytelling, featuring edgier characters with a scrappier aesthetic. This led to a glut of product with multiple distributor casualties. And because of the high cost of getting any film of any size made and released, the independent outfits seem to be hurting as a unit, making it increasingly harder to get the bulk of their films noticed.

When it comes to awards season and the inevitable Oscar race, the competition has grown incredibly fierce, with millions of dollars spent to promote various efforts, many of which only have a long shot of taking home a statue. In a field of 10 possible best picture nominees, it’s become the recent norm to see a couple of larger, more populist-skewing items from the major studios facing off against a series of hard-edged and uncompromising independent productions. A former senior film executive and Academy voter, who wished to remain anonymous, says: “Hype simply creates awareness, but it doesn’t influence me. It’s about the quality of the piece, and how much the story resonates. I’m not a fan of comic-book films, but the studios are still making great films like ‘First Man’ and ‘A Star Is Born.’”

And Netflix is here to stay. The streaming and media content giant moved full force into auteur-driven territory in 2018, backing films from Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”), Jeremy Saulnier (“Hold the Dark”) and Tamara Jenkins (“Private Life”), all of which could be considered passion projects for their respective filmmakers, and all of which would have been hard to make at any other studio. And even after some recent acceptance with films such as “Icarus,” “Mudbound” and “13th,” the big question still remains — will the Academy start to fully recognize Netflix’s original productions?

Every year, Sony Pictures Classics can be relied upon to deliver multiple films of obvious quality and intelligence, and this year, two of its biggest pictures, Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” and Bjorn Runge’s “The Wife,” scored with both critics and audiences, and could emerge as contenders in some key categories, provided that enough Academy voters see them.

“We want people to be aware. ‘The Rider’ is an auteur film in the way older films used to be, and it’s one of the first DVD screeners that went out to voters” says SPC co-president/co-founder Tom Bernard, who also stresses that the “theatrical experience is still king, and it’s up to the theater owners to engage customers like never before. During awards season, we want to reach out to as many people as possible, but ultimately, it’s always about the movie.”

Glenn Close’s raved-about work in “The Wife” created “a twinkle in our eyes,” says Bernard, who calls her performance “absolutely spectacular” and reminds that “she’s been nominated six times,” which ties the record (along with Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter) for an actress who has never taken home the gold statue. SPC will also be giving a big push to Lebanon’s foreign language film contender “Capernaum,” from filmmaker Nadine Labaki, which played in competitioni at Cannes and took home three prizes at the festival. “It’s a great work of art and really connects with audiences,” says Bernard, who is also very excited for “Stan & Ollie,” which co-stars Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as legendary comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. “We’ll be running both Steve and John in the Best Actor category, and the film also has amazing costumes.”

Edgy indie producer/distributor A24 has no shortage of eclectic offerings from 2018, including acclaimed horror film “Hereditary,” which could see traction for Toni Collette’s mad-house lead performance, and benefit from a recent surge of younger Academy voters. Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, “Mid-90s,” has received excellent critical notices and could hit nostalgic notes for some, while the poignant middle-school drama “Eighth Grade” cast a big spell over audiences last summer, becoming an art-house sleeper hit with an astounding 99% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes score. After the best picture win for “Moonlight,” it’s apparent that the attention to quality that has become A24’s signature has reverberated with the Academy. “I’m an odd bird among Academy members and regular civilians in that I try to see everything, but there’s no denying one’s heart skips a happy beat when they see A24’s logo before a film,” says a screenwriter and Academy voter who wished to remain anonymous.

Despite recent exec turmoil, the films coming from Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures certainly cannot be ignored, with splashy offerings including the Nicole Kidman cop-noir “Destroyer,” which is arriving with best actress hype; Adam McKay’s political dramedy “Vice,” with Christian Bale all plumped-up as former Vice President Dick Cheney; and “Moonlight” helmer Barry Jenkins’ follow-up,

“If Beale Street Could Talk,” which promises to be a certain contender in various categories. Yet another indie producer/distributor that’s trying to navigate the turbulent waters of the film industry, Annapurna has become a home for filmmakers looking to make films without a ton of creative oversight, which has made them very attractive to top-tier talent.

Fox Searchlight will be giving an awards season push to its Melissa McCarthy/Richard E. Grant drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” which has inspired Oscar talk for the two leads. Cult-favorite filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) is back with the misanthropic period-piece “The Favourite,” which could also factor into the acting races, especially for Olivia Colman in the actress category.

And Robert Redford has people buzzing, yet again, over his work in David Lowery’s “The Old Man and the Gun,” which received warm reviews on the festival circuit and seems poised to become a sleeper in the making.

And this is not to say that the studios are dead or that they’re not turning out worthwhile entertainments. It’s ironic that this past year the Academy announced and then nixed a new popular film category when there have been any number of cultural touchstones that have connected with audiences. In 2018, Disney’s “Black Panther” set box office records while getting showered with critical and audience praise, and its upcoming “Mary Poppins Returns” carries the whiff of another massive global box office success with some potential awards-chatter for its technical merits.

Bradley Cooper’s musical-romance “A Star Is Born” opened to big ticket sales and a warm critical embrace, and it’s expected to be a major player during awards season for Warner Bros., while this past summer’s “Crazy Rich Asians” became a cultural sensation while attracting a strong audience outside of its most obvious demographic.

And Paramount will be making a big push for the John Krasinski-Emily Blunt horror-thriller “A Quiet Place,” which has to be seen as the biggest wild-card title of the entire year, as it’s a genre picture elevated by honest family dynamics that became a massive worldwide hit and critical favorite. (Some may cry category fraud that the whole cast is being submitted in supporting, but it gives them a better chance to break into crowded races.)

So it’s even more interesting that the Academy put an indefinite hold on their proposed outstanding achievement in popular film category in the face of some strong contenders. Says the anonymous screenwriter/Oscar voter, “I’d heard rumblings about this category being created where it was going to be a separate category, not just for the people, but actually voted on by the people. Regular citizens voting for five nominees and then for the winner — that sounded interesting. But having the Academy voters split their brains between art and popularity seemed crazy, especially this year with ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘Black Panther’ working on all cylinders.”

But what’s become more recently apparent is how the phrase “independent cinema” has shifted and evolved. Filmmakers want more autonomy while crafting their films, and don’t want to feel encumbered by budget constraints or having to make creative concessions based on studio notes or audience test-screening results. This is why so many high-level storytellers have drifted back and forth between studio assignment jobs and smaller, more delicate films that could only have been financed and distributed outside of traditional avenues.

And then you have your truly indie filmmakers who will only work on the stories they feel are worth telling, which typically involve smaller financing and distribution companies that are all competing for the same piece of the niche pie. It’s a tricky balancing act, but provided that voters can carve out enough time to view all of the options, each film presumably has a shot at glory, regardless of how big or small, or how much money has been spent to keep them visible.

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